Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Abbey’


Don’t Be the Fattened Calf

Picture for a moment someone who has spent a lifetime building a small fortune.  He’s labored day in and day out.  He’s been responsible with his property and considerate of the people who had worked for him.  He’s planned and built not only for his own future but also for that of his children and grandchildren.

Then one day, out of the blue,  his youngest son comes along and asks for his share of everything.  Why? is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps he’s bored.  Perhaps he’s restless.  Perhaps he’s tired of life in the shadow of his father.  Anyway, his request is brazen, to say the least, and something tells me that the son never for a minute thought his father would really give it to him.  But he did;  and that set in motion the story of the prodigal son.

I have to wonder if the father was just a little bit nuts.  Had he taken leave of his senses?  Who knows.  But whatever the case, the son knew that he had just hit the jackpot.  What he didn’t know, however, was this.  He was just about to glimpse the wisdom of the old saw that warns us to be careful what we wish for.  It’s nice to get what we want;  but every now and again it turns out to be a very mixed blessing.

69DBE606-1CC5-4E66-A609-34A50DB9F669This great story from Jesus goes on to detail the adventures of a son who was about to learn an awful lot.  He now had more money than God, or so he thought.  He must have thought it would last forever, so there was nothing to do but enjoy.  But little by little he frittered it all away.  Soon enough it had all slipped through his fingers, and then he came face to face with reality.  He had no money;  nothing to eat;  and no one who cared enough to stand by him in time of trial.  Worse still, he had none of the discipline that had driven his father to succeed.  His father had made everything look easy;  and for the first time in his life the son may have realized just how great a man his father really was.

As I reflected on this parable and tried to read between the lines, it finally hit me that the father was neither naive nor unwise.  In fact, he knew his son and likely had seen this day coming for a long time.  After all, someone who had been such a careful planner and disciplined worker could not be blind to the faults in his two sons.  He knew what made them tick. He knew most of their strengths and weaknesses.  And he knew that his younger son still had a lot of growing up to do.  But the father couldn’t make his son grow up.  The son needed a semester or two in the school of hard knocks to learn it for himself.

The key ingredient to the success of this story is love.  If the father had loved his money more than his son, he might have turned his son down flat. But he saw potential in his son, and letting his son grow up was worth more than a bank vault full of gold.  So he literally invested in his son and turned him loose.  Then he kept his distance and from the sidelines he let his son make his fill of mistakes.  And finally the day came when his son came to his senses and came home.  It was the moment for which the father had waited for months or years.  He had his son back — with value added.

ED32442B-975F-4DA3-8211-7364DB345517There’s a host of intriguing characters in the parable of the prodigal son.  There’s almost too much to digest when you add in the father, the prodigal son, the jealous older brother, stewards and workers, and the chorus line of men and women who graciously relieved the younger son of all his money.  Over the years I’ve preached on many of the themes that they have suggested, and so I asked my confrere Fr. Lew who I should concentrate on in this sermon.  Should it be the father?  Or one of the two sons, as I’ve done in the past?  His reply?  “The fatted calf.  Nobody ever preaches about the fatted calf.”

I mulled that over for about a minute, and I realized he might be on to something.  That fatted calf was the truly tragic figure in the parable.  Worse still, he never had the self-awareness to see it coming.  But I finally ditched that topic and I’ll save it for next year.

As for the main characters in the story, each has a lesson to impart.  The older brother, hard-working and obedient, was also jealous and insecure in his father’s love.  Life for the older brother was really all about himself, and that’s no way to live.

As for the prodigal son, he learned some of life’s lessons the hard way.  We have to hope that he realized the importance of love over money.  Love transcends and transforms all — even the life of someone who knows he’s hit rock bottom.

7DEE7C17-BE94-43C9-BE07-586F57C0A883The biggest take-away for me is the extraordinary character of the father.  For him money wasn’t an end in itself, and he used it well.  Some may think he was blind to the failings of his son.  Others may think that perhaps he hoped to buy his son’s love by giving him everything he wanted.  But the father was way too shrewd to be taken in by his son’s façade.  He knew his son well, and he knew he’d be back — a changed man.

Two things I leave you with today.  God is our loving and seemingly too generous father.  God gave us life, and God let’s us live our lives freely, sins and all.  But God always waits for the day when it’s time for us to come home.  And God’s there to welcome us as a loving father.

Sooner or later all of us will step into the shoes of each of these characters in this parable.  We will all be the older brother, and let us pray for the insight to see how envy and jealousy can corrode all the good that is in us.  At times we’ll all be the prodigal son, and let us pray for the wisdom to realize that forgiveness is always there for the asking.  It’s forgiveness from God and from the neighbor we’ve sinned against.  It’s there for the taking, but we have to ask.  And sooner or later we’ll be called to be the loving parent who has to take a chance on a friend or neighbor.  Sometimes taking a chance on another person is a big risk.  But if we risk nothing, we get nothing.

And lastly, there’s this business of the fatted calf.  Don’t be the fatted calf.  There’s no future in being someone else’s lunch.  Instead, be self-aware.  Look ahead to see what’s coming down the road for you.  And above all, like the father of the prodigal son, live your life to the fullest.



+I’m happy to report that I did not get into my car a single time this week.  All the same, it got off to a busy start on Monday September 9th.  That day was the annual retreat for my department at Saint John’s University — the Office of Institutional Advancement.  I was responsible for the first hour of the retreat, and I enjoyed my presentation.  That said, I cannot speak for my colleagues.

+On September 10th the monks gathered in the wing of the Quadrangle that now houses most of the public offices of the Abbey.  It is space reclaimed from the student health center, which moved last year to another building on campus.  For the first time it provides us some meeting space for guests, as well as a delightful set of conference spaces.

+On Saturday September 14th, the feast of the Holy Cross, we had our monthly day of reflection in the monastery.  Joining us for part of the day were nine students from Saint John’s University, who had scheduled a “work and prayer” day in the monastery.  For work they joined some of the monks in digging potatoes in the garden.

F01C6458-1DC8-40E2-8D1D-B20AAC9527CF+On Sunday the 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon that I delivered.  It is based on Luke 15.  Later that evening I joined the students from Immokalee, FL, who are studying at Saint John’s University.  This year we have five freshmen, bringing the total number of students from Immokalee to eleven.

+The photos in today’s post are a mixture that I took on Sunday evening as I wandered about campus.  I stumbled on one of the choirs lined up in preparation for taking a group photo, and they looked elegant as they stood around waiting.  The third photo shows two students who work with the emergency medical team of The Saint John’s Fire Department.  They were parked in front of the church following a call they had just made.  The door to the University dining hall is flanked by two beds of stones, and students have a tradition of piling them up artistically.  In their own way I find them quite artistic, as the two final shots suggest.  Above them is a photo of nine of the students from Immokalee, FL, with whom I had dinner.


Read Full Post »


Does Jesus Really Ask Us to Hate?

What kind of fanatic would demand that his followers hate father and mother, brother and sister?  What leader would command disciples to leave all and risk life and limb just to be in his service?  What sort of egomaniac would demand that he be the pivotal figure in the lives of everyone?  Jesus is that person.

Of course it was this same Jesus who submitted to the will of his parents in Nazareth.  It was he who stepped into the limelight at Cana when his mother pushed him into it.  And he’s also the guy who washed the feet of his disciples, as if he were some sort of common slave.

Jesus at times could be a real enigma, and my heart goes out to the disciples when they had to pull him aside to explain himself.  What did he really want out of them?  It was a fair question, because on more than one occasion the signals from Jesus were mixed.  It’s why we still ask those questions today.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s puzzled over what Jesus meant about hating parents and relatives.  Does he really demand all that?  If so, I stand convicted of egregious sin.  I do love my family.  I’m also fond of my confreres in the monastery and of my friends and colleagues outside of it.  As for strangers, however, I find them a lot tougher to love.

7E948BE1-70EE-45D6-B119-9E2C638D61DCContext for all this is to be found in the two great commandments, which Jesus affirmed publicly on more than one occasion.  All the same, his insistence did not make love of God and neighbor any easier then or now.  It was tough in the time of Jesus, and  still a big stretch today.  I’m not the first to point out that it’s far easier to love family or village or tribe.  But when it comes to the stranger and the orphan and the homeless, that’s a different story.  No wonder that Jesus has to shake us up with language that rattles our complacency.

The last verses in Luke 14 offer one further bit of insight into what Jesus expects.  There he cites a king who is about to go to war and a group intent on building a tower.  If they rush in headlong and unprepared they risk serious failure.  If other projects distract them along the way, success can slip through their fingers.  In both  cases the recipe for success includes self-awareness, concentration and a commitment to see things through to the end.  Anything short of that might lead to failure, if not ridicule.

The truth of the matter is that it’s natural to love father and mother, brother and sister.  Far more difficult is it to extend ourselves in love to the stranger, the orphan, the poor and the suffering.  And yet are they not also people created in the image of God?  Are they not worthy of love from somebody?  And on any given day could that somebody be me?  Jesus would argue “yes!”  That’s why we have to be deliberate about it, day in and day out.


+On September 2nd we monks celebrated Labor Day with a cookout in the back garden of the monastery.  Despite plenty of rain this summer, we had fairly good luck with cookouts.  Few got washed out, and I credit Prior Brad for his steely determination to go through with them despite the occasional threat of rain.  It paid off this year, and all were delightful occasions.

+The highlight of my week was a lunch in St. Paul that I had with one of my colleagues and Mr. Larry McGough.  The occasion was Larry’s 90th birthday, which he celebrated a few days earlier.  We at Saint John’s have had a long relationship with Larry and McGough Construction, since it was his family firm that built the abbey church.  At the time it was the firm’s first truly monumental project, and the success of that undertaking was a turning point in the development and growth of the company.  Larry estimates that he has now given well over 200 talks on the building of the abbey church, and audiences have included other architectural and construction firms as well as people simply fascinated by the abbey church.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Luke 14:  25-33.  It was the gospel for Sunday September 8th.

+For those who think that medieval art was exclusively about pious subjects, I include the four pieces of stained glass in today’s post.  All are from a 15th century church and are now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  Medieval illuminators, fresco painters and glass makers delighted in depicting the months, the seasons and the signs of the zodiac, and they appear in surprising numbers.  At top is July, followed by August, September, and October at bottom.


Read Full Post »


John the Baptist:  Eloquent to the Last Word

John the Baptist’s last hours are grist for one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible.  Here you have a man who once preached in a literal desert, but in his final days he sat in the middle of a moral desert.  From his prison cell he pondered what God might ask of him next.  Meanwhile revelers in a banquet hall treated John as some sort of a side-show, and his head on a platter became the ultimate in party favors.

There’s an irony that redeems this story, and it’s this.  John may have been absent from the banquet hall physically, but he was very much on the minds of many in that room.  And if they thought they were about to have the last word, they were mistaken.  They were powerful and ruthless people, but from the platter John preached to them — and to us — for one last time.

89F454E5-887E-46CA-81A3-2579ED274E1EDespite appearances John did not end up as some sort of hunting trophy.  His death in fact convicted everyone in that room, and in death John spoke even more eloquently than he had in life.

You and I — I hope — are certainly not the sort of people who would have somebody beheaded for our entertainment.  All the same, however, we do share temptations similar to what Herod and his guests experienced.  We do hold grudges, as did Herodias. We do care about saving face, as did Herod.  We do take lightly or even celebrate the misfortunes of others, as did Herod’s guests.

To Herod’s guests John appeared to be very dead and his life erased.  But all the same John’s last hours were not devoid of meaning or purpose.  In fact, on that evening he was the most eloquent person in the room.  Ironically, John had the last word, and he’s had it for twenty centuries and running.

Life has its tawdry moments, as Herod’s banquet hall suggests.  But in spite of it all our lives can have profoundly beautiful meaning, as did John’s.  So today we celebrate John’s passing in ways that are very different from those of the revelers in Herod’s palace.  Then in the spirit of John let us pray that his words will take root in our hearts.  May we prepare a way for the Lord, and like John may we too find welcome in the arms of the Lord.


+On 29 August I presided at the abbey Mass, which happened to be the feast of the Passing of Saint John the Baptist.  Today’s post, based on Mark 6:17-29, is the sermon that I delivered that day.

+From August 27 through 30 Saint John’s Abbey welcomed twenty-four pilgrims, most of whom were visiting Saint John’s for the first time.  On the evening of the 29th I and several of the monks hosted them for dinner in the Great Hall, at the end of which our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann played several selections on the piano.  Among the guests was a long-time friend of mine, Lin, who came from Ann Arbor, MI.  Fr. Geoffrey had planned this pilgrimage, the first of what we hope will be a series of such events.

+On August 30th one of my very first students at Saint John’s flew in from Luxembourg and stayed overnight with his family in the guesthouse.  John, his wife and two children live in Luxembourg, where their children have enjoyed a polyglot childhood that includes English, Mandarin, Luxembourgish, German and French.

+We were delighted to learn that Saint John’s University alumnus Fr. Anthony Yao was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Jining in Inner Mongolia last week.  Along with Bishop Martin Wu, Bishop Anthony is now the second alumnus of our School of Theology/Seminary who now serve as bishops in China.

+In the Middle Ages John the Baptist was popular as a subject of religious art, and the images in today’s post suggest the different approaches that artists took.  All are now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The topmost originally was the frontal of an altar in Gésara, and dates from the 13th century.  Second is the baptism of Jesus, by Jaume Serra, c. 1390.  The portrait of Herod’s banquet is by Pere Garcia de Benavarri, ca. 1470.  At bottom in a panel from a retable made in ca. 1385, with John the Baptist at the left.


Read Full Post »


Heaven:  Many Mansions or Open-Concept?

In the monastery we don’t spend a lot of time talking about heaven.  I’m not sure why we don’t, but perhaps it’s because we have more immediate things to worry about.  Besides, Saint Benedict wrote a Rule that deals mainly with the here and now.  His plan was to bring out the best in each of us, now.  As for the hereafter Benedict doesn’t devote a single chapter to speculation about how God is supposed to organize and run heaven.

Another item that’s missing from our monastic conversation is anxiety about salvation.  Through the centuries questions about how and how many would be saved have vexed an awful lot of people.  Ironically in the early Church this issue turned to the benefit of Christianity, precisely because it allayed those fears.  It was reassuring to have a relationship with a loving savior versus worries about performing animal sacrifices flawlessly.  Far preferable was a savior who asked for a clean heart versus a judge who wanted ritual perfection.

6E64EDBC-19A0-4B82-81C2-D0D821683BEFCenturies later the turn of the millennium stoked fierce anxiety as people anticipated the return of Jesus.  Compounding the anxiety was the popular notion that only 144,000 would be saved.  Those were not good odds considering the hundreds of millions who would vie for those coveted spots.

Still later the Reformation turned on the question of salvation.  That controversy generated boat loads of literature and made booksellers rich.  But the contention eventually cooled, and I for one am happy that most people no longer feel the need to kill one another over those issues.

That segues into what I perceive to be the strange lack of anxiety about salvation today.  Do people not care about it?  Do Christians not worry about it like they once did?  Some certainly do worry, and they do so intensely.  But for most those questions generate far less heat than they used to.

I can only speculate on what’s caused this, but I think a better appreciation of what Jesus asks of us has helped to sideline some of those fears.  Many today seem more keenly aware of what the Lord asks of them.  They realize that our relationship with Jesus ought to be a seamless experience.  It begins now and not just at the day of judgement.  It involves transformation that is ongoing, and in fact at our passing we will not be meeting some total stranger for the very first time.  We will meet the Jesus whom we’ve already gotten to know.  At that point Jesus will sweep us up into a life of which we’ve already begun to taste.

Jesus asserts that he is the way, the truth and the life.  It’s a life which Jesus invites us to embrace here and now, and why would anyone want to put that off until some future date?  Why would anyone not want a life that is filled with meaning and purpose and direction?

E6F3C65C-BF43-42E7-AD91-2812B662E711Of course that still leaves unanswered the questions about what heaven might be like. For the most part I’m willing to be surprised, but one issue nags at me.  What exactly will the living arrangements be like?  Jesus has suggested that in his father’s house there are many mansions, which sounds very attractive to me.  The truth is, I still harbor a latent introversion, and I need some privacy every day.  So a heaven in which there are mansions with private rooms sounds just about right.  As for the option that seems increasingly popular today, open-concept living sounds a bit like hell to me.

So there we have it.  I’m not entirely sure what heaven will be like, save that it’s likely to be more than I ever imagined.  In the meantime, I’m thoroughly convinced that the best preparation for the future is to make the most of the present.  By wonderful coincidence that happens to be the recipe that Saint Benedict recommends for his monks.


+On August 20th I concelebrated at a funeral Mass at Saint Joseph’s Church, in Saint Joseph, MN. The monks of Saint John’s have served at that parish since the 1850s, and we’ve never had to go far because it is only four miles from the abbey.  The present church was built in 1869, and one historian notes that it was the first consecrated church in Minnesota made of permanent materials.  The photos in today’s post show the parish church, following a recent renovation and restoration.

+On August 23rd the incoming freshmen of Saint John’s University joined the monks for evening prayer.  Before vespers small groups of students met with individual monks to learn something about our life.  Later Abbot John spoke to the entire class and invited them to join us for prayer during the course of their four years at Saint John’s.

+On August 24th I attended the wedding of the son of a family with whom I’ve been good friends for ages.  It took place in Philadelphia.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Sunday’s gospel:  Luke 13: 22-30.

Read Full Post »


Bogged Down in Service to the Lord

Say the name Jeremiah and chances are the monks in our community will think Holy Week.  That’s when one of our monks will chant from The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet at morning prayer.  It’s a haunting melody whose notes underscore the desolation that Jeremiah feels in his soul.  There, stretched out before him, is a ruined Jerusalem.  For most of his career he had warned of just such a day.  Alas, few took his message to heart, and what he had anticipated finally came to pass.

Given that context, a reading from the Book of Jeremiah on a Sunday in mid-August seems a bit out of place.  That would be true, save for the fact that Jeremiah 38 serves as the before to Lamentations’ after.  In Jeremiah 38 we read of a prophet who’s not just been ignored but punished for the warnings he’s issued.  There we find him, cast into an empty well, waiting for death as he wallows knee-deep in mud.

Despite it all, Jeremiah didn’t succumb to despair.  A sympathetic court official intervened, and that friend was the unexpected answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.  That rescue allowed him to continue to preach on the Lord’s behalf.

DBC4503D-82B8-4373-87C5-F9780DE603E5From Jeremiah I’ve learned three things.  First, Jeremiah reminds us that being God’s servant isn’t necessarily easy business.  It’s not all sweetness and light;  and while God always answers our prayers, God doesn’t always give us what we are expecting.  We should never be shocked when surprises come our way.

Second, service in the name of the Lord sometimes requires grit and lots and lots of faith.  Faith is what allows us to go on, even when we have no idea where we’re going.

Finally, Jeremiah reminds us to be alert.  There are times when we all feel like we are stuck in the mud and going nowhere.  It’s in those moments that the Lord steps in and urges us to get a second opinion.  From the moment of our creation God has had something in mind for us, and no matter our age we are indeed going somewhere.  We need to be alert to those reminders, no matter who the messenger might be.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that he will give his customers exactly what they ask for and more than they ever imagine.  God does the same for us.  So whenever my life seems bogged down in the mire, it’s good to recall that God still has plans for me.  My life has purpose.  My life has meaning.  And if by chance there are mud-puddles and detours along the way, then maybe those too have meaning.  All help to shape my life on the road from here to eternity.


+On August 16th we gathered to celebrate the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Hilary Thimmesch, who died unexpectedly on the previous Sunday.  For most of his life Fr. Hilary taught English at Saint John’s University, and he served for several years as president of the University.  Until last May he also served as a faculty resident for a floor of freshmen in a University residence hall.  At 91 he decided it was finally time to retire!  Always a consummate gentleman, Fr. Hilary slipped away quietly, shortly after returning to his room in the evening.

+On August 17th I celebrated Mass for a gathering of some forty alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, who had gathered at the home of my friends Len and Kay in Edina, MN.

+On Sunday August 18th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the Abbey Mass.  It was their first performance of the new season.

+While rococo interiors are not everyone’s cup of tea, for sheer exuberance and joy they are hard to beat.  In honor of the feast of the Assumption, August 15th, I have illustrated today’s post with photos from the pilgrimage church of Maria Steinbach, located in Bavaria.  I took them six years ago in the course of a tour of baroque churches and abbeys in Bavaria, guided by my friends Johannes and Adriana.  The abundance of baroque and rococo interiors in Bavaria almost takes your breath away.


Read Full Post »


For Whom Should We pray?

A few weeks ago a photo gripped the world’s attention.  In it a man and a child floated, faces down, in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.  It was shocking, and it starkly illustrated just one of the many social ills that beset our times.

There was one thing that made the photo particularly poignant, however.  For whatever reason most of the media outlets chose not to give any names.  These two were almost objects rather than people.  Floating anonymously in the water, they seemed unblessed and lacking in even the basics of humanity.  Having achieved not even ten minutes of fame in life, they became nobodies in death.

Then I considered who they might have been.  One had been a son to his parents, a husband to his wife, and a father to the person floating next to him.  Eventually I discovered that he had a name after all.  He was Oscár Alberto Martínez Ramírez.

24011099-C4C2-4F80-B73A-C0EA6603D897As for the 23-month-old next to him, her accomplishments were fewer.  She was daughter to Oscár and her mother, and perhaps she was a sister to some siblings still at home.  Still, like her father, she had been created in the image of God.  She too had human dignity, and perhaps she was the future hope for her family.  And she too had a name:  Valeria.

Once I knew their names, Oscár and Valeria were no longer anonymous victims of circumstance.  Now I could imagine chatting with them.  I could picture them laughing and crying and sitting around a table eating with family and friends.  They were no longer poster children of some social or political problem.  They were individuals who needed both my respect and my prayers.

In a recent homily Pope Francis urged us to give names to the people who suffer from the vast litany of ills that beset our times.  It’s nice enough to pray for world peace and an end to persecution and an end to hunger;  but those remain abstractions until we can attach the names of real live people to our prayers.

When a congregation is small enough, the priest has the luxury of inviting others to add their own petitions to the prayers of the faithful.  “For whom shall we pray?” is the invitation for which many people thirst.  It’s the chance to be very specific, because it’s suddenly okay to pray — out loud and in front of other people —  “for Aunt Edna who has surgery today,” or “for my son who is going through a difficult time.”

4718FA92-9738-41A7-8188-874EF38F951EThis is when prayer becomes intensely personal.  It’s when we pray for flesh-and-blood neighbors, even if we scarcely know them.  But when we say their names out loud or deep within our hearts something profound comes over us.  We admit our kinship with them.  We confess that they and we were created in the image of God.  And through our prayers we no longer walk alone.  Instead, we walk the paths of the Lord alongside them as fellow pilgrims.

So what lessons might we take away from this?  First, it’s certainly okay to pray for big-ticket items like “peace in the Middle East.”  But it’s even better to pray by name for a person or a village or a parish community in that region.  That builds communion between them and us.

Second, pray for someone by name, at least once a day.  It gets us out of the mindset that we alone carry the burdens of the world.  It reminds us that we have kindred spirits out there who also share in our search for meaning and purpose in life.

Third, don’t wait for someone to issue a gilded invitation to pray.  It’s nice to hear that formal invitation “For whom should we pray?”  But it’s no sin to pray unbidden.  If truth be told, there are lots of people whom we know who need our prayers, and Oscár and Valeria are just two of them.  Why wait to be invited to do the decent thing?

4861A6E8-545C-4FE5-9D06-95F22D1BD62DFinally, for whom else should we pray?  As long as we’re at it we may as well save some breath to pray for ourselves.  It never hurts, and frankly the Lord may be wondering why we’ve not called on him for a while.


+On August 8th I was in Minneapolis for two meetings, and one of them happened to be at the American Swedish Institute.  It’s housed in a great old mansion built by Swan Turnblad, a very successful Swedish newspaper publisher in Minneapolis.  From personal experience I can say that it’s especially nice to visit there during the Christmas season.  Currently it has on display an exhibit of Viking artifacts from the 6th-9th centuries.  So after the meeting I had a choice between the “Swedish language happy hour” or the exhibit.  I chose the exhibit, mainly because I’m not sure what goes on at a Swedish language happy hour.

+On August 9th I made my semi-annual pilgrimage to the help desk at IT Services, which is now housed in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Everyone is required to change the computer password to their account every six months, and I had one day left before I would be frozen out completely.  Like most people over the age of twenty I find this to be an ordeal, and years ago I vowed never to do this alone again.  The occasion of that solemn oath (and many others at the time, I might add), was when I was out of town.  Without any help at all I successfully locked myself out of my computer for four days.  Anyway, once again I packed phone and computer and iPad up and toted them over to the help desk.  This time the computer doctor happened to be a brilliant student from the Bahamas, and he performed wizardry before my eyes.  I left with devices that still talked with one another and secure in the knowledge that only college students and hackers know how to get into my account.  Heaven knows I don’t.

+Today the first of our students return for the fall term.  Meanwhile, all summer long the showy flower beds have garnered all the attention.  However, as the photos in today’s post attest, there are nooks and crannies that may be ignored but can hold their own.


Read Full Post »


Staring Down the Darkness

If you want to know what tranquility looks and feels and sounds like, then a good place to start is a ruined English abbey.  Set in remote corners in parklike settings, many of them ooze peace and quiet, and they are reminders of what life was like before the industrial revolution.

There aren’t many places in the first world where people can escape the grip of industrial noise.  But there are those few moments when technology loosens its grip and we are left to our own devices to cope.  Just such an experience happened to me last Friday.  That afternoon I had flown to Irvine, CA, and the next day I was scheduled to give a retreat conference to members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  As I sat down to dinner in the hotel cafe, it happened.  The lights flickered and for a moment civilization hung in the balance.  Then the Middle Ages returned.  There were no lights, no whirring machines, and no power to open the doors.  Then I and my fellow diners began to discover just how gently electrical power coddles us.  The elevator would not take me back to my room on the tenth floor.  There was no air-conditioning.  And those who dined after us were treated to cold cuts and snacks.

BC61C80E-BD07-4DF9-86C1-4A064247873AWhat surprised me was my reaction to the absence of light.  At 6 pm, when all of this started, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  At that point the sun still shone brightly, but its gradual setting stirred me into a panic.  I had reserved most of the evening for some work, but then it dawned on me that when the sun went down the work would have to stop.  There would only be the primordial darkness.

Like monks had done for hundreds of years, I went to bed when the sun set.  There was nothing else to do.  Then I remembered that I am an early riser, and I prayed that the power would return by 3 am.  It didn’t.

When I woke up at 3 am my worst workaholic fears came true.  There was no point in getting up.  Short of a miracle it would be pitch dark until the sun rose just before 6 am.  So for three hours I stayed in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, waiting for something to happen.

For most of monastic history — and human history for that matter — monks lived in sync with the cycle of the days and the changing of the seasons.  They got by partially because they never saw electricity coming, so they didn’t know what they were missing anyway.  But still they coped, and one way to thumb their noses at the darkness was to recite the psalms of the night office by memory.  For the most part, however, they simply adapted because they could not control their environment.  It controlled them.

02878F3F-DB79-4FCF-827B-BBB5E5363008Of course electricity changed all that.  Still, twelve hours without it made me wonder whether we even realize what we’ve lost.  For one night I had to measure my steps because in my own room I couldn’t see where I was going.  There was neither radio nor television to keep me entertained, no light for reading, and my iPad could offer no solace because it was running low on juice.  The dimly-lit lobby could have been a haven, but the thought of having to climb ten flights of stairs to get back up was a real disincentive.  So I was left to settle in with my thoughts for company and with senses that were suddenly alert to even the faintest of sounds.

What surprises me most is that I’m grateful for the experience.  I discovered that I could live without access to light at the flick of a switch.  I could get around without an elevator, and I could make do with my thoughts as my only companion.  Life was possible, even without an iPad or a cell phone.  Who would have thought?!  In retrospect it almost seems like a revelation straight from the Almighty.


+As the final weeks of summer rush on us, we’ve hosted a variety of groups at Saint John’s, and this week our featured guests were the members of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Every August they come for a one-week camp, and it’s always fun to listen as their music wafts across campus.  Also at Saint John’s this summer have been members of three seminars at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Hosted in partnership with Dumbarton Oaks, the Byzantine research institute sponsored by Harvard University, we’ve marveled at scholars who would spend a chunk of their summer studying Armenian, Syriac and Coptic paleography.

+On 2 August I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.  Four hours after I landed an electrical fire in a transformer closed the airport and cut the power to the hotel where I happened to be staying.  I later heard that we were the lucky ones.  Our power was out for twelve hours.  Other neighbors lost it for two days.

+On 3 August I gave a conference at a retreat for Orange County members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  The event took place at Saint Thomas More Parish in Irvine.

+The photo at top is the view of sunset from my hotel window in Irvine CA, shortly before everything went dark.  The other photos in today’s post show the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, at the edge of York in the UK.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »