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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

IMG_0021_2Notes

+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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What’s In a Name?

On Saturday at morning prayer Abbot John invested Jordan as a novice.  To no one’s particular surprise Jordan chose to take a monastic name — Brother Jacob.  Coincidentally, three hours later the first reading at Mass told the unflattering story of how Jacob had connived to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, leaving his older twin Esau holding the bag.  Was this some sort of omen?

For centuries monks and nuns have taken religious names to mark these moments of transition, and we’re not the only ones to do this.  Popes are the most obvious examples, and on occasion monarchs do so as well.  In a twist on this, many adopt the surname of a spouse in a wedding ceremony.  All have their individual reasons for doing so, but common to most is the desire to note the passage into a new chapter of life.

IMG_0126_2Until the 1960s monks at Saint John’s Abbey, like most other monks and nuns in the Catholic tradition, were expected to take a new name that was unique in the community.  In smaller communities this posed no problem, but in larger communities this sometimes triggered the law of unintended consequences.  This was particularly acute at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, our sister-community down the road.  With over a thousand sisters requiring unique identification, latecomers could get stuck with some truly gawd-awful names.  I will forever recall the morning when we noted the passing of Sisters Domatilla Volkerstorffer and Theofrida Berling.  It must have come as quite a shock when the prioress bestowed those names on the two unsuspecting young women.  It had to be particularly tough on Miss Volkerstorffer, who had to be hoping for something simple like Linda or Joyce.  What a moniker to have to carry around for the next seventy years!

Needless to say, the stones in the convent cemetery carry a nearly complete inventory of seldom-used Saxon and other Teutonic names.  Small wonder that when given the chance to return to baptismal names, many did so with undisguised relief.

IMG_0056Today monks at Saint John’s can choose to change or not to change their names.  When I arrived there were eight monks named Michael, and I decided not to be the ninth of anything.  So I took Eric, and not because of any particular devotion to Saint Eric.  In fact, I had to look him up to see if there was such a person.  I adopted it for the simple reason that it wasn’t bizarre;  and just as importantly, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone.  That plan worked well until a second Eric arrived many years later;  but we’ve managed well enough with a Brother Eric and a Father Eric.

I have to confess that I secretly hoped Jordon would have kept his name.  The last monk with that name — Father Jordan — passed away several years ago.  So the name was available and it was unique.  But my reasons for this arose primarily from my arcane sense of humor.  I’ve long been fond of that Advent hymn that begins “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry…”. That Jordan’s bank is only a short mental leap to those venerable English institutions by the name of Barclay’s Bank and Lloyd’s Bank.  I always wanted to meet Barclay or Lloyd, just to ask them about their banks.  And I would have even settled for a chat with Bob of the fictional Bob’s Bank in Lake Wobegon.  But I know that will never be.  However, I could know Jordan of Jordan’s Bank.

IMG_0045Just to be clear about this, I’m not the only one to indulge in such thoughts.  To cite but one other example, it’s helpful to know that we have a number of monks with hyphenated names, á la Pope John-Paul.  One confrere voiced the hope that the new novice might consider the name Brother Michael-Jordan.  That apparently didn’t make it past the first round of cuts.

Brother Jacob hasn’t tipped his hand as to why he took that name, but I suspect he was nonplussed to hear that reading on Jacob on the day of his clothing in the habit.  So what does that story portend about Brother Jacob?  Will he pattern his life on that of his namesake, who connived to get his brother’s birthright and tricked his father out of a blessing that should have gone to his brother?  Or does this suggest that Brother Jacob has come to the monastery to seek God and will strive for that vision, no matter the personal cost?  Who knows.  But if he’s come with high hopes and a dollop of the flaws that all of us have, then he’s come to the right place.  We’re just the sort of people to welcome him on our flawed and meandering pilgrimage to the Lord.

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+On the 4th of July the monks celebrated Independence Day with a cookout in the garden of the monastery.  I also chose that day for a hike of 10.7 miles.  To my recollection it’s the longest I’ve ever walked, and coming on the heels of my back injury this winter it was a major triumph.  Needless to say, I was tired at the end of it, though not sore.  Some soreness did pop up for the next two days, but overall this was a great personal accomplishment on the road to my own recovery.  The doctor had advised me that walking would be good. and he’s given his blessing to an abbreviated walk of the Camino to Santiago Compostela in the fall of 2018.  So I may as well get used to such walks now if I am going to have any chance to do it next year.

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed Brother Jacob as a novice at morning prayer.

+On July 11th we will celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and for that reason I have resorted to photos from the Abbey of Subiaco outside of Rome for today’s post.  Saint Benedict began his monastic life there; and while the frescos are a bit faded, they are authentic and illustrate the life of Benedict.

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IMG_5558Alcuin Library Revisited

For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath.  This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation.  For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like.  Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk.  At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that.  As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.

It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose.  That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie.  In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books.  By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon.  While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.

IMG_5404That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary.  Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today.  Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined;  but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today.  They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.

For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer.  Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library.  Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.  These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors.  Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck.  It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today.  And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.

IMG_5542That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation.  For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul.  Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before.  The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza.  Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.

This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons.  Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study.  Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.

And what about the books?  Do they still have a place?  Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room.  Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.

IMG_5524And is there room for growth?  Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand.  Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves.  And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University.  Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries.  Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse.  Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU.  Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?  I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been.  Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.

No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over.  There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition.  Would Saint Benedict be proud?  Perhaps.  But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.

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+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..

+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.  Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR.  No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University.  On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.

+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.

+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.

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IMG_0189_2Find the Sinners You Can Live With

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery.  It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences.  I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life.  To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.

What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery?  “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that.  But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway.  So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do.  I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences.  So why not say something that might make an impression on me?  That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience.  So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.

First of all, why do people come to the monastery?  Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough.  “The monk comes to seek God.”  Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life.  The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons.  They may have a friend or two in the community.  They find the life attractive.  They enjoy the liturgy and the music.  They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community.  These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.

IMG_0191_2But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime.  The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities.  What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom.  What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.

That brings me to the second point.  In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain.  They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed.  Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach.  They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves.  That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this.  But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.

IMG_0155_2My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community.  Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too.  In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved.  In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities.  Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas.  The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners.  But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins.  If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.

These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection.   That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life.  For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship.  And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage.  Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived.  Along the way, the important goal is this:  find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God.  Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.

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+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan.  Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.

+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery.  For two months he will live and work and pray with us;  and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.

+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery.  For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery.  On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass.  This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf.  He is subprior of the monastery.

+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us.  They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey.  For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s.  On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.

IMG_0102_2+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410).  Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480).  Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520.  At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.

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IMG_2053A Phobia We Can Live Without

Last week I reached into my big bag of fears and took out two of my favorite phobias.  Claustrophobia is one I share with many people, but it has a special irony for me because I’ve chosen to live in a cloister.  If claustrophobia bothers me, then I have to bear some of the responsibility, even if I have no idea how I came by that phobia.

My fear of hypodermic needles is a different matter altogether, and I trace that back directly to our childhood nurse Rose.  To be fair, it wasn’t Rose the nurse who terrified me and my two sisters.  Rather, it was her long blunt needles.  They seemed ideally calibrated to take core samples from the earth, and even the hint of a visit to her office sent shivers down our spines.

Anyway, last week I faced a double-whammy of phobias when I had to visit a clinic for an MRI and a cortisone shot in my lower back.  It was my first time for each, and dire warnings had prepared me for the worst.  I’d always dreaded this moment, and I can only hope that my obvious anxiety mitigated my dramatic plea to the doctor for a tranquilizer.  Mercifully he obliged, but even then I knew it wouldn’t be enough to calm me.  And it wasn’t.

IMG_2054I trembled every step of the way as the nurse led me down the hall.  My mind went into overdrive, and in a last-ditch effort I tried to console myself with the thought that I’d wedged myself into airline seats that had to be smaller than this machine.  But even that dark humor failed to work.  Then the door swung open, and for a moment I stared in stunned silence at the machine that was about to eat me.

“What?!  Do you mean to tell me that you got me all worked up for THAT?  That’s nothing!”  I meant my mock outrage to disguise my relief, because in front of me was not the coffin-like tube I had expected to rest in for twenty minutes.  Instead there was a bright and airy contraption, well-lit and comfortable.  It even came complete with head phones and Sirius Radio for my easy-listening entertainment.  I chose soft jazz, climbed on, settled in and dozed off.  It truly was nothing.

Then came the ordeal of the cortisone shot.  That too turned out to be a bust.  There was no pain to speak of, and the worst of it was the anxiety of waiting for the pain that never came.  That’s when I began to realize what I had done to myself.  I had worked myself into a tizzy, and all I had to show for it was a totally unnecessary spike in my blood pressure.  Even worse, two treasured phobias of mine had turned out to be paper tigers, and I had embarrassed myself by the silly fuss I had made.

IMG_2056I’m not a professional psychologist, and so I’m in no position to explain the grip that phobias can have on us.  Still, as an amateur human being with plenty of phobias to my name, I will venture this.  Common to all phobias is the fear of losing control of ourselves in the face of something much bigger than ourselves.  Whether fanciful or quite real, these fears threaten our autonomy and perhaps even our existence.  Quite rightly we sit up and take notice.

Saint Benedict does not have a section in his Rule on phobias, but he does address one situation in which a monk risks losing his autonomy in the face of something much larger than himself.  In chapter 68 he writes of that moment when the abbot might ask impossible things of a monk.  A monk in this predicament rightly feels helpless — damned if he tries and fails, and damned if he fails to try.  He runs the risk of disappointing the abbot by his own failure, even as he is sure of his own inability to do the task at hand.  In short, he’s lost control of his life to forces beyond him.

Saint Benedict doesn’t offer a lot of practical remedies for this situation.  He doesn’t encourage the monk to protest wildly, nor does he suggest that someone act as an arbiter between monk and abbot.  However, he does encourage the monk to submit in love to the command of his abbot and hope that somehow it will all turn out well.

It occurs to me that Saint Benedict may have taken this approach because he is thinking about the larger issues of life.  On any given day there are things that a monk will find challenging, but life itself is the challenge.  Life itself can seem insurmountable, unless of course the monk submits to it in love.

IMG_2055Not surprisingly, we all find ourselves in the same pickle when it comes to God.  There are days when God seems to demand the impossible of us.  And when Jesus asks us to be perfect as his Heavenly Father is perfect, that too is a recipe for failure.  In the face of such a command, who is not bound to fail?  In the shadow of the majesty of God, who doesn’t fear being overwhelmed and forgotten?  How could God possibly take notice of a single poor soul?

On the day when God appears to ask too much of us, that is the day when we must plunge ahead in love.  On the day when we imagine ourselves as nothing in contrast to God, that’s the moment to recall that God so loved each of us that he sent Jesus for our salvation.  On the day when we think God’s hand reaches out to smother us, remember that God reaches out for the sole purpose of gathering us into the palm of his hand.

Not for a minute would I suggest that it’s easy to toss away our phobias.  I’m sure that claustrophobia is lurking in the shadows, waiting for its next chance to scare the daylights out of me.  And as for hypodermic needles, these we will always have with us.  But to be afraid of God?  That’s a phobia we can live without.

IMG_2057Notes

+Last week was a time of missed opportunities.  I had planned to attend  a talk by Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough ’92, who spoke at Saint John’s on March 14th.  For the last four years Denis has been the chief of staff at the White House.  Then on March 16th I had registered to attend an alumni reception at the new US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.  I was able to attend neither of these events, much to my disappointment.

+On March 15th I spent the afternoon getting an MRI and a cortisone shot in my back.  Happily, I am making good progress with my back, and I look forward to the day when I can ditch the walker that currently allows me to get around.  The pain is down considerably.  What I have come to appreciate most these past three weeks is the enormous amount of work that people have put in to make our campus accessible.  I had no idea how complicated it could be to get through doors until I had a walker in tow.

+On March 18th retired Bishop John McRaith of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY, passed away.  Bishop McRaith was an alumnus of our Prep School.

+The photos in today’s post show the panels of the Troyes Altarpiece, ca. 1525, now housed at the V & A in London.  It is made of limestone, painted and gilded.

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IMG_0021_2The Small Things:  Where God Works Best

It was my first morning as chaplain on a cruise ship.  How I got that plum job is a story for another time; but in return for a daily Mass, Sunday services for the crew, and availability to one and all, I got passage from San Francisco to Alaska and back.  The gorgeous scenery was merely a free extra, as were moments of quiet time.

I was seated in a cafe, sipping coffee and trying to compose a sermon for the Mass I would say later that morning.  Despite the hour, the place was surprisingly full, and when one white-haired gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly welcomed him.  I could figure out a sermon later, I hoped.

So began a friendship that has developed in the course of over ten years.  Soon enough I and my friends John and Rose Lyden were on a first-name basis, and an encounter that began at sea took root on land.  Later I did a two-week stint at their home parish in Bridgehampton, NY, and still later I witnessed the renewal of wedding vows by them and nine other couples on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.  Last May I had the honor and the sad duty to preach at Rose’s funeral.  In the course of all that I recognized that in some way I had become part of the family.

Gradually John and Rose learned about my life as a monk at Saint John’s, and they also learned about my work at Saint John’s University.  It was after their first visit to Saint John’s that John stunned me with a question.  He knew we had done great work in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.  Graduates from that inner-city school had come to Saint John’s for college, and the results have been extraordinary.  For his part John had worked with an organization to improve graduation rates at Immokalee High School, situated at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from nearby Naples, FL.  Many there were now ready for college, and he wondered if Saint John’s might be the right place for some of them.  The light bulb went on in my head, and my quick response was “Yes!”  John would help to make their education at Saint John’s possible, if we would extend to these guys the same sort of moral support we have given to the guys from Newark.

IMG_0023_2This year, two years into the project, we have four guys from Immokalee at Saint John’s.  This fall and next we expect to add two more per year.   Our goal then is to have eight students at any given time, with two students in each class.  We hope to see each graduate within four years, with little or no debt to encumber them as they embark on their post-college careers.  Considering the challenges of life in Immokalee — a community of migrants that struggles mightily — this is nothing short of a God-send.  It’s the chance for these young men to shape lives in which poverty will no longer be the major factor.  They can be who they choose to be.

John is nothing if not persistent and high-energy, and as we began the project he enlisted the partnership of his college classmate from Brown University, Jack Marshall.  The goal was to support a rotation of eight students and in time to have those eight scholarships fully endowed.  Obviously we need the help of others to make it happen, but ours is a noble objective.  We hope to shape the lives of some promising young men and to give them the chance for a future beyond anything they might have imagined.

IMG_0149_2Not a few people thought we were crazy.  Could a kid from Florida find happiness in Minnesota?  I pointed out that for decades Saint John’s has hosted students from the Bahamas, and none has ever died of the cold.  Of course there would be cultural differences between Immokalee and Collegeville.  But would they be insurmountable?

Last fall, a month into the school year, Osbaldo, a freshman from Immokalee, stepped out of his dorm room and ran into some of his floor mates.  He had just cut his own hair, and some asked if he might cut theirs.  Later a freshman who had graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles asked if he might cut his hair too.  Osbaldo hesitated, then said he was self-taught and had never cut black hair before.  “Go for it,” replied the Angelino.  A month later he was back at Osbaldo’s door.  “I have an interview for an internship tomorrow.  Can you cut my hair again?”

There you have completely non-scientific proof that such a crazy idea just might work.  Anytime a Latino from Immokalee, FL, cuts the hair of a guy from Los Angeles in a dorm room in Collegeville, MN, something good must be happening.  It may be community; it may be friendship; but whatever it is, it isn’t bad.  In fact, it may just be a bit of the magic that Saint John’s can work.

Saint Benedict in his Rule wasted no time writing about transformative experiences on top of a mountain.  For him most anything of value takes place slowly and deliberately, and generally in the most ordinary of times and places. So it was that I was blessed to be having coffee one morning off the coast of California.  I thought I had sat down to write a sermon, but God had other plans.  Because I welcomed another person to sit at my table, I ended up knowing two and then three terrific people.  Then one thing led to another.  What came of it all was the chance for a few kids from Florida to come to work their own magic and to create new lives for themselves at Saint John’s.

IMG_0170_2Notes

+On March 11 St. Martin’s Voices, a choir of ten from the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, joined us for evening prayer.  They sang two psalms as well as the Salve Regina, and we listened in awe to the beauty of their voices.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with St. Martin’s, and this was not the first visit of their choir to Saint John’s.  A set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible sits on permanent display in their educational center, and they’ve hosted an exhibit of the Bible.  More recently the former vicar of St. Martin’s, Bishop Nicholas Holtam of Salisbury, joined us at Westminster Cathedral in London when Cardinal Vincent Nichols invested our scribe Donald Jackson as a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.

+About two weeks ago Brother Walter led a group that fixed 1,100 taps to maple trees in one section of the forest.  For the sap to flow well it must climb above freezing in the day and go below freezing at night.  Since then we have had rollercoaster weather.  Twice we we’ve gone into the 60s, and on the 12th it snowed.  Who knows whether the sap will flow today.

IMG_0120+I have much improved since I pulled something in my back a few days ago.  I have stayed at home, save for trips to the doctor, and later this week I will have an MRI, which I dread.  This is an irony worthy of Dante, in that someone who lives in a cloister should be claustrophobic.  But I will survive.

+There is a postscript to the story of the cruise worth sharing.  At that first Mass cheers erupted from the back of the room when I introduced myself.  “What’s that about,” I thought to myself.  They came from two alumni from Saint John’s — one from Atlanta and the other from Danville, CA.  We’ve been friends ever since.

+In today’s post I have a variety of images from two museums.  At top are two stained glass windows, each from the 16th century.  The first is French glass, and the second Italian.  Both are from the Civic Museum in Bologna, Italy.  Below them is an ivory image of the Arrest of Jesus, made ca. 1320, in Paris.  Following that is a Crucifixion by Leonard Limosin, made in Limoges ca. 1552. At bottom is Christ in Blessing, Byzantine, 10-11th c.  The bottom three pieces are housed in the Louvre in Paris.

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Lent:  A img_5240Time of Renewal

How the hotel staff managed to miss the signs of decay is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps because they used the employee entrance in the rear they simply never noticed.  Meanwhile, the obvious stared at every incoming guest.  Some must not have cared and registered anyway, while others saw it as fair warning and walked on by.

What was the issue?  Through the ravages of time the Princesa Sofia Hotel had morphed into the Princesa So.  Worse, its treasured fifth star had begun to plummet comet-like down the facade, and two others had definitely lost their luster.  Most definitely this was not good advertising, but it certainly was truth in advertising.  It suggested to guests that what they saw on the outside was what they should expect to find on the inside.  Caveat emptor!

This may be an odd segue into Lent, but it does point out a seldom-appreciated reality that we all face as we make adjustments in our lives.  The view we have of ourselves by its very nature is going to differ from the perspectives others have of us.  From the inside looking out, we see ourselves as people of good intentions, highly principled, hard-working, and wonderful to be around day or night.

img_0079_2That said, no one should be surprised to discover that many of the people around us do not share that view.  From their position on the outside looking in at us, they see someone with gifts and foibles, with strengths and weaknesses.  For better and for worse, our wiser friends hesitate to share these insights with us, while we wave off the views of our harsher critics as gratuitous and mean-spirited.  That explains why so many of us conclude that there’s no need for us to change.  We’re fine, just the way we are.

Once such an attitude is entrenched, growth and improvement are much harder to come by.  We slip into ruts from which we cannot escape so easily, and we end up missing so much that life has to offer.

Ash Wednesday has its somber side with the reminder that we came from the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return.  But that’s not meant to depress or paralyze us.  Rather, it’s meant to be a clarion call to make the most of what God gives us — be it years, talents, and the capacity for growth.  That sometimes can involve the need to step back and appreciate what others might see in us.  But above all, it requires us to pause and inventory what God has invested in us and how well we are or are not using it.

img_0069_2In his chapter on Lent in the monastery Saint Benedict wrote that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course monks in the 6th century had no patience for that, nor can modern monks be convinced of that either.  But Benedict anticipated this, and so he prescribed some minor and distinctly non-showy things that monks could add as a Lenten supplement.  On a general level he suggested “refusing to indulge evil habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”  He offered this not so that he could make life in the monastery drudgery, but so that monks could begin to anticipate the joys of Easter.

It occurs to me that one point of all this is the need to avoid the ruts that so easily stifle our personal growth.  Tweaking a schedule or shaking up a day can be disruptive, but it’s also a way to get a fresh perspective on our lives.  That in turn can give us the insight to change and to grow and to experience Easter — not just once a year — but every day.

My thoughts return to the staff of the Princesa Sofia.  In their use of the employee entrance they never had to confront the most obvious signal of the slow decay that was happening inside the hotel.  They got used to what was inside and learned to live with it.  Perhaps it never dawned on them that it didn’t have to go on like that.  It could be different, and both the hotel and they could flourish.

Lent invites us to break free from our customary ways of doing things.  As a time of renewal Lent encourages us to discover the possibilities in life that we’ve ignored all too often.  It’s a reminder that the point of Christian life is not the sobering reality of the cross on Good Friday.  Rather, we look beyond the cross to the resurrrection on Easter Sunday.  That resurrection is something we can celebrate every day of our lives.

img_0071_2Notes

+This was not the best of weeks for me.  Last weekend I pulled something in my back, which made getting around extremely difficult.  Then on Ash Wednesday I woke up, got out of bed, stood, took a step and fell down.  That had to be a fluke, I thought, but after another try I fell again.  Thankfully it is a pinched nerve that’s causing this, and I will recover, but only after six weeks of therapy.  The doctor advised me to eliminate airports and travel from my immediate plans, and that’s led to a complete rewrite of my calendar for the next two months.  (Actually, I have torn it up.). In the meantime, it is a little strange to have to rely on a walker to get around the monastery.  This too will pass, however.  So that is my Lenten observance.

+Readers of my notes are accustomed to seeing weekly travel reports, but there’ll be none of that for a while.   Thankfully I do other stuff too, including reading.  A couple of weeks ago I finished a book by Cambridge professor Mary Beard, on the history of the Roman Empire.  Entitled SPQR, it is easily accessible to the non-history reader, and it lingered on The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks.  She gives an insightful overview while at the same time pointing out the cultural legacy of the Romans 2,000 years later.  For example, the political and social boundaries that the Romans set in Europe largely endure to this day.  We observe the month of July in honor of Julius Caesar, and August in memory of Augustus Caesar.  On something as benign as the moment when a new day begins we still follow the Roman custom of midnight.  Does it have to be that way?  In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sunset of the evening before.  This is a book I highly recommend.

img_5241+On March 2nd our confrere Fr. Bryan Hayes passed away at the age of 97.  To say the least, he led a varied life, and it’s worth noting a few bits.  He was born in Clarksville, TN, and he grew up with a fondness for music.  Before coming to the monastery he already was an accomplished composer, with some of his works played at Carnegie Hall.  Later he studied under Aaron Copeland, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while studying in Italy he met and kissed the hands of the mystic Padre Pio.  That sparked his conversion to Catholicism.  At Saint John’s he taught French, but we will best remember him for the hundreds of hymns he composed.  We sing many of them, and they are among our favorites.  But there are hundreds yet to learn.  I would be remiss were I not to mention that we all considered him to be a “character.”

+I discovered the Princesa Sofia as I walked the streets of Barcelona one afternoon.  As the photo at bottom indicates, eventually someone told the manager about the sign, and he must have gone out and taken a look.  The place seems to be going through a complete overhaul.  One of the favorite Lenten disciplines in former centuries was the giving of alms, and Saint Martin of Tour was venerated for cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar.  The next three images come from the cathedral of Utrecht in Holland.

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