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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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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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Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.

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+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.

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A Happy and Joyful Christmas!

In chapter 6 of his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict writes that “there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.”  Given the abundance of noise that accompanies the Christmas season, it dawned on me that the sparing use of words might be the wisest counsel on this wonderful day.  So I hope it will suffice to wish you a peaceful Christmas season.  May the Lord be with you as he speaks gently yet persistently through the noise and din of the season!

Notes

+It’s never a good idea to limit the act of thanksgiving to one day out of the year, and this last week offered a reminder to be grateful for all the airport delays that I’ve not experienced during the past year.  While I and my fellow passengers complained about some minor airport difficulties on our way home last week, our Brother Paul would have gladly traded places.  On the way to a speaking engagement in Nassau, The Bahamas, he had a connecting flight in Atlanta, on the night when the lights went out in that part of Georgia.  That night he slept on the floor, with thousands of other stranded passengers.

+On December 21st, after evening prayer, I took part in a gathering of monks from our floor in the monastery.  Our custom is that the residents of each floor decorate their own tree, and it’s an opportunity to share some time in that interlude between the end of the semester and the liturgies of Christmas.

+On December 23rd I acceded to the inevitable and retrieved my winter coat from storage.  It’s been relatively benign in Minnesota — until now.  Not so today, Christmas Day, when the forecast includes some heroic temperatures.  My lightweight coat is simply not up to dealing with that.

0EF3BDAB-BD92-44FE-AA1E-9F74342F8C5F+On December 24th we celebrated evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, while the last of the Christmas preparations were being made in the church.  At 9:30 pm we gathered once again for a concert of sacred music, followed by the Christmas Eve Mass at 10:00 pm.  The music was exceptional, and it included the participation of The Saint John’s Boys Choir.  Joining us were some 1,100 friends and neighbors who had driven short and long distances to celebrate with us.

+The photo at the top of the post is a work by Brother Frank Kacmarcik, a now-deceased oblate of Saint John’s Abbey.

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Andrew:  A Patron Whose Time Has Come

I’ve never been one of those monks who love to bolt out of church as soon as is decently possible.  Like most of my confreres, I’m happy enough to make my exit at a leisurely pace.  All the same, I do appreciate the caution that St. Benedict gave about lingering too long in the oratory when community prayer is over.  On this he and I are of one mind:  enough is enough, even for monks.

That latter point helps explain my general lack of enthusiasm when a feast day brings in its tow a second reading at morning prayer.  At that hour I’m either groggy or rehearsing in my mind the day’s to-do list.  So one reading is more than enough, and a second is a gratuity that brings no thrill.

There are exceptions, of course, and last week’s feast of St. Andrew was one of them.  That feast brought a second reading, and to my surprise it grabbed my attention as second readings seldom do.  It came from the pen of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and it pointed out something that was so obvious that I was embarrassed never to have considered it before.

IMG_5070Cardinal Newman opened with the point that Andrew and Peter were perhaps the first disciples whom Jesus called.  That I already knew.  I also knew that Andrew had shown his commitment to Jesus by bringing others to meet him.  What I’d not considered, however, was the reward that came to Andrew for being among the first and the most unwavering in his loyalty.  To paraphrase Newman, for all of his effort Andrew seems to have gotten the 1st-century equivalent of diddly-squat.

For perspective, consider Andrew’s brother Peter.  When the chips were down Peter denied Jesus three times, and he was impetuous in his behavior.  Yet he got it all.  He got the celebrity;  he got the authority;  he got the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose.  And what did Andrew get?  Obscurity.  Cardinal Newman wonders about the justice in this, and so do I.

As I listened to Newman’s passage, I thought of the promise Jesus made that the first shall be last and the last first.  That was certainly true for Andrew, and it left me wondering whether Andrew ever resented his brother Peter.  Anybody could see that Andrew was more promising executive material.  And yet, like Jacob’s brother Esau, he got passed over in the succession planning.

Then it dawned on me.  Andrew, at least in my opinion, should be the patron saint of all siblings who have to live in the shadow of a more charismatic brother or sister.  Andrew is the model for all those who toil without fail and with sterling reliability, day in and day out, largely unnoticed.  The Church should name him the patron saint for all who feel overworked and underappreciated.

IMG_5046That’s more than I normally get out of an average second reading on a feast day, and for that I’m grateful to Andrew.  I’m grateful for the way Andrew lived his life, and I’m grateful that he gave some good material for Cardinal Newman to work with.  And thanks to Cardinal Newman, I came away with a deeper appreciation for Andrew and the kind of person he represents.

At this remove, then, do I think that Andrew harbors any resentment that the largest church in the world is named for his brother?  Absolutely not.  Does he envy his brother for his celebrity?  I seriously doubt it.  Does he regret his brother’s impetuous and bumbling character?  Perhaps he found it slightly amusing.

Foremost for Andrew, however, was his relationship with Jesus, and he was eager to share his Lord with others.  That’s what he would recommend to us if he were sitting next to us today.

Still, we’re left with one nagging question.  Was life unfair to Andrew?  From the perspective of celebrity, Andrew clearly got the short end of the stick.  But on another level his reward was more than ample.  He was among the first to know Jesus.  His friendship with the Lord never wobbled for a minute.  That said, he got the reward but not the fanfare.  To my way of thinking, that’s a patron saint whose time has come.

IMG_2398Notes

+During the month of November we remember all those who have specifically asked us to pray for their deceased friends and family members.  People send in to the Abbot’s office their requests, which are then gathered in a basket at the entrance to church.  As we monks file in we take one of those slips with us and return it when prayer is done.  For whatever reason, I have found this custom to be wonderful.  It makes tangible our effort to be mindful of the needs of others.

+On December 2nd we monks had our monthly day of reflection.  In addition to the Abbot’s conference at 10 am, we went about our lives in silence from morning until the completion of dinner.

+On Sunday evening, December 3rd, Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud presided and preached at the student Mass.  That was followed by refreshments and the opportunity to meet and visit with the bishop.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of Saint John’s University twice over, and he regularly visits campus.  We are always delighted by his presence.

+The photos in today’s post come from a variety of sources.  At the top is an altar panel of The Annunciation by Bartolomaus Zeitblom, ca. 1500, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Below that is a carving of St. Peter by Roderick d’Osona, made in Valencia, ca. 1500, and housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  Next is yet another saint who gets a lot of press at this time of year:  Saint Nickolas, by an anonymous artist, ca. 1500.  It too is in the Museum of Catalan Art, as is the altar frontal from the Church of Saint Andrew, ca. 1200.

+On Saturday evening, December 2nd, Abbot John lit the first candle on the two Advent wreaths that we have, one in the reflectory and the second in the church.  The photo above is from the church, and Fr. Lew and Novice Jacob labored over that wreath until every last twig was in place.

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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.

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“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.

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Notes

+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Soloists on the Path to God?

No one has ever accused St. Benedict of encouraging a lot of fun and games in the monastery.  In fact, in his Rule he outlined a pretty sober regimen of prayer, work and study.  When there needed to be talking, he advised keeping it to a minimum.  He also discouraged laughter, and he forbade gossip altogether.  The latter I can understand, since most gossip tiptoes beyond the limits of charity.  But when it comes to laughter I try to give Benedict the benefit of some doubt.  Like many of his contemporaries, Benedict frowned on laughter because it violated Stoic ideas about self-control of the emotions.  Still, that leaves us with an important question.  Did monks in Benedict’s community enjoy their lives?  Did they ever recreate?

It’s hard to answer, but we know that monks in later centuries did have their moments of enjoyment and relaxation.  For example, some of the legal customaries that regulated monastic life made provision for a break in the routine.  Medieval monks could take time off and go to the infirmary, even if they were not sick.  There they could rest, eat meat, and recover their stamina before resuming the routine.  It was their version of a vacation.

IMG_7500We also know that monks made time for community recreation.  Granted, St. Benedict didn’t make provision for this, but later monks did it anyway.  My all-time favorite example can be found in the life of Suger, abbot of St. Denis.  Located outside of Paris, St. Denis was an important place in the 12th century, and Suger gets credit for building the first truly gothic church in Europe.  It still stands today for all to see, though most people visit to gawk at its tombs of the kings and queens of France.

Suger spent a lot of time at court, and while Louis VII was off on the Crusades Suger served as a regent of the kingdom of France.  That leads to my point.  Suger writes that at the end of a busy day of running France he would return to St. Denis, and there he would gather round himself a group of monks to talk about the day’s events, both inside and outside the monastery.  It obviously was a relief to Suger to be with the people who mattered most to him.  It was also a reminder to even the youngest monks at St. Denis that they were not soloists on the path to God.  They were all on pilgrimage together, and they needed the support of each and every brother.

This is a long preamble to the experience I had in the novitiate at Saint John’s last week.  Part of the formation of our young monks involves getting to know the senior monks, and that is not always easy to do when people are busy and when the house is large.  To achieve this, then, our novices now and again invite individual monks to visit after evening prayer.  It’s their chance to get to know a senior, and last Thursday was my turn.

IMG_7476What do the novices want to know about?  Usually they want to know what brought us to the monastery, why we entered, and what we’ve done since we’ve been here.  In this case Jacob, Elias and Mariano knew a little about what I’d done over the years, but I decided to do a pre-emptive strike and open with a bit of show and tell.

I guessed, for example, that they would not think to ask about my work with the Order of Malta, simply because it’s pastoral work that I do away from the monastery.  So I brought along the Order of Malta chasuble and missal that I have, along with the decorations that I wear at Malta events.  (I also brought along the Danish-Lutheran ruffed preacher’s collar that some friends gave me several years ago — but that story is for another time.)  I spoke too about our pilgrimage to Lourdes, and I concluded with the observation that I volunteer with Malta because it’s an organization in which paying dues is not enough.  All are expected to serve the sick and the poor in some way, and that service is transformative.

The novices also knew that I’ve taught, directed a library, and now do development work in our University.  So I told them about one project special to me:  an effort to build a scholarship fund for students from Immokalee, FL, who come to Saint John’s for college.  I do that simply because it’s a chance to help some gifted young men to have a future they never thought possible.  Those guys are flourishing at Saint John’s, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of that effort.

IMG_7492We then drifted across a range of other topics.  For one, I explained my theory that people come to the monastery for all sorts of reasons, but they usually end up staying for an entirely different set of reasons.  I attribute that to the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer to transform a person over a lifetime.

Finally, I noted my hope in our future as a monastic community.   The fact that we have so many gifted young monks in our community inspires me.  Jacob, Elias and Mariano may only be in their year of probation in the community, but even in that first year among us they are gifts from God.  St. Benedict reminds us that the face of God can be seen in even the youngest, and so that presents a challenge for us who are their seniors.  Their presence demands that we look for the best in them.  Their presence is also a reminder that God has not forgotten us!

So those are some of the things we talked about at recreation last Thursday.  I’m sure that Benedict will forgive us our laughter, because it’s one of the ways in which monks support each other on the path to God.  It’s a reminder too that we will surely see the face of God in the next phase of life’s journey, because in the here and now we are blessed to see the face of Christ in the youngest in our midst.

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Notes

+On October 16th we welcomed into our community Elias, who was clothed as a novice, and Mariano, who was accepted as a probationary junior monk.  They join Novice Jacob in a year of probation in the community.

+On October 19th I visited with Brothers Jacob, Elias and Mariano in the novitiate after evening prayer.

+On October 20th the Saint John’s Pottery hosted a crowd of visitors for the firing of the giant wood-fired kiln, which holds some 12,000 pieces of pottery.  They fire the kiln every two years, and it is a huge bit of work to prepare for it.

+While the maples have lost their color and their leaves, the color has shifted to the ivy at Saint John’s.  The photos in today’s post show the reds and yellows of the Abbot’s Courtyard at Saint John’s.

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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