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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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Is Christ Our King?

Six evenings a week, during dinner, one of the monks reads to the rest of us as we eat.  He opens with a short chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, during which we sit in silence.  Then he turns to some book, and as he begins to read we begin to eat.  And so it goes, and we usually go through that book cover to cover, no matter how many weeks or months it takes.

As you can imagine, it’s tough to find a book that suits every taste.  Still, every now and again there’s a text that grabs our collective attention, at least for a while.  This fall we read just such a book, one entitled The Pope Who Would Be King.

To me it was fascinating to learn how Pope Pius IX struggled to hold on to the Papal States in the 1860s, even as the Italian nationalist armies closed in on Rome.  For a thousand years popes had ruled a big chunk of central Italy, and they presided not so much as popes but as kings.  They administered justice, tried to keep the peace, and managed an economy.  A few of them even put on armor and led their troops in the field.    Likely the most famous of these was Julius II, who earned the title The Warrior Pope for wearing armor at the siege of Bologna.  And then there were the mixed messages that resulted from being both pope and king.  Just a few days ago Pope Francis spoke of the thief whom the papal executioner beheaded in the 1860s.  Francis recalled the story with regret, but he also noted that that’s the way it was back then.  For better and largely for worse, many in the Church could not imagine an independent pope without an independent papal state to protect him.

57C125FB-C6BB-421C-83D5-131150E5D696Well, the Papal States fell anyway, despite the prayers of Pius IX.  And if he never got over it, popes like John XXIII and John Paul II and Francis have never regretted the loss for a minute.  Who could possibly want the responsibility of governing central Italy?!

I bring all this up as a preamble to a few thoughts I’d like to share on the feast of Christ the King.  To me it’s always seemed oddly out of place to think of Jesus Christ as king.  Granted that there have been many good kings, it’s also true that the word king carries a lot of baggage.  So when I think of kings I recall Henry VIII and Louis XIV and the Russian tsars.  Their royal authority seemed to be all about power and its arbitrary exercise.  And as for the common people and individual rights, those concerns scarcely mattered.  This was the sort of authority that marched young men by the millions into the trenches of World War I, and it was a march from which those same millions never returned.  So for better or for worse, that’s what I think of when I hear the word king.  And king is a word I don’t usually pin on Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel Jesus goes out of his way to stress that he is no earthly king.  To Pilate he protests that he has not come into this world to take and exercise power.  He has come neither to crush the opposition nor to force people to live by rules he would impose on them.  If he were a king, Jesus told Pilate, he would be a different kind of king and his kingdom would not be of this world.

BAE143F4-491A-4EA6-B1B2-55E2900D5D62If Jesus is king, then what in the world does that mean?  Is it merely longing for the good old days when churches exercised power in contests with secular authority?  Perhaps a few yearn for a return to those days;  but if we are to believe the words in today’s gospel, it cannot be that way for a follower of Jesus.

Obviously there’s a lot more to kingship than the exercise of raw power, and that’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Pilate.  The kingship of Jesus is an intangible one.  It’s one that looks forward to the day when Christ will be all in all.  Jesus anticipates the day when he as king will wipe away every tear and clothe each one of us in the dignity for which he created us.  And that is when we will finally set foot into the kingdom of God.

But if that describes the day of resurrection, what might the kingship of Jesus mean for us here and now?  Ought it make any difference when we walk out of this church?  Well, I’d like to offer two points for us to mull over.

First, as king Jesus asks us to take stock of the direction of our lives.  Down what paths have we chosen to walk?  What are our values?  To what or to whom do we orient ourselves?  Do we exploit other people?  Do we live mainly to acquire stuff and push other people around?  Do we live for the moment, with no regard for the feelings of others?  Certainly people choose these options, and I confess that there have been moments when I’ve been in that number.  But unfortunately these are traits of the kingship that Jesus rejects.

8F66A809-EF03-4747-AF09-117F1C74B381For his part Jesus as king offers an alternative model to earthly kingship, and it’s one that has a focus on the needs of others.  As king Jesus begins and ends by asking us to make the most of our talents — wasting neither the opportunity to develop them nor the chance to use them in service to others.  In short, Jesus invites us to share in his nobility, and it’s a nobility not of blood but of service.

Second, when Jesus asks us to clothe ourselves in a nobility of spirit, we must remember one important bit.  His is an invitation and not a command.  Jesus respects our freedom, and he does not determine in advance our success or failure.  Each of us must choose how to live our lives, and so we have the option to make the most of our lives or the option to choose blind alleys and dead ends.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, who as king awaits us with open arms at the end of time.  But life with Jesus also begins now, and he sets before us his invitation to live in a nobility that has little to do with power and everything to do with a service of love to one another.

So today let our prayer be simple and pure.  “Lord you have called each of us to share in your royal priesthood, and you have set us apart for sacred duties.  Be with us always as we try to translate into deeds the words with which you encourage us.  Amen.”

7BEE6903-076A-49E2-B4E1-BE90D460F054NOTES

+On Sunday November 25th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered.  It is based on the gospel for the day, John 18: 33-37.  The book to which I refer is by David Kertzer and entitled The Pope Who Would Be King:  The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018.)

+On November 24th I attended the football game between Saint John’s and Whitworth University, which Saint John’s won 45-24.  Saint John’s now continues into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.  That game will be in Texas, and I won’t be there.

+On November 24th we celebrated the memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs.  Brother Emmanuel, a Vietnamese Cistercian monk studying with us, read the first text Vietnamese, which I think must be a first in the abbey church.  Then he and three of his confreres sang the meditation Psalm in Vietnamese, which also had to be a first for us.

+Thanksgiving, as usual, was a lovely day and dinner in the abbey refectory was both festive and good.  That afternoon I celebrated by taking a walk and by spending two hours watching and listening to John Rutter music videos.  I am a major fan of English choral music, and I thoroughly enjoy Rutter’s work.  And as for Thanksgiving, I count it as the official start of  the choral Christmas music season.

+The photos in today’s post all show images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.  Typical of medieval cathedrals, Jesus sits in majesty in the tympanum over the entry, from which perch he greets pilgrims and reminds them that someday he will have the final word.

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Called To Be a Witness, Not a Fossil

I’d never sat down for a long visit with an abbess before last Friday.  It’s not that I have deliberately avoided such contact, but rather it’s due to the scarcity of cloistered nuns in the United States.  In Europe such houses are more plentiful, though they are definitely not overcrowded.  In any case, I and my fellow pilgrims had come to the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria to visit with the abbess of the monastery which had founded our sister monastery in Saint Joseph, MN.

The abbey has its origins in an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon who came from the south of England.  She arrived as part of the same missionary migration to Germany that brought Saint Boniface, and together they put a Benedictine stamp on the Church in Germany.  Two hundred years later the founding nuns of Saint Walburga gathered her remains, and a thousand years later pilgrims still visit her shrine.  That in itself is remarkable, since most medieval shrines had male guardians.  That alone led me to conclude that the nuns at Saint Walburga have been a pretty tenacious lot.

2FE5D52F-D6A5-4FD5-8AFD-CE5927A5F479To be honest, I wondered what in the world we could talk about for an hour with the abbess.  What could we possibly have in common with someone in a cloistered community?  Would she and her community be something of a curiosity?  Would they be aliens in a modern era, untethered from their moorings in an ancient past?  Not so, we soon found out.

The abbess, Mother Francesca, surprised us with her wit, her wisdom, and her command of English.  We knew we were off to a good start when she gave a review of the restaurant where we had eaten the evening before.  “It’s overpriced and the portions are too small.”  How she knew that she did not say;  but my guess is that not much in Eichstätt escapes her notice.

Mother Francesca has seen a lot as she nears her thirtieth year as abbess.  For one thing, she noted, the abbey used to be much larger, and the huge complex clearly says that.  While she laments the passing of those days, she’s also happy that the community attracts a novice or two each year. Not all stay, but it ensures the future of the community.

CF5B0F89-D08D-45D5-93CB-3EECB3D11170To our surprise we discovered that these cloistered  nuns do not sit around praying and contemplating all day long.  They have a strong work ethic, she stressed, and several of the nuns teach religion in the grade school which they sponsor.  Another young nun, holder of a PhD in mathematics, teaches in the University of Eichstätt.  Still others help in the guest house and make crafts for the gift shop.  So there seems to be no twiddling of thumbs there.

Our conversation ranged all over the map, but Mother Francesca offered three comments that were great takeaways.  First, despite living in a monastery whose bones are medieval and whose façade is baroque, these nuns are not fossils.  “We are not a museum,” as she put it.  They are not relics of a bygone age.

49FEDA0E-5BEE-4C84-88AC-3035BD315289Second, she lamented the divisions that beset the Church today.  In response to this she and her fellow nuns deliberately stand squarely in the middle of the life of the Church.  “We must be here ready and open to talk with anyone and everyone, wherever they might be on the spectrum.”

Finally, she accepts her own lot in life as abbess.  Her sisters elected her for life, and she will serve as long as she is able.  Then she offered this important caveat:  “I may have some administrative responsibilities, but this is not an administrative job.  I am the mother of a family, and you don’t elect a mother for a term or two.”  It’s a vocation within a vocation.

This led nicely to her parting comment.  “All too often our spirituality suggests we become like angels, so much so that we forget to be human.  But Christ calls us to be human, and Saint Benedict calls us to be the best humans we can be.”

Pope Gregory the Great in his biography of Saint Benedict tells the story of the saint’s last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.  His description of their conversation is standard for the era, and he writes that they got so wrapped up in holy talk that they lost track of the time.  I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about that claim.  What holy things could be so interesting that they would lead us into overtime?  Well, last week at Saint Walberga I got a sample, and it made a believer out of me.

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+During the past few days I have been part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour that took alumni and friends of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to monastic sites in Italy and Germany.  Chief among the monastic houses in Italy which we visited were Subiaco, where Benedict began his spiritual journey as a hermit, and Monte Cassino, where he built a large community.  Today the two places could not be more different, both architecturally and in terms of the life in their respective communities.

+In Germany we visited the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria, the place to which our sister community in Saint Joseph, MN, owes much of its heritage.  We then ended the trip with a visit to the Abbey of Metten, in northern Bavaria.  It was from that community that Abbot Boniface Wimmer came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants.  In his extensive work he was the founder of Saint John’s.

+The monks of Saint John’s and all associated with Saint John’s note with sadness the passing of John Gagliardi, who was a revered mentor and coach at Saint John’s University.  In his long career he built a record as the coach with the most wins of anyone in football.  Though in failing health for some time, this fall he still made an appearance at a Homecoming reception in his honor.

+The photos in today’s post show aspects of the Abbey of Saint Walburga.  At top is a statue of the saint that stands above her shrine, and at bottom is her shrine.  The fourth photo shows the choir chapel where the nuns pray the liturgy of the hours, and just above is a photo of Mother Francesca and Sister Martina, together with some of the members of our tour.

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The Gift of Wisdom

As I’ve grown in experience I’ve come to appreciate the Wisdom literature of the Bible more and more.  Perhaps it’s the result of living by the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is deeply rooted in that tradition.  Perhaps too it’s the result of coming to terms with one reality in life:  many of life’s decisions are nuanced, complicated, and not at all easy.

To people who crave black and white answers, wisdom can be a major inconvenience.  It admits that some of our choices fall between shades of gray, or they’re a matter of opting for the greater or the lesser good.  Lives beset by these sorts of dilemmas require deep reflection.  They require wisdom.

If we examine the sweep of the Old Testament there is the Torah and the clarity of the Ten Commandments on the one hand.  At another point is the Wisdom literature.  Between the two is a world of Jewish experience.  When we read a passage like Proverbs 3, then, we get a glimpse into that evolution of thought.  Each verse of Proverbs makes sense, yet each makes reference to a complicating reality.  If, for example, it says that “the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked,” we also recall the rhetorical question of the Psalmist who wonders why it is that the wicked always seem to prosper.

744B9A93-24D5-40FF-8CE4-669A0EFD94ADThese sorts of conundrums still puzzle us.  We prefer the easy answers for their clarity, and so we set up the Ten Commandments as a kind of idol.  But we know that Proverbs teaches us to demand more of life and more from ourselves.  To that deeper self-examined way of life Jesus also calls us.  And so today we could do no better than to pray for the gift of wisdom and for the patience to make the most of it.

NOTES

+Today’s post is a sermon that I will deliver at the abbey Mass later in the day.  It is based on the first reading, Proverbs 3: 27-34.

+On 20 September I attended the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.  For the current school year I’m serving as a board advisor.

+I’m not sure whether it was allergies or a response to a flu shot, but for two and a half days over the weekend I was out of action and unable to do much of anything.  I did finally manage to go to a small bit of Homecoming activities at Saint John’s University, but missed most of the football game and was a no-show at the dinner for the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  For better and for worse, I also had to sit on the sidelines for my birthday, which was on Saturday.

+In the Benedictine tradition monks pray for wisdom when we gather for deliberation in the chapter house.  Today’s post illustrates the 12th-century chapter house from the Cistercian abbey of Notre Dame at Pontaut in Bordeaux.  Today it is housed in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Note the seating in the interior.  There were no cushions, perhaps on the assumption that wisdom comes a little faster when you’re sitting on stone.

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The Artisans of the Monastery

When our first monks stepped off the boat and onto the shore of the Mississippi at Saint Cloud, there wasn’t much there to greet them.  There was even less when they ventured a few miles west to the site that would become Saint John’s.  There were no shops, roads, churches or even a place to live.  Those pioneers, like their neighbors elsewhere in Stearns County, had very little except for the dreams of what might be someday.  But if they ran short on many commodities, those monks had one thing in abundance:  trees.  Lots and lots of trees.

Trees were essential to life at Saint John’s in the early decades.  The monks used wood to put up the first buildings.  They used wood to keep warm in the winter.  And they used wood to make furniture.

D038891E-411E-438A-B41F-DCAA796E146AToday we don’t use much wood for warmth save for the three fireplaces that survive in the monastery.  But wood remains the essential ingredient for the furniture that graces our rooms and halls.

To the raw materials of wood and water and earth the first monks found at Saint John’s they applied the skills that they brought from Germany.  Some we no longer practice, like shoeing horses.  Nor do we really regret the loss of the cooking skills that the monks brought with them.  But one skill from the Old World has survived and continues to thrive at Saint John’s, and that is woodworking.

After 160 years and more, the making of furniture is an integrated project at Saint John’s.  It begins with the seedlings in the forest.  Some sprout naturally and some are planted, but all need protection from the relentless predation of Bambi and his relatives.  They also need thinning when they crowd themselves.  Finally, when the time comes for harvest or when the wind has blown down prime candidates for furniture, the logs go to a nearby Amish sawmill, where they become boards.

From the mill the boards return to the lumber yard, where they cure until the need for oak or maple or cherry or pine requires them.  Then they enter one end of the shop as boards and emerge at the other as completed pieces of furniture.  Some are utilitarian, like the pine caskets that we make for ourselves and for sale; and some are masterpieces, like the cabinets made to house sets of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

4FCAD555-DCD6-4050-802F-2724125CA039I like to think that the products from our woodworking shop are an expression of the values we draw from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  There is no junk.   There is no veneer.  All is solid and meant to last.  So it is that we take for granted pieces that have been around for a hundred years or more, and many of those still have another three or four hundred years of use in them.

There’s a lot that makes a monastery a stranger to the 21st century, beginning with the 6th-century Rule we still follow.  Of course we adapt it to our situation, as monks have done for centuries.  And if we’ve fallen short of Benedict’s ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s the art of woodworking that reminds us of the values we’ve inherited from him that we try to follow today.

If then the monastery at times seems out of place in our age, it also stands as a prophetic witness to values worth preserving.  In a throw-away culture in which machines make most everything, woodworking still benefits from the human hand that produces something of timeless beauty.  And if most everything today is destined for recycling or the landfill within a few years of its creation, then something made to last for hundreds of years communicates a profound message.

Like woodworking shops across the country, our shop is a reminder of the dignity and creativity of human work.  Equally eloquent is what these artisans produce:  something made to last for generations.  All that may seem a bit strange in our day and age, but why would anyone want to aspire to anything less with their lives?

1A7F37A4-4F9E-4F0A-8C6D-62B552A49075NOTES

+On September 10th I presided at the funeral of Lillian Schneider, at the Church of Saint Casimir in St. Paul.  Lillian was the mother of my friend Jane Hughan of San Francisco, and the occasion provided a nice opportunity to visit with her and her husband Wade.

+On September 11th and 12th I hosted my two friends John and Jack, who flew from New York and Providence to visit our nine students at Saint John’s from Immokalee, FL.  John and Jack started the scholarship program that brings them to Saint John’s, and this year marks a milestone: we now have students in all four years.  The photo at bottom shows us gathered after dinner.

+Many people are surprised to learn that we still have an active woodworking shop at Saint John’s.  In fact, it was one of the first things that the monks started up when they came to central Minnesota.  Today Fr. Lew Grobe works there fulltime, alongside several long-tenured colleagues.  A few other monks put in occasional stints there, as do a number of student workers from the University.  Readers interested in accessing the Abbey Woodworking Shop can reach it at this link.  The site includes a range of photography showing their current work.

+The top three photos show pieces produced in our woodworking shop, including the table and chairs that now reside in the Heritage Room in the University Quadrangle.  Below that is a buffet that sits in the abbey refectory.  The fourth photo shows Fr. Lew (at left) with colleague Mike Roske and an unidentified student worker looking on.  At bottom are our nine students who are part of the Immokalee Scholarhsip Program at Saint John’s.

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We Belong to Each Other — and to God!

Every time I read I Corinthians 3, I get a good jolt of reality therapy.  This passage should be required reading, and specifically for those who assume that the Church has never been in more dire straights than it is today.

In that passage Paul takes the Corinthians to task for dividing themselves into factions — factions that have grown out of loyalties to Paul or Apollos or some other teacher.  In one sense it’s not a bad thing to admit one’s debt to a teacher who’s made a deep impression.  In fact it’s a mark of humility and gratitude, since such people can change the course of our lives.  I’ve acknowledged such debts myself, and the people to whom I owe a lot make for a very long list.

But Paul’s quibble is not with devotion to a particular teacher.  Rather, he’s concerned with anyone who would grant godlike status to such figures.  They cannot take the place of Jesus, and Paul implies that some of the Corinthians have done just that.  Some say they belong to Paul.  Others to Apollos.  But what’s happened to Jesus?

439796A2-ED98-49C4-85F5-96F87E11CB35As a historian I can be detached in my reading of the history of the Church.  As a believer, however, it can be painful to read about the conflicts that have dogged the Christian community.  No sooner had Jesus ascended than the apostles began to fuss and debate about all sorts of things.  Some topics certainly needed a good airing, like the retention of circumcision and other Jewish traditions.  Centuries later, arguments about the nature of Christ and the Trinity grew heated, to the point at which violence broke out at some of the early church councils.  Those were not pretty days, when passion would pit one set of bishops against another faction of bishops.  On the plus side, they cared.  On the minus side, they occasionally lost sight of what it was all about, and they sometimes left ordinary Christians scratching their heads.

Differences of opinion within the Church are as old as the Church itself.  Knowing that would be the case, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be a tether to the reality of God.  The Spirit acts subtly and sometimes not so subtly to remind people that they are the people of God — not the people of Apollos or Paul or whomever.

269990CB-B3FD-4B24-939B-9891DEF29355Every now and again the Spirit sends us gentle souls to remind us that it is Jesus who is our Lord.  The Spirit sends such prophets to serve as a wake-up call for us all.  An early example was the Roman deacon Lawrence.  When imperial officials demanded that he turn over the treasury of the Church, he stood a group of the poor in front of them.  Later still, Saint Benedict reminded people that God is present in every human being, and not just in the people who wield power and authority.  And from my later experience the words of Fra Gerard of the Order of Malta have touched me.  Like Benedict he teaches that Christ is in the poor and the sick who stand before us.  We will never run out of such people, he says, and so the work of service will never be complete.  But such people truly are “our Lords the sick and the poor,” as he puts it.  They are the heart and soul of the Church.

From my perch in a monastery I’ve often felt like someone on the sidelines, locked out of the power circles of the Church.  I can’t shape policy, and I have little or no impact on the official life of the Church.  On the other hand, I get to experience “Church” every day.   I have the privilege to see Christ in the people who walk into my life each and every day.  It’s a vision that is sometimes clouded by my own distractions, but it’s worth the effort to squint every now and again to see how creative the Lord can be when he tiptoes into my life.

That, I think, gets to the point that Paul makes in his words to the Corinthians.  It’s good to give credit to the work of Paul and Apollos, but they are not gods.  And so if we want to see the face of Christ in our midst, then we should look at the brothers and sisters with whom we rub elbows each day.  We belong to them and they to us because we all belong to God.  We are God’s treasure.

79C827D3-9D7E-4BB5-BA43-36768802A84FNOTES

+On September 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a much-expanded version of the sermon that I presented that afternoon.

+The weather at Saint John’s during the past few days has been nothing short of stunning.  Fortunately I’ve been able to get out and enjoy it, and this week I took long walks through the woods and around campus.  So did many students and visitors, and on the weekend the place seemed like a resort, complete with hikers in the woods, canoes dotting the lake, and swimmers at the beach.  In the interests of full disclosure, one reason for my long walks this summer has been for health of mind and body.  But the other reason is utilitarian.  In October I will be going with a group of members of the Order of Malta to walk the last one hundred kilometers of the Camino to Santiago Compostela.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s the sort of thing that needs preparation.  I hope I will be prepared!

+At the abbey liturgies on Sundays we are often blessed with a variety of musical contributions, and I share the link to a piece performed by Fr. Bob (at the keyboard), Brother Jacob (with the viola) and recent Saint John’s University alumnus and singer, Kyle Lamb.

+On September 8th we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.  Lacking illustrations of that feast in my file folder, I decided to show photos of an altar frontal that is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  It was made in the 13th century for the Church of Santa María de Cardet in Catalonia.

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Retreat!  (But Don’t Run Away!)

The thought of monks going on retreat must strike some people as ridiculous.  After all, haven’t we already fled from the world to take up a life of prayer and asceticism?  What’s left to retreat from?

A second surprise for many is that monks are people too.  Like everybody else, we’re beset by distractions, even during prayer.  We also bump up against temptations, which are much like those that occur to most other people.  And we’re under no illusion that we’re the only ones who’ve ever thought of chucking it all and moving on to something new —- like a new job, new friends, new home, new way of life.  And we too see visions of grass that’s greener on the other side.  Of course it really is greener, but mainly in our dreams.

One of the ironies of the Rule of Saint Benedict is that Benedict makes no provision for a retreat.  He pretty much assumes that our lives will be one constant retreat in which we keep death daily before our eyes and live with intensity and focus.  That is certainly a lovely idea, but the reality of life in a monastery is somewhat different.  All too often the bias in our lives tips toward an emphasis on work and responsibility.  That comes at the expense of prayer, reading, recreation and even sleep.  It’s the human condition writ local, and long ago canon law in the Church made an annual retreat mandatory for all priests and religious — including monks and nuns.

F9FA4123-509F-4E92-BD50-946C8FCC2288So what do monks think about during a retreat?  For one thing, many of the monks I know think about work that’s not getting done because they’re sitting there listening to a retreat conference.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them, so I know what I’m talking about).  They’re also thinking about vital email that must be piling up.  They think about all the other useful things they could be doing.  And of course they’re thinking about the nap that they could be taking because they’re not at work.  And every now and then they think about how life could have been had they chosen another course.

The point of a retreat, however, is neither to run away from the monastic life nor dream about an escape to some new and idyllic circumstances.  Ideally a retreat is meant to focus our attention on the two great commandments around which all the big and little details of life should be organized.  Loving God with all our heart is the first of these; and loving our neighbor is the second.  I grant it’s a stretch to believe that these could be more important than putting in overtime or answering email, but there you have it.

When monks come to the monastery they bring the intellectual and emotional baggage that they’ve accumulated up to that point.  Once clothed in the habit the agenda shifts to sorting out the items worth keeping and tossing the stuff that’s extraneous or destructive.  It also involves training in how to distinguish between the guests whom we should welcome into our mental living rooms and those we should politely ask to leave.  After all, why should we allow the latter to live rent-free in our minds?

Monks, like everyone else, need a retreat once in a while.  And it’s almost secondary whether it lasts five days once a year or a half an hour every few days.  We all need to clean house and rearrange the furniture.  Far from being an exercise in running away, it’s an attenpt to take an inventory of our lives.  It’s why we do it, and it’s why anyone who’s not given it a try should do so.  It’s amazing what a good cleaning can do.

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NOTES

+On August 6th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On August 8th I flew to Dallas to give a retreat to the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  The Cistercians are a late 11th-century offshoot of the Benedictines, and they too follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.  This particular monastery had its foundation in a group of Hungarian monks who escaped following the anti-communist revolt in 1956.  Today they conduct a wonderful prep school.  Once I arrived I was thoroughly surprised to discover that the novice master, Fr. Ignatius, is a 1998 graduate of Saint John’s University.  At Saint John’s he was an art major and then went on to a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Texas before discovering his monastic vocation.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I was able to stay for the profession of first vows by their novice.  That retreat provided the occasion for today’s post.

+The various flowerbeds around campus seem to be particularly vibrant these days.  With so many possibilities to consider, these were the photos that made the cut.

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A Little Silence Can Be Golden

I used to think that only other people got to see the unusual things, while my daily rounds were pretty boring.  Lately, however, I’ve had my share of sightings, and I’ve perked up a bit.

Probably the most startling thing I saw in the last week took place on Saturday.  I was at a lunch, sitting at a table outside, when I heard a crash and looked up with a start.  Somebody had just rear-ended a pick-up, parked a few feet from where I was sitting.   The good news was that neither the driver nor the cell phone she had been using were injured.  The same could not be said for her car, though.  The parked pick-up had won.

95DDE85D-F528-453B-9A54-D9F74A4164F1Things like that used to show up in News of the Weird, but no more.  That sort of stuff now happens with such regularity that it scarcely deserves attention, which explains why I so casually turned back to lunch.   After all, just two days earlier I had watched as a young man who was texting walked right into a post.  The post won, and I awarded the post extra points for that.

The prize for the most eccentric behavior of the week I bestowed on a person who talked non-stop for almost two whole blocks.  I was stuck on the sidewalk behind her and her friend, but when I finally had the chance to pass, I didn’t.  By then it had become hugely entertaining.  For upwards of four minutes she talked at a ferocious clip, without resort to a comma, a semicolon or any other sort of punctuation.  Just listening left me breathless, but she seemed not to be.

That performance brought to mind Saint Benedict’s chapter on the restraint of speech.  There he cites Proverbs 10:19 to this effect:  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  I’m not sure that this person meant any harm with her torrent of words, but the verdict belongs to her long-suffering companion who seemed so pained by it all.

By contrast Saint Benedict was a man of few words, which likely explains the brevity of his Rule.  It’s not that he was against speaking, but he honestly believed that the fewer the words, the better.   And when it came to prayer the same held true.  So it is that after several chapters dealing with the details of the prayer cycle in the monastery, he rewards the reader with this rather terse comment:  “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should always be short and pure….”  And then he concludes:  “In community, however, prayer should always be brief….”

CA2BA3DF-ED02-4D9F-9DE7-8188C3C75E2BFor those who assume that prayer should be super-dignified, ethereal and long-winded, Saint Benedict offers a different perspective.  He doesn’t exactly say that we should talk with God as we would with our friends.  But in fact we should.  It should be a conversation in which we don’t hesitate to tell God what’s on our mind.  We shouldn’t be bashful to tell God what troubles us and what makes us happy.  God wants to know.

But as in any good conversation, there need to be at least two parties, and everybody should have a chance to speak.  Perhaps with that in mind Benedict begins his Rule with the word “Listen.”  That’s a key element in any praying that we do, and it’s necessary for any fruitful conversation — be it with God or with our friends.

”Listen” is the word I wanted to share with that overly-chatty person on the sidewalk.  But had I had the nerve, it likely would have come out ”LISTEN!”  So it’s just as well that I took the advice of Saint Benedict that day and kept my mouth shut.  For that moment, at least for me, silence was golden.

3174D66A-ECB4-4323-988C-E1C61A720F92NOTES

+Summer is winding down at Saint John’s and in two weeks the first of our students begin to trickle in for the fall term.  However, there are still groups visiting and working on campus, including several of our students who are doing individual research this summer.  In addition, HMML has hosted two groups for month-long sessions.  First, it hosted the NEH summer seminar entitled “Thresholds of Change:  Modernity and Transformation in the Mediterranean, 1400-1700.”  That drew 25 professors from across the country.  Most recently HMML hosted Dumbarton Oaks Research Library’s Syriac Summer Language School, which drew ten scholars from around the world.  Dumbarton Oaks is Harvard University’s Byzantine research library and institute in Washington, DC. At the other end of the spectrum, we hosted the annual camp for the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  For an entire week their music filtered through the campus, and it was a delight.

+The first three photos all show writers at their craft.  At top is Saint Ambrose, made by a Spanish carver, ca. 1500.  Next is Saint Bridget of Sweden, writing down her Revelations.  It was made in the Netherlands, ca. 1470.  Below that is John of Patmos, writing the Book of Revelation on a scroll (Burgundy, ca. 1450-1500).  Saint James the Greater I have included because his feast day was on July 25th.  All four of these items are to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At bottom is a wrought iron panel, which has nothing to do with any of the sculptures here.  I just happened to like it and thought it would be a nice accent piece and serve as a period in today’s post.  It is housed in the V & A in London.

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