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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.

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+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.

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The Legacy of Saint John the Baptist

Normally I’m a great believer that each saint deserves a feast day, but one day per saint should be more than enough.  More than one is superfluous, and it could even stir up dormant egos.  After all, saints were once sinners, and who am I to say they aren’t ever tempted to look back whistfully on their golden years as sinners?

Still, I’m willing to grant exceptions.  Take Saint Benedict, for instance.  On July 11th we Benedictines will celebrate his feast.  But come March 21st we’ll celebrate it again, just in case we missed it the first time.  The same is true for John the Baptist, whom we celebrate on June 25th and again later this summer on August 29th.  Generally I’m happy with that arrangement because of the character of his message and the humility that he wore on his sleeve.  Most everyone could use a little more of the latter every now and again, at least I believe.

5691B404-9353-48C5-8D1E-6C20EF795EC8This last weekend, however, I came close to getting a surfeit of John the Baptist.  On Friday the 22nd I celebrated that feast with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, who had gathered in Oakland to invest new members.  Since officially it is The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, John the Baptist’s feast is an appropriate day on which to welcome new members.  It’s why the Association long ago settled on the Friday closest to that feast for this annual gathering.

Then on Sunday the 24th we monks celebrated the same feast of Saint John.  Ours is the Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, so we legitimately celebrate both of his feasts with spirit.  But to do it twice in one weekend and then again in August may test my limits.

John figures prominently in the Christian story because he stands firmly rooted in Jewish tradition and also reaches out to Jesus.  That’s clearly seen when he urges people to return to an authentic Jewish observance.  Then, in the same breath, he describes Jesus as “the lamb of God.”  Of Jesus John said:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  That to my mind is a remarkable expression of humility — but it needs a bit of clarification.

First, John the Baptist was no doormat, and he was fearless in his preaching.  But, despite the long shadow of Jesus, he knew that his life still mattered.  He had not come to play second fiddle to Jesus’ first violin.  Rather, his life had great value because he would shape the message that Jesus would carry even further.

61431057-3D50-4B77-AA6C-A5FB0F53EE55When John pointed to Jesus he didn’t yield up his sense of self-esteem, nor did he see himself destined to become a bit player as Jesus became the star.  In fact, the ministry of Jesus accented the dignity John had as the last of the prophets.

Every now and again we may be tempted to believe that becoming Christian means losing ourselves and so be swallowed up in Jesus.  In fact, Jesus did not come to smother us or make us into clones of some Christian ideal.  As Christians we check neither our personality nor our brains at the door of the church.  Rather, we take the spiritual vitality that Jesus offers to each of us and integrate it into lives in which we make the most of all that the Lord has given us.

So it is that as Christians we overlay onto our talents and qualities the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s what John the Baptist has in mind when he encourages us to let Jesus increase within us.  As Jesus increases, our individuality doesn’t fade away.  Rather, we flourish as the Lord brings out the best in us.

That, it seems to me, is a portion of the legacy of John the Baptist that we ought to celebrate regularly — not only twice a year, but even, on rare occasions,  twice in a weekend.

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NOTES

+On June 20th I made a short trip to the Bay Area, primarily to participate in the annual investiture ceremony for new members of the Order of Malta, which took place in Oakland on the 22nd.  Among the new members was Saint John’s alumnus and friend Steve Nelson, who lives in Scottsdale, AZ.

On the 20th I attended a reception, at which I blessed the new mobile clinic that will work out of the Malta free clinic that the Order operates in Oakland.  It’s big and bright and red, with the Malta logo on it.  If you see it tooling around the Bay Area, you can’t miss it.

+On June 23rd I attended alumni reunions at Saint John’s University.  We were blessed with lovely weather, which continued on into the next day.  In the course of the day I had lunch with the alumni who were celebrating their 60th anniversary since graduation, and dinner with those celebrating their 55th year.

4B625F49-2F03-4267-9461-594AB205A7A2+You never know when the opportunity to do a good deed will come along, and that was certainly the case on Saturday.  I was driving to the reunion luncheon, which was at the University president’s home, a mile from campus.  As I passed one home along the way, my eye caught a glimpse of what I thought was a bar-b-que grill going full blast in someone’s garage.  After a few seconds I asked myself who in the world would run an open flame in their garage.  And then the answer came:  “No one!”  So I backed up, turned up the drive to their home, only to discover a roaring fire in their garage.  So I laid on the horn until someone poked his head out the front door to ask what I wanted.  I casually noted that his garage was on fire.  As he glanced at the garage his irritation turned to horror.  His big tractor-mower was ablaze and threatening the entire structure.  He managed to pull it out of the garage, and I managed to get a dramatic photo, which I’ve included in this post.  Since my work was done, I turned around and drove off to lunch.

+The photo at top shows a 19th-century tower from the monastery, and if you look carefully at the arched glass window you will see the small perch where a statue of John the Baptist stood for decades.  Then the new wing to the monastery was built in 1954.  Instead of greeting visitors to the door of the monastery, however, John instead looked out over a roof.  So we brought him down to earth, and now he stands in the monastic garden, ruefully pointing up to the perch where he used to be.  The second photo is that terra cotta statue.  Below that is a copy of the tapestry of John the Baptist, which hangs in the cathedral in Los Angeles.  This copy hangs in our guest house, where it greets visitors.   For the feast we brought it to the sanctuary of the church.  At bottom are two photos of a small garden outside a side entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s.

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The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

You’d be right to wonder how in the world anyone could keep busy for six days in a place like Lourdes.  Is there any decent shopping?  Are there great restaurants?  Is there much of anything else to do?  The answers to these three questions are short and sweet:  not much; no; and it depends.

First of all, I can assure you that no one on a culinary tour of the south of France makes a detour to Lourdes.  The restaurants are adequate, but the market for fine dining just isn’t there.  As for the shops, it’s fair to say that Lourdes caters to all tastes and none, but I can only think of four shops that I wouldn’t mind being photographed in.  As for things to keep you busy, there can be a surprisingly lot of stuff to chew up hours and hours.

097EFACE-14AA-4023-9890-D555C59EF61FFor starters, there is no such thing as an express Mass in Lourdes.  I can’t think of a single one that was over in less than an hour — and those were the weekday ones.  As for our Sunday liturgy for 25,000, that took over two and a half hours.  A close second in the time department was the candlelight procession that takes place every evening.  On the night we processed, we did so with 20,000 companions, and a procession of that magnitude simply cannot be hurried.  But to be fair, with 350 in our group, even a walk down the block takes planning.

I’m not going to recount the entire schedule, but I will note the two moments when I made my own particular contribution to the program.  On one afternoon I moderated a two-hour session with the care-givers in our group.  It was a moving experience for us all, and by the end of it I had a profound respect for these people who have given so much love and service to the people for whom they care.

A second instance came on the morning I led the stations of the cross for a large group.  It took place outdoors, across the river from the shrine.  There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus.

43B8EFC6-5AA2-4D83-B920-BF67738B18FFAs you can imagine, six days of pilgrimage also bring a flood of words, much of it in the form of sermons.  I’m relieved to report that most of them were relatively benign, but I must cite Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit for the most down-to-earth and moving words of the entire journey.  At the Lourdes grotto, where tradition says that Mary gave her message to Bernadette, he pointed out an obvious truth that had never occurred to me.  “Mary came to Lourdes, and not to Paris.  Mary chose to appear in the town garbage dump, and not at Versailles.  Mary spoke to an unlettered young woman, and not to some sophisticate.”

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict notes the awe with which we approach the wealthy and powerful, and he urges his monks to bend over backwards to pay equal attention to the poor and powerless.  In her appearance to Bernadette, Mary makes the same point.  She provides a not-so-subtle reminder that in our pilgrimage of life we’d be well-advised to pay our respects to any and all fellow travelers.  If the scriptures relate the stories of people who unknowingly entertained angels, then they suggest that we can never be too cautious ourselves.  There’s always the outside chance that we could be walking with the Lord.  Given that, none if us can be too careful.  After all, we could miss something really important.

A6C5E5E3-1D6B-4FD3-974F-002632DF48FANOTES

+The first full day of our pilgrimage to Lourdes did not begin auspiciously.  It rained the entire day, and it was cold.  The second day it rained too.  Then it got progressively better, until by Sunday it was gloriously sunny and even warm.  It was the first day on which most of us shed our coats.  That lifted everyone’s spirits and made it a lot easier for people to get around.

+On May 5th several of the monks as well as volunteers gathered to plant the first of 500 fruiting trees and shrubs in the Abbey Arboretum.  This wild orchard will serve both the wildlife as well as those in the community who make jams and jellies for our table.

+The photos in today’s post all show scenes from Lourdes.  Certainly the oldest structure in town is the medieval fortress, that was built on Roman ruins on top of the hill that dominates the town and the river Gave that flows through it.  The shrine that greets visitors dates from the 19th century, while the enormous basilica that hosts Masses for up to 25,000 is underground.  Given that space is tight at the shrine, the location  underground preserves a valuable plaza that sits in front of the shrine.

Lourdes is not a big town, but it hosts around 5 million visitors during the peak months of the pilgrimage season.  That makes it the biggest tourist destination in France after Paris.   In winter the town shrinks down to a few thousand, and most of the hotels close.  And as a footnote, after Paris Lourdes has the greatest number of hotel rooms of any other city in France.

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Lessons from St. Stephen

While St. Stephen’s feast day lands on December 26th, he seems much more at home in the Easter season.  It’s now that we recall what a firebrand preacher he was, and that he was the first martyr in the Christian community.  But he also gives us pause to consider what kind of impact he might have had on that community.

There’s no doubt that Stephen got under the skin of the religious leaders.  And when I say that, I don’t just mean the Jewish leaders, because he likely irritated some of the apostles too.  Lest we forget, Stephen was a deacon and not an apostle.  Even so, he got out ahead of the curve in preaching the resurrection of the Lord, and that likely alarmed some of the leaders in the Christian community.  What if Stephen’s zeal brought a crackdown on their community?  Might Stephen jeapordize everything they had worked for?

0EA15307-128F-4400-8959-57FBA9E156DFIf that’s what they were thinking, it was pointless.  Events moved too quickly for the cautious ones, and they were about to learn the wisdom of the high priest’s warning about zealots.  If Stephen’s zeal was of human origin, then it would fizzle out.  If it came from God, then there was no stopping it.

I suspect that a few apostles thought they were losing control of the church;  but if so, they were about to learn an important lesson.  They were about to learn that just because they had walked with the Lord, they did not have a monopoly on the message of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit was already calling new people who would follow in their steps.  And in Stephen’s case it’s not a little ironic that, 2,000 years after the fact, we know more about Stephen than we do about some of the apostles.

That’s a good take-away for all of us who have been involved in organizations that have been around for a long time.  In his Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict advises the abbot to cast his net widely when seeking advice, and he should especially make sure to include the youngest and newest members in that circle.  After all, the Holy Spirit is free to choose whomever to be carriers of divine wisdom, and so it would be foolish to ignore such obvious gifts.

780D7A67-13A4-4CD5-9023-C14C7036A3CBBut if that’s good advice for abbots, it’s also good for monks like me who’ve been hanging around the monastery for more than a few years.  It’s tempting for people like me to believe that I’m wiser than everyone else and that the Holy Spirit stopped doling out wisdom after I got mine.  But then I remind myself why the Lord keeps calling new people to the community.  They come, not to continue my work, but to continue the work of the Lord.  And if by chance they have a slightly different perspective on how to do things, then I am well-advised not to dismiss their wisdom just because I didn’t think of it first.

St. Stephen serves as a good example to all of us who are involved in communities and organizations. He’s a reminder that we came to do the work of the Lord and not our own work.  He’s a reminder that we need to make room for the new people who come into our midst, and not fear that they’ve come for the sole purpose of disrupting our own little worlds.

Most important of all, St. Stephen reminds us that none of us should assume we have a monopoly on how things ought to be.  Just as I am a gift from God, so are the late-comers to the vineyard of the Lord.  Of course we should always test the spirits of new people to see if they come from God, but while we’re at it we should not be afraid to take our own pulse just to make sure that we too come from God.

So these are the three points I take away for myself.  First, the Holy Spirit did not run out of wisdom after I got my share.  Second, the Holy Spirit keeps on calling others to the vineyard, whether I like it or not.  And third, the wisest course for me is to welcome those people into the church and into my life, as gifts from God.

242F865E-BC4C-48CA-9D7A-1C06BAEAFF02NOTES

+On April 9th I taught a class in monastic history in the novitiate.  This time I concentrated on the Cistercian reform in the 12th century.

+Later that day, on April 9th, I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 14th I participated in a day of recollection for provisional members in the Order of Malta.  I gave presentations on the history of the Order of Malta, and the event took place at Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On April 16th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in the San Francisco area.  Today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I delivered.

+Because I was away from the abbey, I missed out on what we hope is the last major snow of the season.

+The first photo in today’s post shows an altar frontal (ca. 1200) that once was in the church of Santa María de Taüll, in Catalonia.  It now is in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The remaining photos show the exterior and some of the interior windows of the church of St. Severin in Paris.

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Who Will Help Us Roll Away Our Stones?

Easter has come and gone, and while the liturgies linger in my memory, it’s the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus that sticks out.  I owe that to Abbot John, who brought it up in his sermon at the Easter Vigil.  That evening, for the first time, it hit me as something of outsized importance.

Obviously that stone served a practical purpose.  It shut the dead inside and it kept the living outside.  But that’s what set up the drama that was to follow.  When people came to tend to the body of Jesus, they knew they weren’t strong enough to shove the stone aside.  And so they wondered aloud: “who will help us roll the stone away?”

An angel solved the problem.  However, to everyone’s surprise, there was no body to be seen.  Who had taken the Lord’s body?  Where might they find him?

230C1BEC-1D88-490D-89BF-A5F2BEB86099Further into the story we read of the many appearances of Jesus, but there’s symbolic value to this scene at the tomb that we shouldn’t leave behind.  In this particular case, it may have been an angel who rolled the stone aside and then gave access to Jesus.  But the angel represents much more.  That angel is one of many figures who will roll aside rocks and open up to us the vision of the Lord.  The angel is merely the first in a progression of people who step into our lives and push aside the impediments that obscure our vision.  Because of those friends and strangers, we gain access to the Lord; and it’s something that we could never achieve all by ourselves.

I’m fond of reminding any of my confreres who will listen that we all bring plenty of baggage with us to the monastery.  That baggage contains everything from pebbles to boulders, and they are the sorts of things that shape us, for good and for ill.  Some of those stones we can learn to live with, and they can even have a positive force in our lives.  Others weigh us down.  Even worse, a few can block us from becoming the loving people we are called to be.

9BC009AB-9EEE-4160-BF3F-CAED6AC3DA22At the very least the rock that sealed the tomb of Jesus is symbolic of all the rocks that I continue to tote around with me.  Obviously I would be better off without some of them.  Others I should have unloaded years ago.  Those are the ones that weigh me down, metaphorically at least, and they hobble me every time the Lord encourages me to run.

Is a big rock my take-away from Easter this year?  Perhaps.  For one thing it reminds me of the big stones that still have the potential to stunt my growth.  Even more, the stone in the Easter story reminds me of my need for help from my brothers.  It’s they, along with both friends and strangers, whom the Lord sends to help me roll away the stones that derail my pilgrimage and blind me to the possibilities in my life.

Some stones can seem too big to budge, but Jesus never asks us to move any stone all by ourselves.  He regularly sends others to help with the pushing, and I’m utterly convinced that Jesus himself will help roll those stones aside, if we but ask.

A last bit of consolation is that passage in which Jesus comforts all who find life weary and burdensome.  His yoke is easy and his burden light, he promises.  That lesson, it seems to me, is the one thing the disciples took away as they left behind a big stone and an empty tomb.

So who will help us roll away those big stones in our lives?  It will be the Lord — along with a host of angels and friends and strangers.

49BE4E49-7B49-477F-8C7C-9FAB237F3B37NOTES

+On March 27th I gave a class on monastic history to the novices.

+On March 28th I gave a presentation on Stability and Stewardship in the Rule of Benedict.  Given to a group of new faculty and staff, it was part of a series sponsored by The Benedictine Institute.

+On March 30-31 we monks were on retreat, in anticipation of the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

+On 31 March we were all surprised to wake up to a blanket of snow, amounting to some six inches or more.  None of us were dreaming of a White Easter, and I for one was hoping for a glimpse of crocus.  But it was not to be.  April is supposed to come in with showers, but the prognosis is for another seven inches of snow today.  That contrasts with the experience of my first year at Saint John’s.  On April 1st of that year it had been so warm that the ice went out on the lake.  This year it’s been so cold that the sap in the maple trees is still not flowing well.

+The first three photos in today’s post show art housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  At top is an altar frontal that dates from ca. 1200.  The next two are panels from an altar retable dating from ca. 1340.  One of those panels is curious for its depiction of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The final two photos show some of the snow that accumulated in the courtyard of the quadrangle at Saint John’s.

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Change Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

On Ash Wednesday I heard some words of advice that I never expected in a Lenten sermon.  “If going without meat turns you into a bear when you’re with others, then for heaven’s sake go out and eat a cheeseburger.”

Taken out of context, words like these can get a preacher into a lot of trouble.  They remind me of the counsel that Martin Luther once gave to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, when the latter hesitated to follow through on one particularly difficult issue.  “Sin boldly!” was Luther’s advice, and clearly he did not mean for Melanchthon to violate the ten commandments.  Luther’s critics had a field day anyway.

Lenten penance always presents something of a conundrum.  Do we do it to please God?  To impress others?  To whip ourselves into the best spiritual shape of our lives?  In the process we always run the risk of crossing over the line that separates personal discipline from public display.  And when we cross that line we lose every shred of benefit that might come from our exercise.

54CCF159-0B87-491A-90A1-EE708804FDC0Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to think of the monastic life as a continuous Lenten observance.  By now I’ve been around long enough to know that he did not counsel a life-time of fasting and self-denial, because elsewhere he cautioned about any unusual Lenten display.  The point was not to compete to be named the most holy and self-denying monk in all of monastic history.  In fact, Benedict preferred that monks not even be able to notice what their neighbors were doing for Lent.

It’s not that Benedict wants us to do little or nothing for Lent.  Rather, he discourages overt spiritual competition among us.  He discourages public displays that would suggest superiority to our neighbor.  In short, he prefers an interior discipline that changes hearts rather than public shows that rend garments.  In this he is on the same page as Jesus.

4807FEA4-B842-496F-A2ED-1DF6599592DBSo what’s the point of a Lenten observance for Benedict?  Clearly, Benedict counsels a different sort of path to God — one that abandons rugged ways and self-denial that would establish our reputation as stars in the spiritual firmament.  Instead, his is an asceticism of doing what our neighbors are doing.  In joining together in a communal exercise we admit that we are neither better nor worse than our fellow monks.  We acknowledge once again the commitment we’ve made to seek God with our brothers in community, rather than pursue careers as lone wolves.

Lent is a time of community, whether it be in a monastery or in a parish church.  It’s not a time to engage in self-denial that transforms us into people who are hard to get along with.  It’s not a time to sequester ourselves from human contact, on the pretext that we know best.  Rather, Lent is a season in which we realize that we make the forty-day trek through the wilderness, together.  Like the Hebrews wandering for forty years in the desert, we too search for God, together.  And we do it because without neighbors close at hand, it’s awfully hard to see the face of Christ in others.

So we might be well-advised to paraphrase the words of Peter, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave, just as had so many others who had found his words too hard to take.  “Lord, without our neighbors and confreres, to whom would we go?”

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+On February 22nd I again had a class in monastic history with the novices.  This time I spoke about Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Saint Augustine to England.

+In a sign that the times are about to change, on February 24th taps were added to stands of maple trees in the abbey forest.  The season begins when day-time temperatures climb above freezing and drop below freezing at night.  That forces the sap up and down, and the taps divert a bit of that flow into the process that will make syrup.  It also signals the onset of spring.

+On February 21st my dear friend Jo White passed away after a long illness.  I knew Jo for ages, and she was a driving force in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible.  Today, 26 February, I will preside at her funeral in St. Paul.  Several monks and colleagues from Saint John’s will attend.

+This has not been a good winter for snow — meaning, we’ve not had nearly enough.  But this week the weather made up for it with two storms that left us with nearly a foot of new snow.  The photos in today’s post show the results of the first snow.  I did not go out to get additional photos after the second snow, becuase I thought the additional six inches were gratuitous.  To enlarge the photos, simply click on them.

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We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.

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You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

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Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

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I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.

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NOTES

+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.

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