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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Bible’

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Jesus:  A Surprisingly Good Shepherd

I’m not an expert when it comes to animal husbandry.  I appreciate it, of course, and I’m grateful for the toil that so many invest in it.  However, despite my general ignorance on the subject, something in Sunday’s gospel struck me as a little odd.

In John 10 Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, and like a good shepherd he’s ready to lay down his life for his sheep.  That’s the part that bothers me.  To my way of thinking the really good shelpherd never gets killed in the first place.  The really good shepherd may lose a few sheep along the way, but if I were a sheep I would give a superior rating to any shepherd still alive at the end of the day.  In fact, the last thing I want to see is a dead shepherd at the front of the flock.

005FDE11-E7FC-4054-81EC-413DB781AFFAOne obvious consequence of a dead shepherd is the need to do a national search and conduct interviews to find a new shepherd.  My preference would be the applicant who wouldn’t fall victim to wolves or poachers.  Even if I were dumb as a sheep, I’m still smart enough to know that if the shepherd goes, we all go.  Is that logical, or what?

I feel the very same about any shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep to find one lost sheep.  If I were one of the 99 I’d fire that shepherd in a minute.  After all, if one of the sheep is dense enough to wander off, then the shepherd should cut his losses.  He should also show a little gratitude to the 99 who were loyal enough to stick around and make the shepherd’s job a lot easier.

That’s when I begin to appreciate what Jesus is up to when he tells us these stories.  Jesus knows that his audience is not stupid, and he intends to impress upon each and every one of his disciples the love he has for them.  The fact is, he’ll never abandon a single one of them.  He may seem to go off to search for the one lost sheep, but all the while he holds the other 99 by the wool of their necks.  He’ll not lose a single sheep, including the dummies who show poor judgement now and again.

Given that, I’m happy to have Jesus as my good shepherd.  It’s in that light that his death on the cross begins to make some sense.  Jesus did lay down his life for his sheep, but Good Friday was not the end of the story.  With Easter the story of his loving care for us resumes.  That’s when we realize that we are his sheep, whom he loves.

Jesus is no hireling who abandons us.  He is a surprisingly good shepherd, which has to be a comfort to all of us sheep who tend to wander off every now and again.

915CC3D5-638F-4F54-9352-ED7D2A7E9179NOTES

+On April 16th I said Mass for the San Francisco area members of the Order of Malta.  We met at Saint Dominic’s Church, where I had witnessed a wedding several years ago.

+On April 17th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, ID. They have begun a year-long program with The Saint John’s Bible.

+On April 21 I gave a session as part of a retreat day for provisional members of the Order of Malta, who will be invested in June.  This took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+This last week was a mixed bag when it came to travel.  My worst day in many years was on the 16th, when I flew from San Francisco to Boise via Salt Lake City.  Nothing went right, until the very end.  My flight, scheduled to leave at 4:15 pm, left San Francisco four hours late.  They had rescheduled my connecting flight to one leaving at 10:20, and so when we landed at 9:50 I felt pretty good.  But because there was no gate available, we sat on the runway for forty minutes.  Thankfully the connection was running late too.  It was now to leave at 11:00 pm, but no one was surprised when we left at 11:50.

The car rental desk in Boise was scheduled to close at midnight, and you can imagine my elation when the lady at the desk had wanted an extra hour and fifteen minutes — just for me.  Then, to her surprise, she could not find my reservation.  A neighbor at another desk explained that at midnight Alamo had merged with Enterprise, and now I was renting from Enterprise.  I got to the hotel at 1:30 am.

+On Wednesday I flew to Los Angeles and discovered that the place was teeming with pollen.  Since in Minnesota our pollen is still frozen, we Minnesotans are defenseless in a pollen jungle like Southern California.  I was a mess until I got back to Minnesota and inhaled the pollen-free air.  But I know our time will come.

68C09D46-587B-4DC1-9991-4BBFA122E350+Thanks to the kindness of a couple whose son graduated from Saint John’s, I was able to get a wonderful tour of Boise.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cityscape.  Among the highlights was a visit to Saint Mary’s Church, which recently underwent an expansion.  The carvings are nothing short of stupendous.  The top three photos show a ten-foot ceremonial door, carved by an artist from Oregon.  The first photo shows a rendition of Noah’s ark, which overlooks the baptismal font inside the church.  On the obverse is a scene from the Book of Revelation, which faces people as they enter the church.  Most intriguing is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, seated in the front pew, just below the pulpit.  With her arm draped over the pew, it looks like she is reserving judgement on the quality of the sermon.  It is wildly popular with children, who want their photos taken as they sit beside Mary.

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The Lord Takes His Time With Us

With the hindsight of Easter it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Peter in the Gospels is the very same Peter whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.  After all, as a disciple Peter had had his doubts about Jesus.  Then came his denial of Jesus three times on the eve of the crucifixion.  Finally, almost miraculously, Peter seemed to mature as an entirely different person in the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts Peter does not hesitate to confess his faith in Jesus.  He becomes a take-charge sort of guy.  He heals;  he preaches;  and he’s not afraid to go out on a limb and lead the followers of Jesus far beyond the Jewish customs that had tethered them to the temple and synagogue all of their lives.  In short, he and the disciples gradually create a church.  And we’re left to wonder where all that gumption came from.  What could have transformed this timid soul into a bold prophet?

378D8DF0-E65C-4B3E-99B9-53AEA1B848B3We’re now a few days into the Easter season, and the references to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles serve as a reminder of the power of the risen Jesus.  The risen Lord transformed the disciples, and if he could do that with such a motley crew, then he’s probably capable of doing the same with you and me.  Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him, because you and I are the very people whom the Lord came to save.

It’s entirely possible that by now our only souvenir from Holy Week is the memory of some beautiful and sometimes overly-long liturgies.  But it’s also possible to detect the hand of God at work, gently shaping and transforming us.

I for one would be naturally suspicious if Jesus were to turn my life upside-down, inside-out, in an instant.  He may have done that with Peter, or the writer of Acts may have instead compressed Peter’s long spiritual journey into a matter of a few days.  But whatever the Lord may have done with Peter, he’s taken an entirely different approach with me.  I for one know for a fact that the Lord has taken his own sweet time with me.  God’s given me length of years precisely for that reason.

92C6EAA3-A8EB-4C65-8CA3-D47C1F8B1FB1The same may be true for you as well.  If so, you’ve probably noticed how gradual and tentative your journey to the Lord has been.  And you’ve probably wondered why the Lord has not blesssed you with the audicity that Peter had.  Well, one reason for that is that the Lord deals with each of us differently.  But for most of us there is an air of deliberate calculation about it.  We may resist on certain days, but the Lord continues to chip away and sculpt and polish us into his good and faithful servants.  That, I think, shows just how persuasive the risen Lord can be.

In my own humble opinion God generally prefers not to bowl most of us over or hurl us to the ground.  That’s a lot of work for God, and besides, it’s the sort of stuff God reserves for those who are particularly stubborn.  As for me, I suspect, Jesus prefers to be patient and kind, and he draws me to himself in his own good time.  For that I am grateful.

That’s why I think it’s a good idea in this Easter season to pray that the Lord, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to completion.  But there’s no rush.

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+During the past week I taught two classes in the novitiate.  My main theme was the monastic tradition of the abbey of Cluny, which in time had some 350 priories within its orbit.  It was a major booster of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, and it built priories and hostels along the Camino.  Its 12th-century church was the largest in Western Europe, and it remained so until the construction of the new St. Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century — the one we see today.  In the middle of the design of St. Peter’s the architect had to add fifty feet just to make sure it was longer than the abbey church at Cluny.  Cluny is in Burgundy.  It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but as of now it is still on my bucket list.

+From 3-8 April I gave a private retreat to a member of the Federal Association of Order of Malta from Chicago, who is preparing to make his Promise of Obedience in May during the Order’s regular pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It was his first visit to Saint John’s, where he stayed in the guesthouse.

+On April 5th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to a group that included the president, some faculty and staff from Caldwell University, in New Jersey.  They stayed in the guesthouse at Saint John’s, and among other things I toured them through the new Bible gallery in Alcuin Library.

+On April 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of the sermon that I gave that day.

+On April 6th I hosted Paul and Laura, graduates of our school, at whose wedding I will preside in the abbey church at Saint John’s this summer.  I don’t get to preside at many weddings, and so this will be a treat for me.

+Today, April 9th, is the feast of the Annunciation.  It’s a reminder that Christmas is upon us, at least in nine months, and we should prepare.  The photos in today’s post are from the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the uppermost is of the Annunciation.  If you’ve not seen Sagrada Familia, you definitely should put it on your bucket list.

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Change Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

On Ash Wednesday I heard some words of advice that I never expected in a Lenten sermon.  “If going without meat turns you into a bear when you’re with others, then for heaven’s sake go out and eat a cheeseburger.”

Taken out of context, words like these can get a preacher into a lot of trouble.  They remind me of the counsel that Martin Luther once gave to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, when the latter hesitated to follow through on one particularly difficult issue.  “Sin boldly!” was Luther’s advice, and clearly he did not mean for Melanchthon to violate the ten commandments.  Luther’s critics had a field day anyway.

Lenten penance always presents something of a conundrum.  Do we do it to please God?  To impress others?  To whip ourselves into the best spiritual shape of our lives?  In the process we always run the risk of crossing over the line that separates personal discipline from public display.  And when we cross that line we lose every shred of benefit that might come from our exercise.

54CCF159-0B87-491A-90A1-EE708804FDC0Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to think of the monastic life as a continuous Lenten observance.  By now I’ve been around long enough to know that he did not counsel a life-time of fasting and self-denial, because elsewhere he cautioned about any unusual Lenten display.  The point was not to compete to be named the most holy and self-denying monk in all of monastic history.  In fact, Benedict preferred that monks not even be able to notice what their neighbors were doing for Lent.

It’s not that Benedict wants us to do little or nothing for Lent.  Rather, he discourages overt spiritual competition among us.  He discourages public displays that would suggest superiority to our neighbor.  In short, he prefers an interior discipline that changes hearts rather than public shows that rend garments.  In this he is on the same page as Jesus.

4807FEA4-B842-496F-A2ED-1DF6599592DBSo what’s the point of a Lenten observance for Benedict?  Clearly, Benedict counsels a different sort of path to God — one that abandons rugged ways and self-denial that would establish our reputation as stars in the spiritual firmament.  Instead, his is an asceticism of doing what our neighbors are doing.  In joining together in a communal exercise we admit that we are neither better nor worse than our fellow monks.  We acknowledge once again the commitment we’ve made to seek God with our brothers in community, rather than pursue careers as lone wolves.

Lent is a time of community, whether it be in a monastery or in a parish church.  It’s not a time to engage in self-denial that transforms us into people who are hard to get along with.  It’s not a time to sequester ourselves from human contact, on the pretext that we know best.  Rather, Lent is a season in which we realize that we make the forty-day trek through the wilderness, together.  Like the Hebrews wandering for forty years in the desert, we too search for God, together.  And we do it because without neighbors close at hand, it’s awfully hard to see the face of Christ in others.

So we might be well-advised to paraphrase the words of Peter, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave, just as had so many others who had found his words too hard to take.  “Lord, without our neighbors and confreres, to whom would we go?”

2A747F19-A0D8-42A9-8455-A8336356900ENOTES

+On February 22nd I again had a class in monastic history with the novices.  This time I spoke about Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Saint Augustine to England.

+In a sign that the times are about to change, on February 24th taps were added to stands of maple trees in the abbey forest.  The season begins when day-time temperatures climb above freezing and drop below freezing at night.  That forces the sap up and down, and the taps divert a bit of that flow into the process that will make syrup.  It also signals the onset of spring.

+On February 21st my dear friend Jo White passed away after a long illness.  I knew Jo for ages, and she was a driving force in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible.  Today, 26 February, I will preside at her funeral in St. Paul.  Several monks and colleagues from Saint John’s will attend.

+This has not been a good winter for snow — meaning, we’ve not had nearly enough.  But this week the weather made up for it with two storms that left us with nearly a foot of new snow.  The photos in today’s post show the results of the first snow.  I did not go out to get additional photos after the second snow, becuase I thought the additional six inches were gratuitous.  To enlarge the photos, simply click on them.

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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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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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How Will You Season the Season?

For years I’ve campaigned for the privilege of experiencing art first-hand.  That includes a visit to a gallery, listening to music performed by real live people rather than by a machine, or wandering through an architectural masterpiece.  Somehow it all seems to be the right thing to do, particularly if there’s a chance to thank the creative talents that have made it come to pass.

Last week I had the chance to experience Handel’s Messiah, which I’d not done in years.  I use the verb experience deliberately, because you can’t just sit there like a bump on a log, as if it were Muzak in an elevator.  Handel’s Messiah sweeps you off your feet, and so it was as my ears feasted on the voices and the instruments.

IMG_0087_2But it was a visual treat as well.  There, right in front of me, 120 singers performed with dignity and with a power that was alternately unleashed and restrained.  Along with them were the musicians, who seemed to cradle their tanned wooden instruments as if they were new-borns.  It was stunning on so many levels, and I was not the only one who had goose-bumps.  I know so, because several total strangers came up to me and volunteered the same experience.

As beautiful as it was, there was one other thing that struck me.  Amazingly, for the space of two hours, 140 wonderfully creative people surrendered their inalienable right to do their own thing and decided to act as one.  For that brief interlude no one glanced at email or cell phones.  No one strayed off onto some musical tangent in order to improve on Handel’s score.  Instead, in a grand display of self-discipline, everybody sang or played the notes assigned to them.  Nor did they drift around the stage when there were no notes assigned to them.  Instead, they performed as a community.  Together they achieved something that they could never have accomplished on their own.  For one brief moment they banished the rugged individualism that diminishes our world, and they offered to us a glimpse into a heaven we’d not noticed before.

Advent is not a time for rugged individualism, nor is it a season in which we wander off into our own personal reveries.  Advent is not the season in which to ignore other people, and that includes the people whose creativity enriches our lives and those whose ill health isolates them from full participation in the joys of life.  Advent instead is a time when all of us should step up and take an active part in the fullness of life that is spread before us.

Most obviously, Jesus is our best teacher for this important lesson.  He was not born as the son of Mary for the sole purpose of doing his own thing.  He had a mission;  he had a purpose;  and he came so that we might have life and have it in abundance.

IMG_0088_2For those of us who intend to follow in the steps of Jesus, then, it’s paramount that we embrace life and live it graciously and with intensity.  Obviously we can’t attend concerts or go to museums during every waking hour, but it’s important that we season our lives with such experiences.  Obviously we can’t help the sick and the poor whenever and wherever we encounter them;  but it’s important to recognize them as fellow pilgrims.  And just as obviously, it’s incredibly unhealthy to spend all our time just doing our own thing, as if no one else mattered.  Oddly enough, when no one else matters, neither do we.

Living this sort of full and balanced life is not always easy, but living as if I alone mattered is an illness for which there is a cure.  The cure involves thanking people for their creativity.  It involves reaching out in moments when we can make a tangible difference.  It involves using our hands to do the work of Jesus on a daily basis.  And if that’s too much to do year-round, then perhaps it’s a good exercise for Advent.

So what’s a person to do with Advent?  My advice to myself is to season the season with art — in all its forms.  Season the season with service.  Season the season with quiet time to consider God’s gifts to me and my neighbor.  If I do all that, I figure that Christmas might very well come a little early this year.

IMG_0089_2NOTES

+No doubt the highlight of the last week was a three-day trip to Ontario that I took with one of my colleagues from Saint John’s.  On December 7th we flew to Toronto, and on the evening of the 8th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Jerome University in Waterloo, Ontario.  The next evening we attended the production of Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Grand Philharmonic Choir and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.  That concert took place in Kitchener, and preceding the concert I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, to what turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd.  The performance of Messiah was wonderful, though my colleague had the misfortune of being seated next to a woman who decided to sing along with the choir.  As a result he did not enjoy the performance quite as much as did I.

+I actually do have one good friend in Waterloo, and my visit there gave me the chance to meet up with him.  Roman is a member of the Order of Malta in Obedience and is now president of the Order of Malta in Canada.  We’ve met many times over the years in Lourdes and more recently at an annual retreat that takes place in Malvern, PA.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the Church of Saint Séverin in Paris.  The first stained glass window shows Saint Martin of Tour sharing his cloak with a poor begger, while the others show Saint Vincent de Paul as he made the rounds among the poor of Paris.

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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.

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“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.

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Notes

+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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