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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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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.

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+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.

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+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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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”

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+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.

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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Legacy of Saint John the Baptist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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