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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Eustace in Paris’

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Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”

IMG_0025_2Notes

+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.

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imageThe Chance to Serve: Incentive Enough?

It’s not often that I draw inspiration from the world of professional sports, but now and again there’s a story that touches the heart of even a jaded monk like me.  Here was a respected coach, at the top of his game, and no doubt he pulled down giant bucks for his efforts.  But now he was ready to chuck all the glamour and prestige.  And for what?  For the chance to coach football at his college alma mater.  And he was going to do it for something in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, “plus incentives.”  It was that phrase, “plus incentives,” that caught my eye.

When I entered the monastery ages ago I vaguely recall that $5 million per year seemed like quite a tidy sum.  But then again I remember when I thought that a quarter-million lire in pre-Euro Italy seemed like a lot for dinner for four.  But times change, even in America; and while I wasn’t looking the inflation rate must have done something to salaries.  Anyway, in my innocence I was surprised to learn that these days $5 million is scarcely enough reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Now employers have to offfer some really big carrots if they expect you to come strolling into the office any time before noon.

imageI know these kinds of numbers give heart-burn to some, but they give heart to me.  For one thing, the wording of the contract suggests that at least this one coach isn’t in it for the money.  As the announcement implied, he seemed totally detached from the salary.  It was the “incentives” that had reeled him in and would continue to motivate him.

So I’m left to assume that he has walked away from the world of professional sports for the chance to influence young people at a key moment in their lives.  He also now has the chance to instill the importance of good sportsmanship and to shape a cooperative team spirit.  And at the end of the day he hopes for a pat on the back for a job well done, provided that indeed it has been done well.  Were those the unspecified “incentives” in the contract?

imageBefore I plunge totally into the depths of utter cynicism, let me for a moment say that such aspirations do motivate people, including the vast majority of coaches.  Most people do want to make a difference in the lives of others.  Most people do wish the best for their students and their colleagues and those they mentor.  Most people genuinely care about the fate of their neighbor.  Never for even a minute should we think that we are among the few on this planet who harbor such aspirations for others.

But putting a price tag on others — in this case a coach worth $5 million, plus incentives — is to transform them into commodities.  There’s no arguing that this guy will make a ton of money, and he’s fortunate to have found a profession that pays reasonably well.  But the truth is that he’s worth far more than any numbers that are assigned to him.  He’s somebody’s beloved son or spouse or father.  He’s another person’s dear friend.  And he’s yet another person’s teacher and coach.  And above all else, he’s someone created in God’s image, and he’s blessed with many but not all of the talents in the world.  Still, he’s not the only person in the world so blessed, and from such people we should ask and even expect an awful lot.

imageFor good reason recent popes have preached long and hard against the reduction of  human beings into economic units.  Still earlier, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict cautioned monks that their intrinsic value to the community did not reside in their economic utility.  By that he did not mean to suggest that some monks need not work, just to prove the point.  Rather, they are truly monks when they live by the labor of their own hands.  What he meant to say was that talents are not bestowed to inflate a monk’s ego.  Talents are given, instead, to allow a monk the chance to live in service to others.

That, it seems to me, is an attitude that we should hope to find in ourselves as well as in our neighbors.  Whether we are well or poorly compensated, we nevertheless should expect one important thing from one another.  Work done for the sake of others has a sacred character; while work meant only to benefit oneself has a ring of self-indulgence about it.

To whom much is given, much is expected.  And from all those to whom God has assigned talents, large and small, we should expect an awful lot.  That chance to serve is one of the great blessings that God gives.  Perhaps that is the greatest incentive that any coach, or anybody else for that matter, will ever need.

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+On January 5th through the 7th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey met for our annual three-day workshop.  This gathering is not to be confused with our annual retreat that takes place in June.  By contrast, the January meeting features presentations on various topics, some of which can be as prosaic as energy conservation in the monastery.  This year’s primary theme dealt with vocations and how we might create a “vocation culture.”  In a future post I hope to take up this theme.

+I don’t normally use this forum as a chance to ask for prayers for some person or purpose.  But today I make an exception.  Yesterday my mom took an unexpected trip to the hospital, with what looked like a stroke or a heart attack.  Fortunately, it was neither.  Still, an irregular heartbeat and a few other things are symptoms of something.  She’s not out of the woods as yet, but this is a little scary, since my mom has always been the picture of health.

+Given the tragic events in Paris in the last few days, I thought it would be good to feature photos from Saint Eustace, one of my favorite churches in that city.  A late-gothic structure, Saint Eustace sits adjacent to Les Halles, the food market that served Paris for centuries. Inside Saint Eustace is a wonderful sculpture grouping of the workers in the market.

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