Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Abbey’


The Church:  A Bit Chaotic at Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church.  On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir.  But children?  Not so many.

But on a Sunday do we get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known.  Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles.  Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics.  Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke.  Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting.  But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.

IMG_7013On Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him.  Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child.  After all,  Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.

But Anthony pointed out a variant of this.  Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy.  His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached.  However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon.  We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.

Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious.  “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby.  But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.”  With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter.  And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.

IMG_7008Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach.  How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside?  The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away.  But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door.  Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind.  They have needs that make us uncomfortable.  Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me.  After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.

Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill.  They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy.  Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people.  He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing.  That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space.  It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.

IMG_6990It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children.  Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help.  Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.

Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes.  But not so for Jesus.  Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion.  “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”  As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.


IMG_7038+On August 13th I and many others lost a dear friend, Nicky Carpenter.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years — dating to the time when we sat together on a committee that nominated a new president for Saint John’s University.  She was a fixture on the civic scene in the Twin Cities, serving with special distinction on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.  As did her mother before her, she sat on the Board of Regents of Saint John’s University, and she later sat on the Board of Overseers of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library while I was director — a service which she continued to render through her last year.  She was an ardent supporter of The Saint John’s Bible, and I was delighted to have introduced her to the Order of Malta.  I was acting as her spiritual guide when she began preparation to take the Promise of Obedience, but sadly her health declined before she could get very far into the process.  She slipped away quietly, and we will all miss her.  She will be laid to rest in the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On 18 August I attended the annual summer picnic of the Trustees of Saint John’s University, held in Wayzata, MN.

+This month I begin the seventh year of publishing this blog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing the posts, and that exercise is a highlight of my week.  I hope I’ve not been overly repetitious, but by now readers must have picked up on some recurring themes.  Mainly I’m grateful to the 3,709 people who have subscribed to it, and I thank those who regularly forward posts to their friends.

+Today’s photos show the interior of the Abbey church.  Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment.  At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.


Read Full Post »


Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.


+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.


Read Full Post »


Conversation:  The Experience of Transformation

Last week I had the opportunity to preach once again on the Book of Exodus.  In the liturgy we’ve been marching through that text for several days;  but despite seeing The Ten Commandments as a kid and reading from Exodus more times than I can remember, this time I picked up on some things I’d not noticed before.

For one thing, I now realize that Moses spent a lot more time on Mount Sinai than I had once assumed.  I’ve always presumed that he had hiked up Mount Sinai for a brief chat and afternoon tea with God.  At the end of it he climbed back down — carefully — with two souvenir stone tablets.  Not so.

More likely, their exchange was not nearly so brief and dramatic.  For one thing, Moses was up there for a lot longer, and his chat with God was pretty wide-ranging.  It’s too bad we don’t have a complete transcript of their conversation, but it wasn’t all pyrotechnics, despite what the movie suggested.  That’s reinforced by the behavior of the Israelites, who were camped at the foot of the mountain.  There they waited for Moses, and while they waited and waited they got bored and got on with the business of making a golden calf and getting on with their lives.

IMG_6720Had Moses been gone for only an hour or two, the story would have ended differently.  For one thing, though I’ve never made a golden calf before, I’m guessing that even the most efficient goldsmith needs more than three or four hours to make one.  On top of that, preliminary design issues and discussion with the client would have chewed up all kinds of time.  Finally, there’s the business of finance.  Who’s ever run a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to make a thing like that?  Where in the desert would you find the campaign consultants?  And whoever heard of a capital campaign that would take only gold? — and no pledges please!

The New American Bible translation of Exodus describes the exchange between God and Moses as a “conversation,” which suggests this was a fairly benign encounter.  Still, there had to have been a few moments of high drama as Moses and God hammered out the details of the Ten Commandments.  In the process they created the template for all future negotiations in the Middle East.  But in between they did what all diplomats and politicians worth their salt do.  Who knows what was on God’s mind, but I’m certain that Moses digressed to the the weather, to the food and to a growing list of complaints.  To my mind at least, “conversation” sums up their encounter rather nicely.

IMG_6743Meanwhile, Moses had no inkling of what was happening to him, but the people waiting for him noticed the change in his face right away.  Moses hadn’t looked in a mirror, and so he had no idea that his face had become radiant.  Conversation with God had transformed him, but Moses had scarcely noticed the impact on him.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that there’s no fireworks when I pray to God.  I learned long ago not to expect it, mainly because God generally doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also come to realize that prayer doesn’t upend our lives in an instant, because that’s not how prayer and conversation work.  Prayer changes us over time, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to make a difference and a lifetime to notice the difference.

For all the times when we expect prayer to yield immediate and dramatic results then, it’s good to remember Moses.  He scarcely realized what had happened to him, even if the Israelites could see the transfomation more readily than he.  Therein I find a bit of personal consolation.

I’ve been going to prayer in the monastery for most of my life now.  With gratitude I can assert that never once have I levitated or slipped into some sort of ecstatic reverie.  However, I’ve also come to appreciate the way ordinary conversation with God has impacted my life.  I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty or thirty, and to that my brothers in the monastery would utter a hearty “Amen.  Thanks be to God!”  Happily, I can say the very same for them as well.


+On August 2nd I presided at the Abbey Mass and preached on the Book of Exodus.

+On August 4th I hosted two dear friends for lunch and a tour of Saint John’s.  This just happened to be the day when, ten years earlier, I had visited them at their home in New Brighton, MN.  Because of the stop at their home I ended up driving over the I-35 bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  I seldom take that route, but that day, exactly one hour after I crossed, the bridge fell into the river.  I’m glad to be alive today.

Our tour of Saint John’s was a bit surreal, and not just because it was a perfect day weatherwise.  As we walked around campus the music of the Eden Prairie High School marching band serenaded our every step.  The band was here for several days for its annual camp, and their music was terrific.  We ended the tour with something from the other end of the spectrum when we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  There we stood outside two seminar rooms — one hosting a language program in Syriac and the other in Armenian.  That’s quite a contrast from the music of a marching band, but it makes for a very interesting summer day.

+On August 5th my mother and sister and brother arrived at Saint John’s for a four-day visit.  They’ve not been here for several years, and it has been wonderful to host them.

+The photos in today’s post show some of the flowers in the cloister gardens on either side of the Abbey church.  All are visible from the pews in the nave as well as from the choir stalls, and during the summer any flowers we might place inside the church are entirely superfluous.


Read Full Post »


Gardening as a Vocation

It dawned on me the other day how barren the gospels are when it comes to wintertime imagery.  As near as I can recall, Jesus never told a single parable about shoveling snow or about the Samaritan whose cart slid off the icy road and into the ditch.  Did Jesus not care about believers who would one day live in Minnesota or Switzerland?  Or did winter leave Jesus cold, and he preferred not to deal with it?  We’ll likely never know until we meet him in the kingdom of heaven, where wintry landscapes await those who love to ski and skate.

Summer is Jesus’ strong suit, however, and it explains why we have a lot of readings in the liturgy about farmers and gardeners at this time of year.  Just recently, in fact, we’ve heard about the seed that has fallen on good soil, on rock-strewn soil, or on the beaten path.  We’ve also conjured up the image of the field in which weeds threaten to choke out the stalks of grain.  All of it raises the question of what a farmer should do when faced with such labor-intensive challenges.

IMG_1922Some gardeners today instinctively reach for the herbicides, firm in the conviction that chemistry can solve most any problem.  Of course there can be a price to pay for this, but a clean and bounteous garden seems to justify it.

That may be well and good in the modern garden, but it can cause us to miss some of the nuance in the parables.  The fact is, many of us live in a binary world of our own making.  It’s a world in which divisions into good and evil, black and white, and flowers and weeds make it so much easier to explain away our own reality.  So it is that  the field with neat rows of grain with nary a weed in sight is not only the ideal, but it should be within the easy reach of anyone.  This kind of perfection is achievable and in fact expected of all.  But as an experienced farmer or gardener can testify, real life isn’t like that at all.

There are practical consequences that follow from this binary world-view, and my own myopia is a prime example.  I  can readily appreciate the image of a garden with flowers and weeds, and in that garden I’m always one of the prized plants.  Furthermore, I’m more than willing to point out the weeds around me who need to be pulled and tossed on the compost heap.

IMG_2042The same holds true for the seed that falls to the ground.  In my own mind there’s not a shred of doubt that I’m the fertile soil.  In fact, I give thanks regularly that I’m not like those stony-hearted people in whom the word of God takes no root.  If only they would respond as I have responded, then they and the world would be much better.

My exercise in self-delusion sails right by an obvious point contained in these parables.  These parables aren’t about other people, because they’re really about us.  In fact, on any given day I’m the entire garden — weeds and flowers and all.  There are in me blossoms to be cultivated, weeds to be pulled, and soil to be fertilized and watered.  Still other plants in me need pruning but not uprooting.  Like any garden, then, I am a work in progress, and I need cultivating on a daily basis if there is to be a good harvest.

IMG_2040That’s also the case when it comes to my receptivity to the seed that falls on my soil.  There are moments when I eagerly accept the word of God, but there are situations when I’m as resistent as granite pavement.  But I only fool myself when I presume that I’m always good soil — a flawless and fertile seed bed for all that the Lord showers upon me.

As any gardener can tell us, running a garden is no easy business.  There are flowers to nurture and weeds to pull, and it all requires vigilance and hard work.  That’s the point of these parables, and that’s the challenge of the monastic vocation and of the Christian vocation.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t con us with glossy images of the lush garden that requires little or no work.  Rather, Jesus reminds us of the care and watering and pruning and weeding that every successful garden requires.  That, by the way, is not meant as a recipe for discouragement.  Rather, as any gardener can testify, that’s the plan for creating a work of art.


+I’m not in the least hesitant to admit that this post grew out of a conversation that I had with Fr. Lew after he preached on this topic two Sundays ago.  Any good gardener borrows seeds and cuttings and rootstock from other gardens, so I’m grateful for the ideas I’ve borrowed from him.

+I am no stranger to gardening, but it has been many years since I hung up my pruning sheers.  Years ago I built three expansive flower beds in the back of Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s.  The maintenance person regularly had mowed the lawn almost to the ground in hopes that the summer sun would scald it and reduce the work.  Its restoration and the flower beds that I put in were a work of sheer joy that I enjoyed for several years, until my time became too limited.  Today the beds are grassed in, but many of the trees that I planted have matured into fine specimens.  In future posts I hope to share photos of those trees.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  The Cloisters Museum houses the medieval art collections of the Metropolitan Museum, and they are encased in architectural elements that were purchased in Europe and carted off to New York ages ago.  It’s an island of tranquility overlooking the Hudson River, and I first visited The Cloisters when I was in college.  The gardens there recreate medieval counterparts, where weeding for the monks must have been a real chore — and a delight.


Read Full Post »


Preaching Through Deeds

Even monks have limits when it comes to sermons and hours spent in church.  Not surprisingly the onset of the dog days of August tends to trigger that sentiment, likely because the abbey church can really warm up uncomfortably by then.  So I was not surprised that one of my confreres whispered a word of advice as I stood ready to enter the church last week to preside.  “Word has it that there’s a plenary indulgence for short homilies these days.”

I knew that he didn’t mean it as a threat.  Rather, it was an expression of wishful thinking, by someone who would have been even happier had I dispensed with the sermon altogether.  But coincidentally I shared his sentiment, even though I knew that the business about a plenary indulgence was a big fat lie.  However, in anticipation of a cranky audience, I had prepared a shorter-than-average homily, in full awareness that I had to deliver at least something.  And these were the words I offered about Moses that afternoon.

IMG_6670“I’m not sure I’d care to be in Moses’ sandals as he stood before the people of Israel.  Time and again he had to preface his remarks with this simple statement:  ‘God spoke to me the other day, and he wants you to do the following.’  No doubt many eyes in the crowd rolled, and still later many of the prophets paid with their lives for speaking such words.

“Thankfully, God hasn’t been so direct with me, and I assume that’s been true for you as well.  However, grateful though we may be that we don’t have to speak formally on God’s behalf, we may actually be stuck with a much tougher assignment.  It’s true that God has spared us from the task of passing on divine messages that have been dictated to us, but as Christians we actually face a greater challenge.   If we’re exempt from speaking on God’s behalf in words, it’s actually worse than we have imagined.  I fear that God expects us to speak to our neighbor in deeds.”

That was it.  Did my words do any good for my confreres?  Who knows.  But my short homily was at least a nice gesture.  I just hope that someone in that hot church appreciated my kind deed.


+On July 20th I presided at the Abbey Mass, in the overheated Abbey church.

+On July 22th I presided at the wedding of Ben and Sara Ivory, alumni who now live in Chicago.  The wedding took place in the overheated and by then humid Abbey church.  All the same, it went well and it was something of a destination wedding.  Participants flew in from Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Spain, as well as from New Ulm, MN.  In fact, I think I was the only local resident to attend the ceremony.

+This last week we hosted five Augustinian novices for a week-long retreat.  This too had the character of a destination event, since they came from Sri Lanka, Mexico, Canada and the United States.  They stayed in the guesthouse and joined us for prayer, and on their last evening they joined us for dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the lush garden that is in the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Right now the hydrangeas are simply extraordinary.



Read Full Post »


There’s a Choir Stall for You!

This past week guests swelled the ranks in our choir stalls.  In fact, on several occasions the guests outnumbered the monks, and it’s not because our community is small.  It’s not.  Rather, there were just so many of them.  One evening 350 Lutheran church musicians joined us at Evening Prayer.  Then, for two days, 85 oblates of the abbey prayed Morning and Evening Prayer with us during their annual retreat.  It’s great to have any and all of them with us, but it can seem overwhelming at times.  And that’s okay.

Saint Benedict envisioned the presence of guests, and lots of them; but he scarcely imagined that they would join us for prayer.  In his day most guests visited and prayed in the church, and perhaps a few lingered to listen as the monks chanted the psalms.  But that was it.  The Latin and the musical notation put participation beyond the reach of guests.  That’s not so today.

IMG_6695Nothing better illustrates the change than one activity in the orientation of freshmen at Saint John’s University.  Last August 463 freshmen filed into our church to join us for Evening Prayer.  The abbot welcomed them and spoke for a few moments about the monastic community.  Later, after prayer, small groups of students met to visit with individual monks.  But the main business at hand was the recitation of Evening Prayer.  Doutless for many of the students it was a new and strange ritual.  But it was also their chance to take part in something beyond the reach of guests in Saint Benedict’s day.

English became the language of the liturgy at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and after that visitors began to join us for prayer in greater numbers.  Still later they began to sit in the section of the choir stalls adjacent to the stalls used by the monks.  There a monk is ready to guide them through the choir books.  Most guests fall easily into the rhythm of the psalms and hymns; but if on occasion there is a discordant note from the visitors’ section, adjustment to the pace of recitation comes quickly.

IMG_6688I can only imagine that in those first years the presence of guests was distracting for a few confreres, but the dynamic is rather different today.  Guests now are an important part of our daily prayer.  The presence of faculty, staff, students and other visitors bolsters our spirits, and we feel their absence keenly during the holidays.

Last August the abbot invited the freshmen to join us for prayer in the course of their four years at Saint John’s.  Are we disappointed that all 463 have not joined us regularly since then?  Not at all.  But on those rare occasions when guests truly are absent, our prayer seems strangely incomplete.

Next month the abbot will once again issue the invitation to the freshmen who have gathered with us for Evening Prayer.  Some will take him up on his invitation in the course of four years.  Some won’t.  But as is the case with all guests to the monastery today, there is a stall waiting for them to join us!


+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict with a Mass in the morning followed by lunch with several hundred guests who were here as six monks renewed their vows on the anniversary of their profession.

+On July 12th we hosted 350 members of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, who joined us for Evening Prayer.

+On July 14-15 we hosted 85 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who were here for their annual retreat.  Fr. Bob Koopmann gave the retreat conferences.

+On July 16th we hosted 50 Abbey volunteers who joined us for Mass and lunch.  They are friends of the Abbey who help us out with all sorts of day-to-day activities.

+The photos in today’s post show the Abbot’s Courtyard, leading to the entrance to the monastery.  The gate, wall and gardens were put in place in 1988.


Read Full Post »


What’s In a Name?

On Saturday at morning prayer Abbot John invested Jordan as a novice.  To no one’s particular surprise Jordan chose to take a monastic name — Brother Jacob.  Coincidentally, three hours later the first reading at Mass told the unflattering story of how Jacob had connived to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, leaving his older twin Esau holding the bag.  Was this some sort of omen?

For centuries monks and nuns have taken religious names to mark these moments of transition, and we’re not the only ones to do this.  Popes are the most obvious examples, and on occasion monarchs do so as well.  In a twist on this, many adopt the surname of a spouse in a wedding ceremony.  All have their individual reasons for doing so, but common to most is the desire to note the passage into a new chapter of life.

IMG_0126_2Until the 1960s monks at Saint John’s Abbey, like most other monks and nuns in the Catholic tradition, were expected to take a new name that was unique in the community.  In smaller communities this posed no problem, but in larger communities this sometimes triggered the law of unintended consequences.  This was particularly acute at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, our sister-community down the road.  With over a thousand sisters requiring unique identification, latecomers could get stuck with some truly gawd-awful names.  I will forever recall the morning when we noted the passing of Sisters Domatilla Volkerstorffer and Theofrida Berling.  It must have come as quite a shock when the prioress bestowed those names on the two unsuspecting young women.  It had to be particularly tough on Miss Volkerstorffer, who had to be hoping for something simple like Linda or Joyce.  What a moniker to have to carry around for the next seventy years!

Needless to say, the stones in the convent cemetery carry a nearly complete inventory of seldom-used Saxon and other Teutonic names.  Small wonder that when given the chance to return to baptismal names, many did so with undisguised relief.

IMG_0056Today monks at Saint John’s can choose to change or not to change their names.  When I arrived there were eight monks named Michael, and I decided not to be the ninth of anything.  So I took Eric, and not because of any particular devotion to Saint Eric.  In fact, I had to look him up to see if there was such a person.  I adopted it for the simple reason that it wasn’t bizarre;  and just as importantly, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone.  That plan worked well until a second Eric arrived many years later;  but we’ve managed well enough with a Brother Eric and a Father Eric.

I have to confess that I secretly hoped Jordon would have kept his name.  The last monk with that name — Father Jordan — passed away several years ago.  So the name was available and it was unique.  But my reasons for this arose primarily from my arcane sense of humor.  I’ve long been fond of that Advent hymn that begins “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry…”. That Jordan’s bank is only a short mental leap to those venerable English institutions by the name of Barclay’s Bank and Lloyd’s Bank.  I always wanted to meet Barclay or Lloyd, just to ask them about their banks.  And I would have even settled for a chat with Bob of the fictional Bob’s Bank in Lake Wobegon.  But I know that will never be.  However, I could know Jordan of Jordan’s Bank.

IMG_0045Just to be clear about this, I’m not the only one to indulge in such thoughts.  To cite but one other example, it’s helpful to know that we have a number of monks with hyphenated names, á la Pope John-Paul.  One confrere voiced the hope that the new novice might consider the name Brother Michael-Jordan.  That apparently didn’t make it past the first round of cuts.

Brother Jacob hasn’t tipped his hand as to why he took that name, but I suspect he was nonplussed to hear that reading on Jacob on the day of his clothing in the habit.  So what does that story portend about Brother Jacob?  Will he pattern his life on that of his namesake, who connived to get his brother’s birthright and tricked his father out of a blessing that should have gone to his brother?  Or does this suggest that Brother Jacob has come to the monastery to seek God and will strive for that vision, no matter the personal cost?  Who knows.  But if he’s come with high hopes and a dollop of the flaws that all of us have, then he’s come to the right place.  We’re just the sort of people to welcome him on our flawed and meandering pilgrimage to the Lord.


+On the 4th of July the monks celebrated Independence Day with a cookout in the garden of the monastery.  I also chose that day for a hike of 10.7 miles.  To my recollection it’s the longest I’ve ever walked, and coming on the heels of my back injury this winter it was a major triumph.  Needless to say, I was tired at the end of it, though not sore.  Some soreness did pop up for the next two days, but overall this was a great personal accomplishment on the road to my own recovery.  The doctor had advised me that walking would be good. and he’s given his blessing to an abbreviated walk of the Camino to Santiago Compostela in the fall of 2018.  So I may as well get used to such walks now if I am going to have any chance to do it next year.

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed Brother Jacob as a novice at morning prayer.

+On July 11th we will celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and for that reason I have resorted to photos from the Abbey of Subiaco outside of Rome for today’s post.  Saint Benedict began his monastic life there; and while the frescos are a bit faded, they are authentic and illustrate the life of Benedict.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »