Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Abbey’

29EE41F2-66B6-492D-BE39-3D1B966C1F20

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.

D89BF060-B5CF-46C1-B2D6-0528C2A70BE6NOTES

+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.

5139F05A-DB52-4731-B74C-AF9E568229EE

Read Full Post »

EEA3324A-BEE8-47D2-A24E-BB76E4EB4AB9

Are We Citizens of Nazareth?
On Sunday morning Abbot John performed a ritual that’s been repeated for 160 years at Saint John’s Abbey.  At morning prayer he clothed our friend Jeremy as a novice, and so that day Brother Jeremy began his quest to see whether life in our monastic community is the vocation to which God calls him.

Having been a monk for more than a few years now, I can say for myself that it’s been a fulfilling experience.  But I also have to say that I’m not the same person I was when I first came to this place, and I’m glad about that.  I hope that along with age I’ve also grown in wisdom.  Some of my talents I’ve developed, and some are still dormant, unused and perhaps unneeded.  But along the way I’ve come to realize that my fellow monks have respected my individuality even as they’ve nudged me to grow.

061A77FE-B389-4A87-8E3C-7E0ABB700CA5If there’s one thing I now realize about monastic formation, it’s this.  We as a community are not interested in creating clones of some idealized monk.  And so eventually Brother Jeremy will have to come to terms with a community of wildly contrasting individuals.  In our community we subscribe to the advice that Oscar Wilde offered, and it’s the advice I would give to Brother Jeremy.  “Be yourself.  Everybody else is taken”

I bring all this up in the shadow of today’s gospel passage about the return visit of Jesus to Nazareth, the place where he had grown up.  In brief, the people of Nazareth didn’t like what they saw, and they rejected Jesus.  I can only speculate about what it was that irritated them, but it’s clear that Jesus had grown up into someone they no longer recognized.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to concede that as a youngster Jesus was not hell on wheels, or they would have been happy to see some maturity in him — at last.  At the other extreme, I can imagine the possibility that they recalled the young Jesus as a good boy, perhaps a bit shy, obedient and respectful to a fault.  Perhaps the young Jesus had given the impression that he would grow up into someone who would not rock the boat — someone who would blend quietly into the small-town society of Nazareth.  He would become a clone of everyone else, and no one need worry about him.

636C5C33-69D3-4488-9198-0244451E7434Well, it didn’t turn out that way.  Jesus left home and he had changed;  and for many in Nazareth the change was just too much.  Whatever Jesus had become when he returned to Nazareth, he wasn’t what many had expected.  And some were downright upset by what they saw.

It’s also possible to assume that Jesus had grown up and changed, and the best term to describe what had happened to him was that he had blossomed.  He had grown in age and wisdom, as the gospels say, and the seeds of his vocation had taken root and sprouted.  He now knew that he had come to do the will of his Father, and not the will of the people of Nazareth.

That scenario, of course, leaves us with a rather unflattering portrait of the people of Nazareth.  They had created a stifling social environment that left little room for the kind of maturity that they now saw in Jesus.  Whether Jesus had come to do the will of his Father or not, there was no longer room for him in Nazareth.

If all of this matters in the life of Jesus, then it also matters in our lives as well.  In the monastery, to take the example with which I started, we test a novice to see if his calling is from God.  But the clothing of a novice is also a test of the community.  Are we senior monks still prepared to grow?  Are we willing to stretch ourselves just as much as we are asking a novice to stretch?  How we respond to these questions determines whether we flourish as a community, or whether we stagnate or become a clone of the town of Nazareth.

C0CE6599-42C2-43F5-8578-A39DC1F41670But just because you may not be a monk doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.  Until your last day the Lord continues to introduce people into your life.  Be that new person a friend, a spouse, a child, or merely a stranger on the street, all come as gifts from God.  Some will be brand new to you, and some will be people who’ve grown up and changed before your very eyes.  If, like the people of Nazareth, you choose to reject such gifts from God, then you may be choosing an early death — metaphorically at least.

So what’s the take-away from today’s gospel story?  For my part I think it boils down to the issue of hospitality.  Can we be hospitable to all sorts of people and welcome them into our lives?  Or do we slam the door on them because they threaten our routine or our settled ways?  Can we accept others as gifts from God who can add something to our lives?  How we respond to such gifts spells the difference between life in the Spirit or life as a curmudgeon.

One of the first things we learn in the monastery is Saint Benedict’s advice that we are privileged to see the face of Christ in others.  But we have to be alert, and we have to look.  Sometimes Christ comes disguised as one of our sick or elderly monks.  Sometimes he’s disguised as a guest or as the abbot or even as a novice.  But Christ’s ingenuity doesn’t stop there.  He’s equally visible as a husband or wife, or as a child or a co-worker or a stranger.  But however Christ chooses to be present to us, he’s there to call out the best from us.

Sadly, Jesus once came as the Christ to the people of Nazareth.  He came disguised as their brother and neighbor, but all they could see was a stranger that they did not like.  And so Jesus could do no great works there.  That’s sad to consider, but it’s a wake-up call to us.  Let’s make sure we don’t make the mistake of the people of Nazareth.  When Jesus comes calling, may he not find us to be clones of Nazareth.  Instead, may Christ find in us his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters.  Amen.

CB2C8CFB-A8A9-425C-80E7-B99897CC9044

NOTES

+Our July 4th celebration was rather different this year.  Normally we have a picnic outside, but the intermittent rains prevented that.  Even so, it was a pleasant day.

+On Saturday July 7th I witnessed the wedding vows of Paul Lundberg and Laura Posthumus, which took place in the abbey church.  Paul is an alumnus of Saint John’s, while Laura is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict.

+On Saturday July 7th our confrere Fr. Julian Schmeising passed away in his sleep.  Born in 1931, he grew up in the nearby town of Meier Grove, and he was 66 years a monk and 60 years a priest.  Good-natured in his best years and long-suffering in his decline, his only complaint was that other monks kept slipping into the line for heaven before he could go.

+On Sunday July 8th Abbot John clothed Jeremy Welters as a novice in our community.  Brother Jeremy grew up in nearby Long Prairie, MN, and he is a graduate of Saint John’s University.  He then did a year as a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, before returning to work last year in our prep school.  He is a runner and has run several marathons.  The other day he passed me as I was walking — definitely at non-marathon pace.  I later asked how far he had run.  “Only twelve miles today.”

+Also on Sunday the 8th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+These days there are splotches of color wherever you look on campus, and in today’s post I’ve provided a sampling.  At top is Stella Maris Chapel, on the shore opposite the monastery on Lake Sagatagan.

8E9CFE90-374D-46B1-A1FF-C6AB2991D1C6

Read Full Post »

15842E06-D02D-4270-89C2-97743552D340

Taking Our Ideals Out of Storage

Please imagine this scene from II Kings, chapters 22 and 23.  Propped before Hilkiah, the high priest, was a scroll that no one had opened in a very long time.  Curious about his discovery, he unrolled it and began to read.  And he was stunned to discover that what he had in front of him was the Book of the Law, which had been lost for as long as anyone could remember.

Alarmed by its contents, he passed it on to the king, who immediately appreciated the gravity of the situation.  Sworn to follow the terms of the covenant, the Israelites had in fact ignored them for at least a generation.  And so, in a dramatic assembly, king and people recommitted themselves to the law from which they had strayed.

E486BFCF-AFC4-4A3A-B7FD-66B58BD1230EI preached on this passage to my fellow monks last week, and I confess to some initial amusement as I considered what to say about it.  First of all, why was Hilkiah surprised to find the Book of the Law in the temple?  Where in the world did he expect to find it?  Second, how long had the temple staff been looking for it?  Had they been looking for it?  We’ll never know;  but one thing we do know.  For the longest time its absence didn’t seem to bother anybody all that much.

In fact, the passage leaves us to infer that the discovery was entirely serendipitous.  Sadly, whatever its absence may imply about the quality of housekeeping in the temple, it does leave us to conclude that no one seemed to miss the Book of the Law.  No one had been looking for it; and laws that people didn’t know about were laws that people could safely ignore.  Quite likely — and not for the last time — the Israelites had gone through the motions of worship in the temple, but nothing about those visits had impacted their hearts when they left its precincts.

Though Jesus never alluded to this story, he must have known about it from his reading of the scriptures.  Furthermore, it meshed neatly with a theme that was a constant in his preaching.  Here was the story of a dramatic conversion of king and people who outwardly had done all the right things.  They had offfered bullocks and goats within the temple, but there was no connection with the lives they lived outside of the temple.

6FBEFA71-D08E-40AC-B644-B130983B5F38Beyond the bare facts of the story, there’s material enough for a terrific parable here.  It’s a parable about our ability to divorce what we do in God’s holy place from from what we do in the marketplace.  In sum, it’s all too easy for us to make sure that one does not impinge upon the other.  So we pay lip service to high ideals when we’re in the sanctuary, and then we securely lock them up in a metaphorical safety deposit box when we leave.  We periodically return to check that they’re all still there, but we leave once again, unencumbered.

That sort of hypocrisy never sat well with Jesus, and it was something he denounced on a regular basis.  Time and again he urged his listeners — and by extension us — to rediscover and dust off our commitment to love God and love our neighbor.  Today he still invites us to take those ideals out for a test-run around the block after we leave the sanctuary.  He reminds us over and over that those two commandments are paramount — they are greater even than the blood of bulls or goats sprinkled on the altar.

This is a rather sober reminder of what it means to be Christian.  In fact the demands are great, because God asks of us an integrity that is sometimes a bit of a challenge.  God asks that we be true to what we say we are, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  And so, if in the sanctuary we cry “Lord, Lord!”, then we should actively search for the Lord in our neighbor in the street.  Taking our ideals out of storage and into the streets can be tough, but it’s also a joyful way of life.  That explains why Jesus would say that his yoke is easy and his burden light.  It’s really true.

5EBE8829-E4C6-46A6-B783-5DD6C8876504

NOTES

+On June 27 my friend Marianne and members of her family visited at Saint John’s, and I gave them a tour of The Saint John’s Bible Gallery.  Marianne is a fellow member of the Order of Malta and now lives in New Zealand.  Having grown up in San Francisco, she thought she would leave the earthquakes behind for good, only to have them show up in spades in Christchurch, where she lives.

+On June 27 I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of that homily, based on II Kings 22-23.

+After last weeks’s post about John the Baptist and the photo of the fire in our neighbor’s storage building, I got several interesting responses.  First, my confrere Fr. Nickolas informed me that in parts of Europe there is a tradition of building bonfires on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  My office colleague Raj then forwarded a photo of just such a bonfire in a village in Spain.  I assured both of them that our neighbor was not trying to burn down his shed in celebration of the feast.

Next I heard from my friend Amy, who lives in Oklahoma City.  Amy’s husband Pat, an alumnus of Saint John’s, is preparing for the diaconate, and last week he and his colleagues in the program delivered practice homilies on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  In the course of two days Amy sat through 25 homilies on Saint John the Baptist.  Hopefully there was no repetition.

+In honor of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which we celebrated on June 29, I have included photos from the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls in Rome.  The first basilica dates to the 4th century, and after a major fire in the 19th century it was rebuilt to copy the original, and it includes many of the mosaics that had survived the fire.  Today it remains a Benedictine abbey, and a stroll through the expansive interior is breathtaking.  Nearly all tourists in Rome visit Saint Peter’s, but far fewer visit Saint Paul’s, which is a shame.

1CEB0170-3268-4988-A4F3-C8C43E75B376

Read Full Post »

4DE065F3-5FA4-431C-872F-839781853A0D

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.

1B1E3FC3-4C5E-4EE1-9F91-35D420FD8C47

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.

8D19B620-267F-4942-AB9B-D366507B02ED

Read Full Post »

62977638-03C7-46FA-9CD2-3720B3D7D7D0

Think Small.  Achieve Big.

I recently ran across an article that encouraged people to “think small.”  By no means did the author urge people to slack off at work or scale back on their ambitions.  Rather, his recipe for success was simple and counterintuitive.  If people want to accomplish great things, then they should begin with the little things that over time will lead to bigger things, and more.

Common lore suggests that impressive results require grand masterstrokes.  However, in all too many cases those masterstrokes end up gathering dust on the shelf.  Who hasn’t been dazzled by brilliantly articulated but largely ignored mission statements?  Who hasn’t wondered why an organizational chart meant to turbocharge a company fell far short of goal?  The author argues that grand plans often leave people scratching their heads, wondering where to start.  By contrast, people can make a contribution through concrete steps that appear at first blush to be inconsequential.  However, done over time, with discipline and attention to detail, those modest steps have the potential to transform an organization.

A84FE2EA-D1E7-4327-827B-3AD15C9791C2If that’s true for organizations, it’s particularly true for individuals.  All of us have made grand resolutions that we’ve failed to accomplish, while we’ve also made simple resolves that we’ve been able to put into action.  There’s a world of difference between a new year’s resolution to “achieve good health in the new year” and one that prescribes “exercise for thirty minutes, three times a week.”  The latter may sound a bit modest, but it has a better chance of getting done.  Furthermore, done with discipline and dedication, it might even result in the better health that was the higher aspiration.

There’s little doubt that Jesus asks idealistic things of us, but all the same we’re lucky that he tended to emphasize the measurable, if not always the achievable.  For that reason he stressed the importance of little things, as he suggests in the parable of the mustard seed.  That seed may be tiny to start with, but it contains within it the germ of something really significant.  When tended and watered and nourished, the seed grows into something all out of proportion to its original size.  So it can be with us.

I find the parable of the mustard seed useful in a couple of ways.  First, that seed is symbolic of each bit of potential still latent within us.  All of us have a variety of talents, and some we have developed and some not.  Yet all of them have the potential to accomplish something of value, and we should never forget the undeveloped potential within us.  There’s still lots for us to do in life.

27F20C59-69FE-424F-B098-EE93287FE826Second, you and I are the mustard seed that Jesus speaks about.  Now and again we’re all tempted to discount our worth as persons and our ability to make much of a difference in life.  But God doesn’t see us that way, and Jesus came to remind us of the possibilities within each of us.  We are created in the image of God;  we matter;  and God invites each of us to live to the full the life we’ve been given.

There can be moments when the two great commandments can seem much like the mission statements that are far beyond our reach.  Who of us can possibly love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves?  I suspect that Jesus appreciated the challenge of such pie in the sky expectations, and so he encourages us to think about the small things that can turn us ever so slightly in the direction of the bigger aspirations.  And so, if we can’t quite seem to love our neighbors as ourselves, then treating them as if they were Christ for thirty minutes, three times a week, is a good start. It’s measurable;  it’s achievable;  and it might even lead to bigger things.

CD0B4BE9-2496-4181-B330-D2277201FD2A

NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet for me, and I spent the entire week without leaving Saint John’s.  However, on June 14th I did host two people for a tour of the Bible Gallery and a luncheon.  The day came courtesy of a bid the two had made at a silent auction at the annual gala for Vocal Essence, the choral group led by Dr. Philip Brunelle.  Philip had asked me to make this offer, which I gladly did.  It was a delightful experience, though I didn’t have the nerve to ask what they had paid for the winning bid.

+This was a blessed week for two alumni of Saint John’s University.  Fr. Bill Lies, CSC, was elected the provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and as such oversees the 500 members, whose work includes the sponsorship of the University of Notre Dame.  Fr. Bill is an ‘84 graduate of Saint John’s, and he majored in English with minors in French and philosophy.  He later received his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  For the last several years he has been on the faculty of Notre Dame.

EAF9573D-C50A-43B6-8D83-0EE3DBB5AA2FFr. Gregory Mohrman, OSB, is an ‘86 alumnus of our School of Theology and Seminary, and he has been elected to serve as abbot of Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, MO.  At Saint John’s Abbot Gregory lived with us in the monastery for four years, and during that time he became a beloved and respected colleague before returning to his community.

+There are quiet moments in the summer at Saint John’s, but this was not the week for them.  Through most of the week we hosted nearly 500 high school students who attended the annual American Legion Boys State.  They were great guests, and they used virtually every class and seminar room on campus.  At the end of the week the annual camp for the National Catholic Youth Choir began, and on Sunday the choir sang at the Abbey Mass.

+Until recently the plantings on campus had not yet reached the point when they seemed ready for photography.  But in today’s post I present the first of many summertime photos from the Abbey gardens.  Of particular note are the ladyslippers, which are the state flower of Minnesota and rather uncommon.

+The article to which I make reference in today’s post was a short online essay by Bob Cohen, principal at the wealth management firm of Tamar Fink in Minneapolis.

86CCE6E9-B107-4E8F-85C3-D876CC2A0082

Read Full Post »

BF727F36-B8E7-4D5D-B05F-F25DB6E20504

Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

0B940A52-A951-4703-98B0-C668166F4C9ENOTES

+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

8105371E-6C9D-45C2-A4B7-3BE0D4E00529

Read Full Post »

0BFA5477-17EA-4BCB-8355-7301EF5E54B4

Our Own Personal Annunciation

Last week we celebrated the feast of the Visitation, and a friend of mine used the occasion to hark back to the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate normally on March 25th.  That’s a feast that has earned the fascination of Christian artists through the centuries, and as a result we have a ton of renditions of that biblical story.

Much of that art reflects the rather sweet character of the gospel story.  Oftentimes it presumes that Mary was in the middle of her prayers, though the gospels don’t explicitly say she was doing that at the time.  Anyway, an angel interrupts to confide that Mary has found favor with God, and God has invited her to be the mother of Jesus.  Mary’s positive response, recounted in the Magnificat, has for most of Christian history taken its place in the daily prayer of the Church.

432B0660-7CE4-4AA8-B531-4672CAA5A663Preachers have regularly commented on Mary’s ready response, but my friend wondered aloud whether Mary may have asked for time to think about it.  Why wouldn’t she ask for some time — time to talk with her parents or with at least one good friend?  No one could fault her for wanting to think things through — not even God.

That comment opened the floodgates of my own imagination.  If I had been Mary, my own assent would not have come so easily.  “You want me to do WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  What will people say?”  Then would have come a quick afterthought.  “At least give me some time to think about it.  What you’re asking is huge, you know.”

The gospel account contains no trace of any personal drama, but it does leave us wondering about what really may have just happened.  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the whole thing may have left Mary a little dazed.  After all, she pondered all this in her heart, and I’m guessing she did so every day for the rest of her life.

From one perspective this story is simple and straightforward.  Mary accepted God’s invitation;  she gave birth to a son;  and mother and son moved on with their lives.  But we also know that the story would have been entirely different had it been we.  Thank God we weren’t the ones at that kneeler that morning.  We wouldn’t have known what to say, but “okay, sure, make it so” would not have been the first thing out of our lips.

39D07D97-5DEA-4031-850C-0FFA4C8EF1ACAs true as all that may be, it doesn’t mean that our turn with God will never come.  God may have had a unique role for Mary, but God always keeps an eye out for other people too, including us.  Mary was neither the first nor was she the last person to whom God has pitched really crazy ideas, and sooner or later our day with God will come.

All of that serves as a good preamble to thoughts about what God has in mind for us.  Not surprisingly we find God’s invitations to us to be really difficult things.  Whether it’s a vocation or a personal crisis or a challenge that seems way beyond our skill set, the invitations from God come anyway.  And often they come at the most inconvenient of times.  Actually, they tend to come when we’re busy — when we have other plans.

”Why me, oh Lord?”  “This is way too much to ask of me.”  “I don’t have the strength to do it.”  “Ask somebody better-suited to take this on.”  “At least give me time to think about it.”  This is how we usually bargain with God for time and understanding.  This, coincidentally, is what we call prayer.

The fact of the matter is, sooner or later each of us will have our own annunciation.  For better or worse God asks something of each of us; and being a sly negotiator, God gives us all the time in the world to come up with a really good reply.  The good news is that God is patient with us.  The less good news is that God never gives up on us, so we can never beg off from God’s invitations.

45CB9377-93DB-4D74-9A08-77789FB40EC5God asks what sometimes may seem to be the impossible;  but it’s equally true that God never asks for more than we are able to do.  So it is that at the end of it all our story will be much like Mary’s.  As unlikely as it may seem to us, we too will join with a personal chorus of the Magnificat.  “Behold, the Lord has done great things for me;  holy is his name.”  Who would have thought!  I know I certainly never saw it coming.

NOTES

+Today we monks of Saint John’s Abbey begin our annual five-day retreat.  This year Abbot Gregory Polan will lead us in the retreat.  Abbot Gregory is a monk of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and he lived in our community for four years while he did seminary studies with us.  More recently he was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and he now lives at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome.

+The photos in today’s post were ones I took at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Annunciation, by Giovanni de Paolo (Sienna, ca. 1435).  Below that is a work by Masolino da Panicale (Florence, ca. 1423), followed by a work by Fra Carnevale (Florence, ca. 1445).  Next is a favorite of mine, The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio (Venice, ca. 1505); and at the bottom is The Holy Kinship, of south German provenance, ca. 1480.

01FA4D5A-E8C3-4D35-BEDB-4F0C20505522

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »