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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’s Prep Newark NJ’

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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img_4000Generosity:  the Point of Christmas

[I preached this sermon at the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at Saint John’s.}

Let’s be honest and admit up-front that many people here this evening don’t have their minds on the birth of Jesus.  These same people probably didn’t pay much attention during Advent, and John the Baptist and Isaiah slipped right past them.  And they couldn’t have cared less about these Advent characters because their minds were elsewhere.  Specifically, Santa Claus was the guest of honor in there mental living rooms.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I happened to be walking past a Santa Station in a mall, and there they were, eager and anxious youngsters lined up to see Santa.  I make the distinction between eager and anxious because the eager ones had greed written all over their faces.  They desperately hoped they’d get most of what they’d written on their lists for Santa.

Then there were the anxious little kids who were terrified of meeting Santa.  I felt sorry for the parents who tried to still their cries and screams.  It didn’t make for pretty pictures, and I realized once again one of the fringe benefits of being a monk.

img_3990Of course not all kids react that way, as one of my coworkers assured me about her son.  Her son was neither greedy nor terrified.  Rather, he was curious, in a district attorney sort of way.   When his turn came to meet Santa, he put Santa on the hot seat.  “What happens if Santa gets sick — who takes his place?”  “How come the elves never get any bigger?”  “Why would anyone want to live at the North Pole?”  And on it went until Santa gratefully handed her son back back to her.

I do have a point here, and it’s this.  For the  youngest citizens among us, Santa has grabbed their attention.  And if you are one of these kids, please hear what I have to say.  At Christmas Santa and parents and brothers and sisters will bring you presents, but it’s not because you desperately need all those things.  Rather, those gifts are a sign that they love you.  And so, when you get gifts at Christmas, be sure to thank your mom or dad or brother or sister or Santa.  They give because they love you, and they care about you.

I suppose that also applies to the oldest citizens among us too.  Gifts are tokens of love and appreciation, and sometimes people even have to make personal sacrifices to give them.  Our gratitude and thanks are absolutely the best response we can ever give, and it’s something we should consider doing even when Christmas is long over.

img_3995Generosity is the point of Christmas.  In the Bible we read that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to be one of us.  It’s an act of generosity that we don’t always understand, but it’s one for which we should be grateful for precisely this reason.  In chapter one of Matthew’s gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus, and the point of it is simple.  Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also the son of Mary.  As Matthew tells us, Jesus descends from a long line of Jewish ancestors, stretching back to King David.  And Jesus did not come here to mess around in all of our affairs and give us a whole bunch of rules.  Rather, he’s here to be our brother.  He is one of us, and he’s like us in all things except sin.

What, then, does Christmas mean on a practical level?  It means that God loves us and in Jesus God walks with us.  God doesn’t want to be aloof from our daily problems and the challenges of our lives.  Instead, Jesus came to be part of our lives.  He wants to hear from us, and he wants to speak with us.

So if you’ve never prayed to Jesus as if he were your brother, the time to start is now.  If you’ve never confided in Jesus when you’re going through tough moments, then the time to start is now.  If you’ve never thought that Jesus personally loves you and cares about  you, then the time to start is now.

Jesus was born of Mary in a manger, but not because he had nothing else to do that day.  Rather, he came precisely so that he could get to know each of us.  He came to carry our burdens and to rejoice with us.  He came to be with us in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.  He came to be our savior and our friend.

What greater love could God have for us, and what greater gift could we possibly get at Christmas?  Be sure then to thank God when you next speak with Jesus.  And thank him especially for the gift of his son, our brother.  Amen.

img_3981Notes

+On December 23rd Frantz Soiro spoke to the monks in the chapter house about his current year as a Benedictine Volunteer at a Benedictine abbey in Africa.  Frantz grew up in Newark, NJ, went to Saint Benedict’s Prep there, and graduated from Saint John’s University last May.  He is staying with us in the monastery for a month while he takes a course in preparation for medical school, which he will start at Morehouse in Atlanta this fall.  In late January he returns to Africa for the second half of his stint as a Volunteer.

+On December 24th I was the celebrant at the children’s Mass at the Abbey parish.  It was really a fun experience, and I’m grateful to all those parents who managed to calm their little kids down, finally.  A nativity pageant preceded the Mass, and as I watched from the rear of the church I was taken aback by one unexpected development.  As Mary and Joseph and the shepherds circled the manger and then turned around to face us, Mary was holding a doll.  So also did two of the shepherds.  I turned to the lady beside me and gasped that “Mary had triplets!  I don’t think that’s in the book.”  I couldn’t figure it out until they all processed out and I discovered that the other two dolls were actually lambs.  Thankfully they had not rewritten the Nativity story after all.

img_4009+Because we were celebrating the parish Mass in the Abbey church at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, the monks said evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, also at 5 pm.  I wished I had been there to experience that, since it was the first time we’d celebrated evening prayer there in decades.  But alas, I was busy.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one of the abbey church, followed by a photo of the abbot’s throne, above which is a painting on canvass that used to hang above the altar in the old abbey church during the Christmas season.  We’d not used it in nearly sixty years, and it fit beautifully in the spot where it was hung.  Brother Clement painted it on canvass in the 1930s.  Next is a photo of a decorated tree in the baptistry, and then follows the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  Last is a photo of the abbey church, facing the great window.

 

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