Posts Tagged ‘Saint John Lateran Rome’

imageMartin of Tours: Ripe for Recycling?

Is Saint Martin of Tours one of those saints whose time came and went and now is ripe for recycling?  At first blush, he seems to be a most unlikely candidate for imitation today, at least to me.  But then again, there might just be another round for him, and it’s worth taking a look at this question on his feast day, November 11th.

Born to pagan parents in Hungary in 316, he followed his father into a career in the Roman army.  As a youth he thought about Christianity; but only later, as a soldier, did he come forward for baptism.  He is famously depicted in art as the guy who cut his coat in half to share with a beggar.  Later still he resigned his commission in the army, became a monk in Gaul, and very soon was dragged from his monastery to become a bishop.  In the course of his ministry he worked many miracles, did lots of pastoral work, and converted whole villages of barbarians.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  But is that much of a role model for Christians in the 21st century?  The truth is, it really doesn’t  give us much to work with.

imageOur earliest source of information about Martin comes from his disciple, Sulpitius Severus, who wrote a short biography soon after the saint’s passing.  I’ve read that text many times, but I hadn’t looked at it since I left the classroom several years ago.  So as his feast approached, I thought it might not hurt to give it another shot.  Was it still the historical novelty I recalled?  Or was it something more?  What I discovered is that much of the story remains typical of saints’ lives of the era.  What I also found were themes that glow a little more brightly in the era of Pope Francis.

What strikes any reader are the many miracles that Sulpitius attributes to Martin.  Whether you believe that he did them all or not, however, is in some measure irrelevant.  Sulpitius Severus had a larger editorial purpose behind his selection of material.  First of all, his miracle narratives use language that deliberately evokes the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels.  Second, he interprets Martin’s life through a clear and  unmistakable  tone:  Martin cared about the poor and the suffering.  This is best seen in the sharing of his cloak with the suffering man on the side of the road.  Later, in a dream, Martin realized that the beggar was Christ.  That vision drove all of Martin’s work ever after.  For that reason the Church has revered him as a patron for those who serve the sick and the needy.

imageThere is another strand to Martin’s life that I used to dismiss rather patronizingly. For a long time I ascribed Martin’s ambivalence about becoming a bishop to false humility.  I saw a parallel to the ritual three-fold “I am not worthy” that medieval popes pronounced on their election to the throne of Saint Peter.  I’m still convinced that their lips may have said “Lord, I am not worthy,” but their eyes were searching the room for the chair.  “Get me to that chair before anyone asks for a recount.”  But now I realize that Martin’s hesitation was likely authentic, and I believe it was so for several reasons.

One legend has it that Martin was so adamant about remaining a monk that he hid in a pen of geese to avoid a mob of townspeople that was looking for him.  Unfortunately, the honking of the geese gave him away, and the mob dragged him off for consecration.  For that reason a goose often shows up in many depictions of Martin, who by then is wearing a mitre.

imageOf course one could still say that this was merely pro forma humility, since hiding with geese is the worst place you could choose to hide.  It was akin to advertising “I don’t want this job, but here I am if you’re looking.”  But it was Martin’s post-consecration behavior that convinces me that he didn’t want the job.  Once installed as bishop, he returned to his monastery for a life of prayer and pastoral wanderings.  In Sulpitius Severus’ biography, Martin never once appears at the cathedral to say Mass.  He never shows up even once at the chancery office to sign dispensations or make parish assignments or do long-range diocesan planning.  Instead, he went out to meet and to nourish his flock, and to add to their number.

This behavior did not go unnoticed by his fellow bishops.  By then the office of bishop in Gaul had begun to morph into a powerful job.  By the 4th century bishops managed significant wealth and wielded growing responsibility.  And a few were already successful at installing their sons and grandsons on the episcopal throne.  To them Martin was neither doing his job nor setting a good example.   What was worse, aristocratic sons were joining Martin’s monastery.  All this threatened the status quo, and the neighboring bishops gave Martin lots of grief.  They resented his simple way of life as well as his disinterest in the trappings of episcopal power.  In short, Martin threatened to undo everything they had worked so hard to put in place.  Martin threatened the aristocratic episcopacy and all their apple carts.

imageYou can certainly fault Martin for not putting in an occasional stint at his cathedral or at the chancery office.  But on the other hand, I have to believe that he fulfilled the hope of Pope Francis that a bishop “should smell like his sheep.”  Given Martin’s lifestyle, I suspect he smelled like his sheep, both allegorically and literally.  But whatever his faults, he never wanted the job, and he never asked for the job.  He genuinely cared about his sheep, and he drove himself on the idea that in each of them he would see the face of Christ.

Saint Martin went on to earn wide popularity across Europe.  And he earned it among the Benedictines as well.  Saint Benedict, for example, built an altar at Monte Cassino in honor of Saint Martin.  Not surprisingly, threads of Martin’s life weave through Benedict’s biography by Saint Gregory the Great.  Gregory was careful to point out that, like Martin, Benedict preached to the neighbors and went out to meet the barbarians — all the while living in a monastery.  No wonder monks drew their authorization for pastoral work from Saint Martin.

imageAcross Europe you still find pockets of devotion to Saint Martin.  But despite the decline in his popularity, I would argue that his usefulness for the Church is not over.  His day in the sun may yet return.  For one, his hesitation about honors in ministry is an example we might want to encourage in the Church today.  For another, his vision of Christ in the poor and the suffering is still the best reason for ministry that I can think of.  And thirdly, while we should be glad that our bishops show up at the cathedral a little more often than did Martin, it would also be nice to see them out in the field a little more.  Martin’s wanderings for the sake of Christ’s little ones is  something we may want to insert into pastoral  job descriptions.  It might not do any harm, and it might even do some good.


+On November 4th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA.

+On November 7-8th I participated in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 10th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and my sermon, I Believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, may be found in Presentations.

+On November 4th we received the sad news that Father Peter Kawamura, aged 64, died from a heart attack at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.

image+On November 9th, the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Abbot John instituted Brothers Lew and Nick into the office of Acolyte, and Brothers Isaiah and Clement into the office of Reader, as part of their preparation for priesthood.  Brother Clement is a member of Saint Leo’s Abbey in Florida.

+The uppermost picture in today’s post illustrates Saint Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar.  It is at the cathedral in Utrecht, The Netherlands.  The statue of Saint Martin, with the goose at his feet, is from the Church of Saint Martin in Tannheim, Germany.  It was once a Benedictine abbey.  The remaining photos come from The Lateran Basilica in Rome.  They are appropriate not only for the recent feast day, but the year of consecration was 324, making the earliest parts of the church contemporary with Saint Martin.

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imageTalking with Strangers

You never know whom you’re going to be sitting next to on a plane these days.  That’s why I usually make a bee-line for my seat, mutter a pleasant “Hello,” and bury my face in the paper.

It’s not that I’m hostile or predisposed to dislike my new neighbors.  For all I know they could be the nicest people in the world.  But I never can know that for sure.  And what if they’re not?  Who wants to strike up a conversation, only to discover that you’re stuck next to a crackpot and have to endure a diatribe that lasts the entire flight?  Who hasn’t exchanged business cards with the pleasant person next to you, only to learn that he’s an ax-murderer on the way home from a job?  Actually the latter has never happened to me, and it’s because I never give out business cards on a plane.  No, a plane is no place to go looking for the friends you’ve always wanted.  A cautious reserve is always the best policy, even if you are lonely.

To be fair, this business is a two-way street.  Others are equally wary, even though in my case they have nothing to fear.  I know for a fact that I’m neither eccentric nor boring; but experience has taught me how pointless it is to spend half an hour trying to convince people otherwise.  Some people never listen, which I know to be a fact.  And the rest of them are close-minded.  So I’ve always figured that it’s their loss.

imageLast week I violated my rule against talking with strangers on the plane.  I hadn’t intended to do so, and clearly the woman next to me had every intention of maintaining silence as well.  But when the flight attendant spilled cold water on the both of us, the time to be stoic was over.  There’s nothing like a good spill to get a conversation going, and for a few minutes it was as if we’d known each other for years.

The chat didn’t go on forever, but there was time for her to relate one good story.   Two weeks earlier some guy had spilled a glass of red wine all over her beige outfit.  The flight attendant, who’d had nothing to do with it, looked on in horror and apologized profusely.  The people across the aisle were equally aghast.  I guess each could imagine showing up at a meeting reeking of alcohol and looking a mess.  In fact, everyone had something to say about it, except for the guy who had spilled it all over her.  He was conspicuous by his silence.  No apology; no word of regret; not even so much as a “Have a nice day!”

imageBut with the mess cleaned up, he must have thought he had permission to speak.  To her utter astonishment, he launched into a forty-five minute narrative about his wife.  She was leaving him.  In fact, she was divorcing him.  She had given no explanation, and he just couldn’t fathom why in the world she would do such a thing to him, of all people.

To cut to the chase, my new friend was just about to tell him why his wife was divorcing him, but they landed.  She’d scarcely been able to get a word in edgewise, and by the time they landed all she wanted was to be out of there.  So she ran down the jetway to put as much distance between herself and this clown as possible.  And I was the first person she’d talked to on a plane since then.  I felt honored.

imageIt’s quite a stretch to believe that anyone could be as self-unaware as this guy, but in fact there are quite a lot of such people running around airports these days.  And they also show up in companies and in families and even in monasteries.  In fact, there seems to be a general overabundance of cluelessness in our society, despite all the professionals and all the books that stand ready to help.

Her story caused me to reflect on how monks try to stay in touch with the reality around us, and I have to say it’s no less challenging for us than it is for others.  What makes it work for us, at least sometimes, are the opportunities for self-examination that we build into our day.  The daily reading of The Rule of Saint Benedict certainly puts right under our noses the expectations that we took upon ourselves when we first became monks.  The Rule can be hard-hitting at times, especially if you pay attention.  But of course you can also assume that when Saint Benedict writes about faults that he is describing the other monks.  However, on more than a few occasions I’ve watched as monks came late to table, just as we’re reading about monks who come late to table.  It’s a stretch to think that Benedict is writing about the other monks — the ones who are on time and already seated.  But the human mind is capable of great feats of self-delusion.

imageWe also read the Psalms, which can be a tremendous source for self-awareness.  The Psalms run the gamut of human emotions, and in the course of praying them one discovers an affinity with one or the other emotion.  That too can lead to greater self-awareness.

And then there are the penitential rite of the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.  Certainly it’s possible to go through such rites and assume they are meant mainly for the benefit of others.  But sooner or later something hits you, and the veil of self-delusion is pulled aside ever so slightly.

But I think Saint Benedict relies most heavily on human interaction to keep monks spiritually and psychologically honest.  Whether it’s the abbot encouraging or correcting the monk, or whether it’s one monk gently taking another to task, it’s that exchange that softens the rough edges.  Sooner or later we discover our weakness and faults, but we also learn that we share them with others.

I’m curious to know what will become of the wine-spiller.  Given the circumstances, he’s headed for a nasty divorce.  Given his social skills, I’ll bet he will never have the faintest idea why she’s leaving him.  And given his general cluelessness, he will never find a happy solution to this.  Too bad he hadn’t talked honestly with his wife, years earlier.  Had he done so, he might still be talking with her today, rather than looking for insight from a total stranger on a plane.


+On October 22nd I flew to San Francisco to be part of a five-day retreat for the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, CA, and about forty-five people attended.  In addition to the conferences that I delivered, I preached on October 23rd.  My sermon, To Whom Much is Given, can be found in the file Presentations.

It always pays to be well-behaved, even when you think no one is looking.  On the first day of our retreat, as I entered the dining room, there stood my confrere from Saint John’s, Fr. Cletus Connors, whose sabbatical group was also on retreat at San Damiano.  I was equally surprised to meet up with a monk-friend from another monastery, whom I’d not seen in years.  The final act was running into the pastor of the church in Oklahoma City which my sister attends.  It truly is a small world.

image+On October 27th we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey church at Saint John’s.  Recently my confrere, Br. David-Paul Lange, delivered a lengthy presentation entitled The Design of the Abbey Church.  Br. David-Paul spoke at a luncheon for staff members at Saint John’s University, and his presentation was part of a series sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at the University.  I encourage you to set aside some time to enjoy his talk.

+On my recent visit to Rome I had the chance to revisit one of my favorite places, the Church of Saint John Lateran.  This was the seat of the bishop of Rome, and remains so today — despite the popular notion that Saint Peter’s is the seat of the bishop of Rome.  In the Middle Ages a community of Benedictine monks lived there and ministered to the pilgrims.  The photos in today’s post all come from there.

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