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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Abbey’

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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The Saint John’s Bible:  Home at Last

Last Thursday was a very special day at Saint John’s, because on that day we dedicated the gallery that now houses The Saint John’s Bible.  The day was singular for many reasons, and not least because it fulfilled calligrapher Donald Jackson’s promise to “give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.”  He delivered on both counts, though some of the deliverables were not entirely what we had expected.  For one thing, we didn’t have a clue how complicated this project would become.  It was also a good thing that we didn’t know how much it would end up costing.  And last but not least, it took a lot longer than the seven years we had all anticipated.  But the good news is that — twenty-one years and eleven months after Donald Jackson and I first discussed this — the Bible that he promised now sits securely in its own gallery at Saint John’s University.

IMG_7285Over the course of twenty years I’ve given a lot of talks on The Saint John’s Bible.  No two presentations have been exactly alike, and on many an occasion I’ve even gleaned bits of wisdom from my audiences.  The first instance that opened my mind to this possibility happened at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I gave several gallery talks.  I had just concluded my observations on Thomas Ingmire’s illumination of The Ten Commandments, when a young woman raised her hand.  “Father, I can see in the illumination what you’re saying, but here’s what I see.”  She then gave her own interpretation, and I have to say that I found her words very persuasive.  That prompted my response:  “Well, to be honest, what you have to say sounds better than what I had to say.”  I’ve since quoted her many times, with attribution.

This produced one of my first lessons from The Saint John’s Bible.  Never insist on having the last word when it comes to art.  That actually confirmed an experience I’d had some years earlier at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where I’d had the temerity to offer my own thoughts on a painting in the course of a docent-led tour.  The chewing out that came my way branded me an art heretic, and I resolved never to do that again, even if I knew I was right.  Life is too short for getting into fusses with imperious docents.

IMG_7287An equally valuable corollary came from that experience in the de Young.  That day I realized that if the docent was wrong, I could be too.  I had to admit to myself the mathematical possibility that I too could be wide of the mark, on rare occasions, someday.  Ever since then I’ve steeled myself for just such an occasion by pulling out of mothballs one aphorism from high-school Latin — De gustibus non est desputandum.  Simply put, when it comes to matters of taste, it’s generally counterproductive to argue.  And given the times, who knows what might result from a minor spat.

My experience with The Saint John’s Bible has also confirmed the sage advice that patience is indeed a virtue.  When we announced the project, our press release quoted Donald Jackson to the effect that he intended to create something that people would come a thousand miles to see.  The day after the announcement, a lady in Bismarck, ND, called to say that she was on the way to see it.  I gently told her that this was going to take more than two or three days to finish, and that I’d get back to her when it was done.

That was twenty years ago.  Sadly, I’ve lost the scrap of paper with her name and number; but she knows who she is, and I hope she’s reading this.  If not, I hope one of her friends will tell her that we’re ready for her, finally.

So at long last The Saint John’s Bible is finished and at home in its gallery.   Will people come a thousand miles to see it?  Given that one visitor at the opening had flown in from Serbia, I can safely go out on a limb and offer a very decisive “probably.”  Will viewers have ideas about this Bible that differ from mine?  I hope so.  Otherwise, I’m in for a lot of really dull tours.

IMG_7345Notes

+This was a very full week for me.  On October 4th I took part in the dedication of the Genesis Gallery in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  The feature of this space is an 18th-century de-commissioned Torah scroll from Syria.  The space serves as the entry into the Bible Gallery.

+On 5-6 October I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees at Saint John’s University.

+On 5 October we celebrated the opening and dedication of the Saint John’s Bible Gallery, and that evening I was part of a panel of three speakers that addressed the topic of the day.

+On 6 October I took part in the dedication of the Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, a grand addition to Alcuin Library.  This completed the rebuilding of the entire library complex, and the numbers so far are quite telling.  In the four weeks of September 2015 — before the project — 12,000 people entered the Library.  In the comparable four weeks of 2017 over 32,000 entered the library.  Apparently the old saw still holds true:  build it and they will come.

+On October 7 I participated in homecoming festivities at Saint John’s University and attended the football game which hosted Augsburg College.  Saint John’s won that one 48-3.  That evening I went to bed at 8 pm, simply because I had not one ounce of energy left.

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Memories:  the Measure of a Life

[Today’s post is a sermon on Matthew 21: 28-32, which I delivered at Saint John’s Abbey on 1 October, 2017.]

I seldom think of The New Yorker Magazine as the go-to place for theological reflection.  Better-known for its subtle cartoons, its thoughtful essays, and the ads for luxury items I couldn’t possibly afford, I just don’t think of it as a purveyor of religious insight.

But of course I’m wrong to assume that, as one of my favorite cartoons recently reminded me.  It’s a cartoon that definitely relies on some exposure to Catholic liturgy, and it shows two guys chatting away in the middle of the torments of hell.  Each laments his own fate, and each makes the case that his own suffering is worse than the other’s. It’s a contest in self-pity, but ultimately one guy wins with this bit of undeniable logic.  Looking his companion squarely in the eye, he reminds him that “at least you have memories.  All my sins were sins of omission.”

IMG_4531Those familiar with one form of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass can appreciate the pickle in which these two guys found themselves.  In that opening rite of the liturgy we confess what we have done and what we have failed to do — the sins of commission and the sins of omission.  And if such distinctions seem nit-picky to some people, consider this.  They do in fact get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s an admission, first of all, that we do sin.  We do wrong to one another; and sometimes it’s a matter of holding back when we should have acted.

Who’s to say which is worse — doing the evil we do, or failing to do the good we are capable of doing.  But both sins have something in common.  Both testify that we are not people of integrity.  Both say we are people who do not translate our fundamental belief into lived reality.  From that perspective it doesn’t really matter whether we commit sins of omission or commission; because in both cases we are not who we say we are.  In both cases we are destined to join that conversation in hell with the two convicted sinners.

That bit of background may help in our appreciation of the parable that we’ve just heard from the gospel of St. Matthew.  The story of the two sons is one of those classic conundrums that Jesus delighted in putting to people, and it’s a conundrum because each son exhibits some less than admirable as well as some noble qualities.

The first son, when asked by the father to go and work in the vineyard, basically told his father to take a hike.  He was not going to go.  But he gave it some thought, and he went.  So the son is guilty of disrespect and I suppose is also guilty of lying.  He said he wouldn’t work and then he worked.  But it was his considered response and action that ultimately win our sympathy.  He’s a good guy after all.

IMG_4546The second son, on the other hand, said all the right things.  He respected his father and showed to all and sundry that he was obedient.  But then his actions in fact told his father to take a hike.  He had no intention of going to the vineyard.

So just like his first audience, Jesus asks this of us.  Which son is worthy and which one is not?  And more precisely, in whose sandals do we find ourselves standing when push comes to shove?

It’s not wrong to reduce this parable to a matter of obedience or disobedience, but there’s something deeper here.  That becomes evident when Jesus launches into a comparison between the tax-collectors and prostitutes on the one hand, and the scribes and scholars of the law on the other.  On a scale of uprightness, the religious experts win hands down.  But this is not a matter of obedience or disobedience.  This is all about hypocrisy.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes are far worse when it comes to the gravity of their sins, while the upright people are guilty of little more than peccadillos.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes make no bones about their sinful ways;  but their repentance is authentic.  They are sinners and they freely admit it.  They are who they say they are.  But they also know who they want to become.

By contrast, the religious leaders need no such radical conversion.  They’ve committed no grave sins; they’ve lived upright lives; they’ve done nothing blameworthy.  Even so, they may have been obedient and upright, but to put a positive spin on it, Jesus hints that they have done little or nothing of value at all.  They have nothing to show for their lives.  They are not who they say they are, and for Jesus hypocrisy is the gravest sin of all.

IMG_4568Jesus offers this parable for us to chew on for our own reflection.  He’s not interested in beating us up or making us feel guilty about what we’ve done and what we continue to do.  Nor does he delight in wringing out of us a confession of the good we failed to do when the chips were down.  All that is secondary to the real issue he wants us to think about.  Are we really who we say we are?  Can people count on us to translate our beliefs into action?  Or are we all talk and no action?  Or as some like to say in Texas, are we all hat and no cattle?

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day I don’t want to be the guy in hell who has nothing of value to recall from a life lived on the sidelines.  Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and commit a bunch of sins so that we’ll have lots of good memories in hell.  Rather, Jesus asks something far simpler than that.  He asks that we strive to be who we say we are.  He asks that we love God and love our neighbor and figure out how that translates into a life well-lived.  And he reminds us that if we want memories of a life well-lived, the time to make those memories is today, not tomorrow.

Notes

+On 25 September I took part in the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Among those in attendance were Mr. Bob Shafer, retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations;  Fra Tom Mulligan of Chicago and Fra Nicola Tegoni of New York.  Mr. Joseph S. Micallef and Steven Kennedy, both members of the Order of Malta, rounded out the contingent of members of Malta in attendance.

+On 30 September I attended the football game with Bethel University, which Saint John’s hosted.  The good guys won, 21-13.

IMG_4569+On October 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.  I don’t know what a “typical Sunday” would be for me, but my day went something like this.  I got up at 4 am and finished my sermon for the Mass.  Then I attended morning prayer at 7 am.  Presided at Mass at 10:30 am.  Went to lunch with the community at noon.  At lunch I happened to sit with Brother Isidore, who among other things described his competition with the squirrels to gather black walnuts on the abbey grounds.  He shells and sells them in the abbey gift shop.  This fall he has collected 250 pounds so far.  The squirrels are not entirely happy, but there’s plenty for everyone.  In the afternoon I got some exercise and then watched as Fr. Lew loaded honeycombs into the honey-extracting machine.  I didn’t stay to watch, since it is pretty much like looking at the spin cycle on the washing machine.  Then I presided at Sunday vespers, and at the end of that I threw my alb in the washing machine.  The aroma of incense pervaded it, and I did not want that in my closet.  After dinner I finished my blog and then went to bed.  That’s one monk’s schedule on a Sunday.  Not terribly glamourous, but a great day nonetheless.

+Given the turmoil in Catalonia, I decided to adorn today’s post with photos I took of the medieval cathedral in Barcelona.  Barcelona was the port of entry on my very first visit to Spain, when I went to do dissertation research.  I’ve loved the place ever since and feel not a little distressed by the current situation there.

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What Else Have I Got to Learn?

I thought I had extracted every scrap of meaning from the parable of the sower, but the preparation of a homily on Saturday yielded one unexpected nugget.  Like most people, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the explanation of the parable that Jesus had to offer.  Seed fell on rocky soil, among thorns, on a busy path and on good soil.  The seed is the word of God, and people respond differently.  How they respond determines whether they yield any or a lot of fruit.

Not surprisingly, I have always considered myself to be good soil for the seed, and I suspect the majority of people think the same way about themselves.  However, there’s an inherent disconnect in my reasoning, because there are times when I fall into the temptation to think that most of these people have overrated themselves.  Certainly they are doing the best they can, but many are only fooling themselves when they rate themselves as prime seedbed.

IMG_4994There definitely is a problem when everybody thinks they deserve a pat on the back for being good soil.  After all, this is not children’s sports, where everyone is a winner and there is a trophy for each and every participant.  No, it can’t be that way.  If there are going to be good guys — and I am going to be one of them — then there has to be a surplus of bad guys.  Otherwise, how can we ever feel really good about ourselves?

Last Saturday I noticed something in the words of Jesus that I’d missed before.  Jesus speaks about those who are receptive to the seed, but the distractions of life eventually choke out any fruitful response.  That’s when it dawned on me.  This portion of the parable is not about a select category of poeple — the bad guys.  It’s about everybody.  The riches and pleasures of life distract everyone — even me.

The fact is, in the course of a day we can find ourselves to be any one of the four types of seedbed that Jesus describes.  In my own case it’s not at all difficult to point to the good-soil/bad-soil moments as the day unfolds.  For example, I am a very early-morning person.  I flourish between 4 am and 7 am, and I will complete with enthusiasm anything at the top of my to-do list.  By mid-morning I’m still receptive to opportunities, but they have to jockey for priority among the realities of a busy life.  By late afternoon I usually have become stony ground.  By then I may accept a challenge, but in the next breath I will forget entirely what I had just agreed to do.

IMG_4996I now realize that the trend line of my receptivity to Christ runs counter to the scheduled appearances of Christ in my life.  As a monk and a Christian I believe that I see Jesus in the faces of my neighbors.  However, I’ve also begun to notice that none of my neighbors ever come knocking at my door at 4 am.  Absolutely zero; which is too bad, because I’m all enthusiasm at that hour.  Ironically, however, at 4 pm, when I am at my stoniest, that’s when Jesus comes knocking more frequently, and more forcefully.

The harsh reality is this.  I move through all four of the categories of soil that Jesus mentions, and it’s made me aware that I have a lot more soil preparation to do.  As much as I would prefer to see Christ when I’m full of energy and in the best of moods, then, it doesn’t always work that way.  As often as not Christ prefers to come calling at inconvenient times and in the worst of situations.  He comes when I’m really busy or just after my energy has drained away.  But he comes less frequently when I’m waiting for him impatiently, fully rested.

That brings up an important take-away.  Before Saturday I thought I knew all there was to know about this parable.  Not so, it turns out.  And now I have to wonder what else I have to learn.  What more does Jesus want me to know?  That’s a good question, and I’m willing to give it full consideration — especially if I can tend to it early in the morning.  It also means that, once again, Jesus is not entirely done with me.

IMG_4998Notes

+On 21 September I and several of my colleagues visited the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s alumnus Jeb Myers, president of the school, toured us around; and it was inspiring to see the extraordinary work they are doing there.

+On the evening of the 21st Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida spoke at Saint John’s University, as part of the program of the McCarthy Center.

+On 23 September I gave a day of reflection to the area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had scheduled this for last February, but my back injury last winter forced the rescheduling to this fall.

+On Saturday September 23rd Saint John’s played St. Thomas in football at Target Field in Minneapolis.  I did not attend, and so I missed being part of the gathering of 37,000 people.  It was a record crowd for a Division III sporting event.  It beat the old record by 20,000, and unfortunately the good guys lost by three points.

+The photos in today’s post show a retable of Mary the Mother of God, by Jaume Serra.  He created this ca. 1370, and today it resides in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.

 

“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”

 

IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.

 

How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.

IMG_0005_2Notes

+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.

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Jesus:  Nazareth’s Favorite Son?

[On September 4th I preached the following homily at the Abbey Mass.  The text happened to be Luke 4: 16-30, which details the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.]

I find it hard to nail down the real issue in today’s gospel.  One minute the synagogue members in Nazareth seem proud of Jesus, and at the next turn they’re ready to kill him. On a dime they turn on him, and it’s fair to ask “why?”

IMG_7103One possibility strikes me.  Jesus was a home-grown prodigy, and he had all the trappings of a budding success story.  In Capernaum and elsewhere he had already  distinguished himself, and perhaps the people of Nazareth sought to benefit from his growing celebrity and harness him for their own prestige.  Perhaps they sought to domesticate Jesus and turn him to their own advantage.

This may explain the reaction of Jesus, who sensed what they were trying to do to him.   Like others who would later try to make him king, he resisted any effort to transform him into something other than what he was.  He had come to do the will of his Father.  He had come to serve — not to be served.  He had come to the poor and the suffering.  He had not come to be the darling or pet of the leading citizens of Nazareth — nor of anyone else, for that matter.  This may explain their disappointment and anger.

Herein we have a lesson for ourselves.  You and I aren’t Jesus, obviously, but we have talents and God-given energy.  Like Jesus we have a choice to make.  We can subvert our talents and put them in the service of power and wealth and influence.  Or we can turn our lives to anyone and everyone who desperately needs a little bit of what we have to offer.  Symbolically Jesus had to choose between being the favorite son of Nazareth and the son of God.  I think he suggests that we take the second option.

IMG_7099Notes

+On September 6th I hosted two friends who have joined to start a program that makes possible the college education of students from Immokalee, FL, attending Saint John’s.  This was their third year to visit with the students, and this fall there are six of them at Saint John’s.  At bottom is a photo of John and Jack, flanking five of the six students.  (The sixth, Jaime, was away at his student job in the library).  Needless to say, their smiles did not betray the anxiety that they must have felt as Hurricane Irma headed straight for the west coast of Florida, potentially passing through their hometown of Immokalee, inland from Naples.  Happily, their families came through the storms unscathed.

+On September 7th I preached the homily at the funeral of my good friend, Nicky Carpenter, DM.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years, and in addition to a long association with Saint John’s as well as with the Minnesota Orchestra, she was a member of the Order of Malta.  The funeral took place at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wayzata, MN, and later that afternoon I presided at the interment at the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

The trip between church and cemetery was harrowing, because a terrible bus-truck accident meant that I-94 was closed in one stretch.  The highway department dutifully shunted us off onto a country road and left us pretty much to our own devices.  It took over an hour to go five miles through the countryside.  And so, while I left one hour before the bus with the family had departed from the church, I arrived just as the bus was unloading at the Abbey cemetery.  I knew that the bus had taken a different highway, and en route I sweat bullets, hoping that I would make it in time.

+On 9 September the oil portrait of our confrere, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, was unveiled in the learning commons which now bears his name.  The Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, attached to Alcuin Library, was recently completed and opened this fall semester.  In addition to some wonderful interior spaces, it has an outdoor patio as well as great vistas of the neighboring science buildings at Saint John’s.  The other photos in today’s post give a sense of that new building.

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

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+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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