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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Abbey’

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Falling Down, and Getting Up

After evening prayer on Ash Wednesday we monks gathered in the chapter house to hear Abbot John deliver a conference to us.  Normally we meet there on Tuesdays, and in that room we discuss everything from the sublime to the ridiculously mundane.  But Ash Wednesday is different, both for the day and for the topic.

As near as I can recall, this was Abbot John’s 17th Ash Wednesday conference to us.  And for those who can’t quite imagine what a conference is, it’s pretty much like a sermon that’s gotten out of control.  There’s no seven-minute limit with conferences, and they usually run 20-25 minutes.

After sixteen earlier conferences on the subject of Lent, I wondered what in the world the abbot could possibly say that we’d not already heard.  And as much as the abbot might want to rely on our collective short-term memory and recycle some previous material, he dares not.  We can count on at least one or two of our confreres to remember, and they’ll remind us.  So the pressure is on to come up with something fresh and original, or he’ll hear about it afterward.

9CCAFA7E-0FD5-4E81-BF59-7A0C2938C2DBDespite our expectations, we still cut the abbot some slack.  He’d be negligent not to recall for us Saint Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a Lenten observance.  He’d be remiss not to cite Benedict’s encouragement to make do with less food and drink, to restrain ourselves from excessive speaking, and to compensate with extra prayer and meditation.  It just wouldn’t be a Lenten conference without these old saws, and on this occasion Abbot John once again delivered.

He also repeated Benedict’s caution that we not let our Lenten observance inflate us with pride.  I’m particularly susceptible to this, and not just during Lent, and for one big reason.  I long ago conceded that I’ll never be as good a monk as many of my confreres.  But I’ve also convinced myself that I’m at least better than the worst monk in our community.  My favorite prayer has long been one that the Pharisees would have said with gusto:  “There but for the grace of God — and my own initiative — go I.”  That’s not necessarily a bad prayer, except when it’s said with a dollop of pride.

With all those niceties out of the way, Abbot John got to the central focus of his conference:  baptism and the baptismal font at Easter.  For starters he cautioned that we should never think of our baptism as some sort of personal achievement.  Baptism is not a membership badge indicating that we have chosen Jesus, with the implication that Jesus ought to be grateful for what we’ve done.  On the contrary, in baptism Jesus has chosen us, and not the other way around.  The business of baptism is God reaching out to us, and we feebly responding.

0304DEB6-6461-4A7F-B31C-1EDCEF7C62EEAbbot John said a lot more in the course of 25 minutes, obviously, but for me the most vivid image was his reference to the Olympic skater Scott Hamilton.  Hamilton once estimated that he had fallen down 41,600 times in the course of  his career.  He also estimated that he got back up 41,600 times.  That’s astonishing, and it reminds me that I’ve done the same thing in my life — metaphorically, if not literally.

I’m guessing that the Scott Hamilton bit was likely the biggest take-away for many of the monks gathered in the chapter house on Ash Wednesday evening.  As for me, I was away from the Abbey, but I was fortunate to get a copy of the abbot’s address via email.  And I count myself fortunate because this is exactly the sort of stuff I need to mull over.

This is not my 17th Lent as a monk, but after seventeen Lents and more, I’m sorely tempted to join the chorus of people who say that Lent is boring.  Like them I sometimes wonder what more I could possibly learn from one more Lent.  The answer?  A lot.

The image of Scott Hamilton falling down and getting back up 41,600 times is powerful.  I can’t imagine that he ever came to enjoy it, nor did getting back up become any easier with experience.  But for him the struggle must have become a moral imperative.

So this Lent I’ve decided to meditate on the fact that I keep falling down, and I do it fairly often.  But all the same, I take comfort in the thought that the Lord never seems to tire of reaching out to help me get back up.  Praised be Jesus Christ, and thanks be to God!

AFAA9F5E-BCB1-4542-865C-2C5D50FB4D67NOTES

+On 13 February I flew to Miami, where I and a colleague met with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  Two days later we drove across Alligator Alley to Naples, where we had scheduled more visits and two events.  To my great disappointment, I did not see a single alligator along the way.

+On Ash Wednesday I and my colleague attended Mass at Saint William’s Church in Naples.  It was notable primarily because the power went off ten minutes before Mass.  We proceeded anyway, and candlelight and the strong voices of the readers managed to prevail in the packed church.   As for me, I was disappointed when the  power came back on.  But not everyone shared my sentiment.

+On February 15th I attended a reception that featured Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough, who served as chief of staff in the White House during President Obama’s second term.  The next day I attended the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast, where Denis again spoke.  Women now attend, but for some reason they still call it the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast.  It meets for twelve Fridays every winter, and always includes some distinguished speaker — many of whom are women.  This week some three hundred attended to hear Denis speak.

+The first three photos in today’s post show a panel now housed in the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  It’s by the Master of the Heisterbach Altar, made ca. 1450 in Cologne.  The bottom two photos show the chapter house at Saint John’s Abbey.  It adjoins the church, on the east side.

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.

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You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

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Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

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I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.

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NOTES

+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.

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The Wisdom of the Ancients

For as long as I can remember, history has fascinated me.  Perhaps because I grew up in a part of the country where even a late 19th-century building was a rarity, I envied places where tangible traces of history abounded.  But none were at hand, and so reading was the next best thing.

My earliest recollection of a history book that I personally chose to read was one on Aztec history and architecture.  The mere thought of discovering a lost city in some jungle stirred my imagination, and it probably explains my later receptivity to Indiana Jones movies.  Not everything about Aztec culture was riveting, of course, and that’s especially true for human sacrifice.  However, their accomplishments in urban planning were amazing, and a culture that was the first to make use of “zero” can’t be all bad.  On the one hand the latter didn’t inspire me to become a mathematician, but it did give me a useful term for understanding some people.

My dreams of becoming a Central-American archeologist never materialized, which is just as well.  Even now I’ve never visited one of their jungles, not least because I don’t do well with mosquitos and humidity.  Those weren’t the primary reasons for landing on medieval history, but they were considerations nonetheless.

7FD42978-1559-4BE5-87C9-41E59A1490BFThis brings me to the point.  Last week I was in Germany and managed to squirrel away some time for a side trip to Cologne.  I’d been there once before, twenty-five years ago, and I’d always wanted to return.  It never happened, until last week.

Cologne today is a shadow of its medieval self, thanks to the bombs that rained down in World War II.  Despite being next to a prime target — the railway station — bombers skillfully spared the gothic cathedral, but the ancient Romanesque churches weren’t so lucky.  Most of them have been rebuilt, however, and the chance to wander their aisles let me commune with long-dead citizens about whom I know a lot more now that I did twenty-five years ago.

For what do I admire these people most?  Certainly I admire them for their vision.   They may have lacked the presence of mind to begin a pharmaceutical industry or invent television sit-coms, but they had vision, in spades.  Specifically, they had the vision to build things that would last.  And endure those noble structures did, until the wars of the 20th century knocked them down.

I also admire them for their community spirit, to which some 15th-century statues testify.  Several figures of the prophets once perched in the medieval city hall, and to all and sundry they offered words of advice.  “The common good is to be preferred over personal good.”  “He who dies for the community shall live forever.”  I can’t imagine anyone proposing that for a government building today;  but there you have it:  naïveté in all its innocence.

Most of all I admire them for their faith.  They weren’t perfect, but they did their best, against the odds.  For centuries they read the Word of God and heard it preached, and it took centuries for them to internalize answers to questions like “Who is my neighbor?”  It was tough to get beyond the notion that neighborliness ended at the edge of the village, but they did.

24E1C3B5-97C8-4CC9-9F4A-CAF738F94AB8Would I want to go back in time and live in the 12th century?  Not a chance.  I may be a historian, but I’m not a hopeless romantic.  That said, I do love their Romanesque churches, much as I treasure their architectural descendents on the campus of Saint John’s.  But I also have a practical streak, and I happen to like indoor plumbing and central heat.  Long ago I realized that living in Northern Europe in the 12th century is much like living in a cabin in the north woods.  Year round.  For a life-time.  No thanks.

Beyond that, I appreciate the challenges that they faced, but I appreciate even more the wisdom that they bequeathed to us.  Today we have challenges that they could scarcely imagine, but they have wisdom that’s still useful — even to us.  Yet another of those 15th-century statues comes with this bit of sage advice for all citizens:  “First seek the kingdom of God and his justice.”  I — and we —could do worse.

6474AD53-85BE-4331-AC68-3B5953EAEC83NOTES

+As today’s post indicates, the major event of the past week was a trip to Frankfurt, with a side venture to Cologne.  The latter trip shattered my myths about the faultless reliability of German trains, alas.  My train left Frankfurt twenty minutes late, and at Koblenz — the half-way point — it stopped because of difficult weather further ahead.  The conductor announced a one-hour delay, and that morphed into two hours, then three, then four.  At that point they announced that, due to severe weather, no trains were going to Cologne.  Our train was cancelled, and so I had no option but to find another train and go back to Frankfurt.  What did I do for four and a half hours on a train parked in the Koblenz station?  Crossword puzzles.  Don’t leave home without them.

+From January 18-21 organ-builder Martin Pasi visited Saint John’s to begin work on the expansion and completion of the organ in the Abbey church.  On the 20th he joined the monks in the refectory for lunch.

+The photos in today’s post omit the obvious symbol of Cologne — the cathedral — simply because that will come in a future post.  For now I am content with a sampling of some of the Romanesque churches that sprinkle the core of the city.  At top is St. Maria im Capitol, followed by Great St. Martin and Saint Caecilia.  Today Saint Caecilia houses the Museum Schnütgen, which is a vast collection of medieval art.  In the collection are eight statues of prophets that used to stand in the medieval town hall, including the photo of one of them, holding a scroll which reads:  “No one shall gossip outside the Council.”  At bottom is the interior of St. Caecilia, which comprises one of the many galleries in the Museum.

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God Is In the Traffic

I have no idea how many sermons I’ve given, but by now I have a pretty good idea of those themes I like to tackle and the ones I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.  In the latter category I put famines, wherever in the world they might be.  It’s not that I lack empathy, because I don’t.  However, most congregations I preach to in central Minnesota are singularly ill-equipped to plunk down money for an expensive ticket to Nairobi, solve the hunger problem there, and be back by the end of the week.

The same holds true for peace in the Middle East or Afghanistan.  Most monks I know — and I’m in that category — wouldn’t know where to begin, even if the abbot gave us permission.  So for that reason I prefer not to preach about things ordinary people can’t do much about anyway.  All it does is make some people feel guilty because they can’t do anything to help;  while others feel depressed because they can’t do anything to help.  It’s better to preach about things that people can actually do, rather than harangue them about things they can’t.

2C8DCA84-25D4-4AC2-BDA1-77485DA7700DSo it was that the words of Pope Francis on New Year’s Day were a delight to me.  Instead of pie-in-the-sky civilization-changing deeds, the pope spoke about stuff that almost anybody can do to make the world a better place.  Specifically, he spoke about driving a car.  Driving can set the tone for the health of a community, and whether people are considerate when they’re behind the wheel or whether they’re hell on wheels does matter.  Ask your typical Romans trying to get across the street, and they’ll tell you so.

Driving is something that touches nearly all of us.  Many drivers are thoughtful and generous.  Some should be locked up.  Still others shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.  Regardless of where we fit on the chart, time spent at the wheel gives us the chance to have at least some impact on our neighbors.  For better as well as for worse, every time we get behind the wheel we can make or ruin someone’s day.  It really is that simple.

Pope Francis didn’t mean to single out driving as the toughest challenge facing the world.  Anyone who’s read even a few of his sermons knows that he hammers away at war and hunger too.  But driving is a convenient example of how we can make a difference in the lives of others, virtually anywhere and at any time.

I thought the pope’s comments provided good fodder for those of us wondering what we might do to make the world a better place in 2018.  The good news is that we don’t have to fly 6,000 miles to accomplish something worthwhile.  Someday there may be the chance for that, but for now the really great news is that there’s plenty to do near at hand.  We need only open our eyes and see who’s standing in front of us.  There is our opportunity.  There stands Christ.

8A156C27-D60C-49C5-A981-0484066980F0I can’t help but think about the streets of Rome and what a harrowing experience it can be to cross them.  It’s a bit like what wildebeest confront when crossing a river full of crocodiles.  So I’m left wondering whether Pope Francis inadvertently got his listeners all stirred up on New Year’s Day in Saint Peter’s Square.  Just behind them roared a maelstrom of traffic, which each had to cross.  I’m guessing that more than a few prayed that the drivers of Rome were listening to the pope on the radio.

That’s when they — and we — begin to appreciate how important are the so-called little things in life.  They’re far more important than we might think, because in them we encounter the chance to do the serious work of the Lord.  Even in the traffic we find the presence of God.

NOTES

+New Year’s Day came and went quietly in the monastery.

+On January 2nd I flew to New York for a series of visits with alumni of Saint John’s.  It was not the best week to be there, and the national news was not reticent about reporting it.  It was bitterly cold, and the big snow day saw the city grind to a halt.  I was surprised to note that the cars ground the fallen snow into the consistency of mashed potatoes, and it was really slippery.

+The storm gave me some time out to visit two of my favorite places in the world — the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum.  I last visited The Morgan when a dear friend of Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to The Morgan’s permanent collection.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At top is a limewood sculpture of the Adoration of the Magi, made in Swabia in Germany, ca. 1515-20.  Next is a stained glass of the Nativity, made in 1444 for a church in Boppard-am-Rhein in Germany.  Next is a Madonna and Child, made in Siena ca. 1440.  At bottom is a bicycle I saw in New York.  It was actually worse than it looks, and I can only pray that the drivers were kind and merciful to this poor cyclist.

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Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.

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+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.

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A Happy and Joyful Christmas!

In chapter 6 of his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict writes that “there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.”  Given the abundance of noise that accompanies the Christmas season, it dawned on me that the sparing use of words might be the wisest counsel on this wonderful day.  So I hope it will suffice to wish you a peaceful Christmas season.  May the Lord be with you as he speaks gently yet persistently through the noise and din of the season!

Notes

+It’s never a good idea to limit the act of thanksgiving to one day out of the year, and this last week offered a reminder to be grateful for all the airport delays that I’ve not experienced during the past year.  While I and my fellow passengers complained about some minor airport difficulties on our way home last week, our Brother Paul would have gladly traded places.  On the way to a speaking engagement in Nassau, The Bahamas, he had a connecting flight in Atlanta, on the night when the lights went out in that part of Georgia.  That night he slept on the floor, with thousands of other stranded passengers.

+On December 21st, after evening prayer, I took part in a gathering of monks from our floor in the monastery.  Our custom is that the residents of each floor decorate their own tree, and it’s an opportunity to share some time in that interlude between the end of the semester and the liturgies of Christmas.

+On December 23rd I acceded to the inevitable and retrieved my winter coat from storage.  It’s been relatively benign in Minnesota — until now.  Not so today, Christmas Day, when the forecast includes some heroic temperatures.  My lightweight coat is simply not up to dealing with that.

0EF3BDAB-BD92-44FE-AA1E-9F74342F8C5F+On December 24th we celebrated evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, while the last of the Christmas preparations were being made in the church.  At 9:30 pm we gathered once again for a concert of sacred music, followed by the Christmas Eve Mass at 10:00 pm.  The music was exceptional, and it included the participation of The Saint John’s Boys Choir.  Joining us were some 1,100 friends and neighbors who had driven short and long distances to celebrate with us.

+The photo at the top of the post is a work by Brother Frank Kacmarcik, a now-deceased oblate of Saint John’s Abbey.

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