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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Bible’

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Taking Our Ideals Out of Storage

Please imagine this scene from II Kings, chapters 22 and 23.  Propped before Hilkiah, the high priest, was a scroll that no one had opened in a very long time.  Curious about his discovery, he unrolled it and began to read.  And he was stunned to discover that what he had in front of him was the Book of the Law, which had been lost for as long as anyone could remember.

Alarmed by its contents, he passed it on to the king, who immediately appreciated the gravity of the situation.  Sworn to follow the terms of the covenant, the Israelites had in fact ignored them for at least a generation.  And so, in a dramatic assembly, king and people recommitted themselves to the law from which they had strayed.

E486BFCF-AFC4-4A3A-B7FD-66B58BD1230EI preached on this passage to my fellow monks last week, and I confess to some initial amusement as I considered what to say about it.  First of all, why was Hilkiah surprised to find the Book of the Law in the temple?  Where in the world did he expect to find it?  Second, how long had the temple staff been looking for it?  Had they been looking for it?  We’ll never know;  but one thing we do know.  For the longest time its absence didn’t seem to bother anybody all that much.

In fact, the passage leaves us to infer that the discovery was entirely serendipitous.  Sadly, whatever its absence may imply about the quality of housekeeping in the temple, it does leave us to conclude that no one seemed to miss the Book of the Law.  No one had been looking for it; and laws that people didn’t know about were laws that people could safely ignore.  Quite likely — and not for the last time — the Israelites had gone through the motions of worship in the temple, but nothing about those visits had impacted their hearts when they left its precincts.

Though Jesus never alluded to this story, he must have known about it from his reading of the scriptures.  Furthermore, it meshed neatly with a theme that was a constant in his preaching.  Here was the story of a dramatic conversion of king and people who outwardly had done all the right things.  They had offfered bullocks and goats within the temple, but there was no connection with the lives they lived outside of the temple.

6FBEFA71-D08E-40AC-B644-B130983B5F38Beyond the bare facts of the story, there’s material enough for a terrific parable here.  It’s a parable about our ability to divorce what we do in God’s holy place from from what we do in the marketplace.  In sum, it’s all too easy for us to make sure that one does not impinge upon the other.  So we pay lip service to high ideals when we’re in the sanctuary, and then we securely lock them up in a metaphorical safety deposit box when we leave.  We periodically return to check that they’re all still there, but we leave once again, unencumbered.

That sort of hypocrisy never sat well with Jesus, and it was something he denounced on a regular basis.  Time and again he urged his listeners — and by extension us — to rediscover and dust off our commitment to love God and love our neighbor.  Today he still invites us to take those ideals out for a test-run around the block after we leave the sanctuary.  He reminds us over and over that those two commandments are paramount — they are greater even than the blood of bulls or goats sprinkled on the altar.

This is a rather sober reminder of what it means to be Christian.  In fact the demands are great, because God asks of us an integrity that is sometimes a bit of a challenge.  God asks that we be true to what we say we are, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  And so, if in the sanctuary we cry “Lord, Lord!”, then we should actively search for the Lord in our neighbor in the street.  Taking our ideals out of storage and into the streets can be tough, but it’s also a joyful way of life.  That explains why Jesus would say that his yoke is easy and his burden light.  It’s really true.

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NOTES

+On June 27 my friend Marianne and members of her family visited at Saint John’s, and I gave them a tour of The Saint John’s Bible Gallery.  Marianne is a fellow member of the Order of Malta and now lives in New Zealand.  Having grown up in San Francisco, she thought she would leave the earthquakes behind for good, only to have them show up in spades in Christchurch, where she lives.

+On June 27 I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of that homily, based on II Kings 22-23.

+After last weeks’s post about John the Baptist and the photo of the fire in our neighbor’s storage building, I got several interesting responses.  First, my confrere Fr. Nickolas informed me that in parts of Europe there is a tradition of building bonfires on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  My office colleague Raj then forwarded a photo of just such a bonfire in a village in Spain.  I assured both of them that our neighbor was not trying to burn down his shed in celebration of the feast.

Next I heard from my friend Amy, who lives in Oklahoma City.  Amy’s husband Pat, an alumnus of Saint John’s, is preparing for the diaconate, and last week he and his colleagues in the program delivered practice homilies on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  In the course of two days Amy sat through 25 homilies on Saint John the Baptist.  Hopefully there was no repetition.

+In honor of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which we celebrated on June 29, I have included photos from the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls in Rome.  The first basilica dates to the 4th century, and after a major fire in the 19th century it was rebuilt to copy the original, and it includes many of the mosaics that had survived the fire.  Today it remains a Benedictine abbey, and a stroll through the expansive interior is breathtaking.  Nearly all tourists in Rome visit Saint Peter’s, but far fewer visit Saint Paul’s, which is a shame.

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On Mission for Christ

Jesus may have sent his disciples to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, but soon enough that job fell to others.  It was not long before Christian merchants and soldiers and spouses began to do the heavy lifting, and that’s how the majority of the Christian communities popped up around the Roman world and beyond.

Eventually, trained missionaries stepped in, and ever since then most of us have assumed that the work of spreading the gospel belongs to the professionals.  So when we read Matthew 8, as we did yesterday on Trinity Sunday, we assume that Jesus directed his words to those best qualified.  He could not possibly have been thinking of us, since mission work is way above our pay grade.  Of course we do support those called to that work, but we tend to excuse ourselves by noting our lack of expertise and the absence of an unshakeable faith that’s needed for that sort of work.

In fact, however, Jesus actually did have us in mind when he commissioned his first followers to go out and make disciples.  For one thing, there was a sense of urgency in his voice, and this was accented by one fact staring Jesus in the face.  He had only eleven apostles, and that simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.  Jesus needed help, and he meant us to be the ones to provide that help.

58904846-8172-4481-9995-964AA43EE05CBut are we qualified to proclaim the gospel?  Do we have the skill set that suits us for the job?  Ironically, it’s some of our perceived liabilities that in fact count as strengths.  A sometimes shaky faith, laced with doubts and hesitation, would seem to disqualify us.  In fact that merely puts us in the same league with Peter and the apostles.  Lest we forget, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times, and the entire lot of the apostles ran away when the chips were down.  So we’re standing on soft soil when we excuse ourselves for lack of strong faith.  And to point out the rather obvious, who is better qualified to speak with those who don’t believe?  We in fact know where they’re coming from.

What else qualifies us to speak of Jesus in the public forum?  Frankly, I’d not thought about this until recently, but even we feeblest of believers have had at least some little experience of God.  Even if not every day, there have been moments when God has gently touched our lives, and we’ve sensed the Spirit of God stirring within us.  Who better to reach out to those who — like us — seek some fleeting experience of the divine?

D84A3155-E464-4491-8F5D-ABB82828B1A1Finally, there’s an attitude that sets apart those who are suited to proclaim the gospel to the ends of their own little worlds.  Perhaps it is better to specify who’s not in this group.  If we are curmudgeons or negative or angry people, or if we use religion as leverage to pressure others, then we are not in that category.  Such people merely reinforce the common misconception that Christians are joyless and strident human beings.  Who would possibly want to become such a person?

On the contrary, followers of Jesus need not wear the Christian brand on their sleeves, but the occasional brush with God should show in their daily demeanor.  In the bad times of life they can be confident that the Lord walks with them and sustains them.  In the good times they have an inkling that it is the Lord who bestows those blessings.  But above all, such people realize that life is a gift, and quite possibly it’s a gift from God.  Who then wouldn’t want such a gift?  That gift shows in their faces, and what better advertising can there be for the Christian way of life?

That kind of attitude shows in the face of a Christian.  A Christian, in fact, has the insight to see the face of Christ in others and to be the face of Christ to those who seek him.  Who is better qualified to be such an emissary for God?  Thankfully, such a labor is a labor of love, and it’s a mission to which all Christians are called.

D6E70975-1FC7-4FD5-9909-C7BA9B5C33DDNOTES

+On May 25th I gave a two-hour presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to members of the faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Australia.  Later that evening I spoke at the opening of an exhibit of Christian art, staged in the University library.  That day I also had the opportunity to visit with several of our students who are doing a semester of study at the University.  We’ve had this exchange relationship for eighteen years.

+Fremantle is the port city of Perth, which is six hours’ flying time west of Sydney.  I’d never been there before, and I really did enjoy seeing what is a uniquely charming city.  Fremantle is blessed to have at its core the largest concentration of Victorian-era buildings anywhere.  It’s not gingerbread Victorian, however.  After all, it was a port city.

+I’m not terribly familiar with Australia, and in anticipation I read Bill Bryson’s book entitled In a Sunburned Country.  In it he points out that Australia is arid and has more animals eager to kill or bite people than any other place on earth.  Happily, nothing tried to bite me, and I didn’t see a single kangaroo during my short visit.  Nor did I experience the aridity that Bryson writes about.  On the contrary, I got caught six times in torrential rains that came in from the Indian Ocean to pound Perth.

B493948E-8904-41CE-9BB2-87BA5855411FIf you’ve never read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to consider him.  He’s a travel writer, and an irreverent one at that.  His understatement is laugh-out-loud funny.  For example, he gives an insightful explanation of the game of cricket, a game which I long ago gave up trying to understand.  On the basis of a match between England and Australia that he attended, he gives some really useful information.  For instance, the intensity of the inaction on the field makes it absolutely necessary to pause for lunch and drinks several times in the course of the game.  However, one thing eluded him.  He never could figure out how England could lose all those wickets with all those people watching.  And where in the world were they losing those wickets?

The only thing for which I seriously fault Bryson is his writing style.  He writes brilliantly, and his turns of phrase are witty to a fault.  What I object to is that Bryson has used up most of the finest turns of phrase, leaving scraps for people like me.

+In today’s post there is a real mix of photos.  At top is the shrine of Saint Remi, in the abbey church of Saint Remi in Reims.  It was he who baptised Clovis, king of the Franks.  A simple inscription in the floor of the cathedral of Reims marks the spot of the baptism, and it is located quite near the grand pulpit in the cathedral.  The statue further down the page is of Saint Boniface, missionary to the German people.  It stands outside the cathedral of Mainz in Germany.  Next is a photo of me with students and one faculty member from our school, standing in front of an acrylic by Western Australian artist Joan Rastus.  At bottom is a street scene from Fremantle, complete with an ingenious pattern that has been painted onto the walks and buildings in the city.

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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 shepherd 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.

B57466FE-CD7F-4D14-B7B4-269EC2DB45BANOTES

+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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