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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Bible’

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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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Take a Chance on a Life Well-lived

[What follows is a sermon I delivered at the Abbey Mass on the Feast of All Saints]

Ordinarily the readings from the Scriptures are meant to be good news as we walk on our pilgrimage to the Lord.  They encourage us in the best and in the worst of times, and they remind us of the heavenly banquet that awaits us.

But then again there are passages that can scare us to death rather than offer assurance, and today’s readings from the Book of Revelation (7: 2-4, 9-14), and the Gospel of St. Matthew (5: 1-12), have the potential to do that.

The words from Revelation conjure up a vision of 144,000 elect who will sit in the company of the saints.  It sounds like a lot, and it was meant to sound like a lot.  It certainly wasn’t the biggest number that the writer could think of, but that wasn’t the point.  It had symbolic value, and it signaled the immensity of God’s generosity and hospitality.  More people than you and I will ever know, or can ever imagine knowing, will enjoy communion with the Lord.

IMG_7543Even so, there are those who have taken that number literally.  In New Testament times there seemed nothing to worry about, but by the Middle Ages, with tens of millions of Christians, the literalists among us grew nervous.  They concluded that the odds of getting into heaven were getting slimmer with each new baptism.  If only 144,000 would be saved, could there be any chance of salvation?  This began to generate a lot of anxiety about God’s generosity, and that anxiety was never meant to be.

As for the Beatitudes, which the gospel of St. Matthew recounts for us, there is also a rather dark tone.  It’s nice to know that the poor in spirit and the needy and those who mourn will find welcome in the kingdom of heaven.  It’s a comfort that the persecuted and the reviled will find reward that is proportionate to what they suffered.  But do all of us have to endure these things to qualify for a seat at the heavenly banquet?  I for one don’t find that prospect all that appealing.

Thankfully I long ago realized that the Beatitudes don’t demand that suffering be the price we pay for entry into eternal life.  And they make that clear after a careful reading.

IMG_7584Take, for example, the point that Jesus makes about those who mourn.  It’s easy to conclude that Jesus wants us to suffer or be doormats as the price we pay to know him.  But while the words of Jesus may seem to suggest that, in fact he is asking us to be bold.  He’s asking that we not be afraid to take some big risks in our lives.  Consider that the people who mourn do so to mourn the loss of something or someone important to them.  Something that they valued.  Something in which they’d invested.  Something for which they risked their lives.

That’s the point Jesus wishes to make in the Beatitudes.  He does not want us to go through life minimizing risks so as to avoid the day when we might have to mourn.  When we avoid all risk, when we avoid any possible discomfort, we also miss out on the rewards that come with the risk.  We miss out on the rewards that make life worth living.

In the Beatitudes Jesus invites us to take big risks in life.  He asks us to consider doing the right thing despite the possibility of failure or rebuke.  We should strive for a sense of purpose in our lives, even if there may be days when we might fail.  We may have to mourn, but we’ll also celebrate a life in Christ.

In the Beatitudes Jesus asks us to take the risk of a life well-lived.  Life is a gift, and it’s too precious a gift to live it on the sidelines, for fear of getting hurt.  Life is what Jesus came to give us, and he came so that we might have it in abundance.

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Notes

+On November 1st, the feast of All Saints, I presided at the Abbey Mass.  The post for today is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+On November 2nd we celebrated the feast of All Souls.  By long custom we monks gathered for noon prayer in the Abbey cemetery.

+On the evening of November 2nd I spoke to a gathering of alumni of Saint John’s University, convened in Moorhead, MN.  The occasion for the talk was an exhibit of folios from The Saint John’s Bible, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.  (For the record, the Center is pronounced as it is written:  yemkomst.)  For those unacquainted with Minnesota geography, Moorhead is located on the Red River, a stone’s throw from Fargo on the other side.  So I extended a particularly warm welcome to those alumni and friends who had driven all the way from North Dakota to join us.

+Normally there is one prior per monastery, and that’s certainly the case at Saint John’s.  Saint Benedict wrote about the need for a prior, especially when there is too much for the abbot to contend with.  Normally the prior does all those things that the abbot either cannot or does not want to do.  On 4 November priors from sixteen monasteries joined us for a four-day meeting on the job of the prior.

+Early on the morning of November 4th we had about five inches of snow.  I thought it was wonderful, but I didn’t need to drive in it.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the day, and at the bottom you can see winter’s version of the photo that normallly appears on the masthead of this blog.

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.

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+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

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img_0036_2When a House Becomes a Home

A few days ago I blessed the new home of some friends of mine.  All the kids had moved away, and their old home had become simply too large.  For this and a lot of other reasons the time seemed right to downsize, and they had found a lovely spot that was beautifully-suited for two.  Even so, I could only imagine the difficulty of leaving behind an old friend of a home and forming new habits in a new neighborhood.

Moving out of a home in which you’ve lived for twenty or thirty years has to be a wrenching experience.  Family members have made memories there.  Milestones in life have been celebrated or survived there.  And to borrow an image, a home can become a comfortable old shoe.  It  has to be tough to leave behind something that is almost a part of you.

At the other end of the spectrum sit those houses that never have the chance to become homes.  I suppose that in some cases they are the products of our changing attitudes toward housing.  For some people houses are now investments, habitation units, showcases of wealth, or places to be occupied until their usefulness has been sucked dry.  For such houses there’s been neither the time nor the inclination to form a sentimental attachment.

img_0028_2Of the few things I watch on television, my preference runs to those shows about house-hunting.  The situations often have the ring of a game show in which people list the specifications they want in the ideal house and the budget they can afford.  Generally the two are ridiculously out of sync, but it’s the job of the housing brokers to work miracles.  And if they can’t do it, it’s their fault.

Of those shows my favorite by far is The Property Brothers, featuring twins who are eternally sunny and upbeat.  Like all the other shows in this genre, their challenge follows a predictable model:  find the home of their clients’ dreams at a price-point comfortably below budget.  And how hard can this be?   You get an inkling when the camera turns to their poker faces, just as they realize that once again they have morons for clients.

In one imaginary scenario a couple wants a house with 6,000 square feet, five bedrooms and six baths, an open-concept living area, and an oversized kitchen with granite everywhere.  It should sit on two landscaped acres, have no neighbors or traffic, be convenient to schools and shopping, and be a short commute to downtown.  And one more thing:  the budget is $125,000.

img_0037_2I can only imagine what the Property Brothers are thinking when they hear these sorts of demands.  Just once, however, I’d like to see them whisk their clients off to the dream home that combines the amenities and price that the clients deserve:  a huge tent on the outskirts of a refugee camp in Turkey.  Of course the place lacks an easy commute to work, but access to nature more than makes up for that minor inconvenience.  Even better, it falls within the budget.

Granted that this is an extreme example, it’s still not far from the unrealistic dreams that so many people expect to have fulfilled on the spot.  They want a house and not a home.  And better still, they want a house that they can sell for a tidy profit in a few months’ time.

This brings me back to the business of blessing a home.  So what’s the point of blessing a home anyway?  Well, it’s not to ensure that the air-conditioning never breaks down, that the roof never leaks, or that the sceptic tank won’t back up while you’re away on vacation. Nor is it a ritual to cast out the demons who might take possession of your prized appliances.  It’s none of that at all.

img_0024_2When we bless a home we invite the Lord to come and dwell with us, so that our house becomes a home in which love and respect and hospitality are the order of the day.  It’s an invitation to the Lord to sanctify both a structure and the people who have moved in.

The order of blessing that I used for the home of my friends comes from the Book of Blessings, and the ritual is not terribly long.  And it concludes with these words:  “Lord be close to your servants who have moved into this home and ask for your blessing.  Be their shelter when they are at home, their companion when they are away, and their welcome guest when they return.  And at last receive them into the dwelling place you have prepared for them in your Father’s house, where you live for ever and ever.  Amen.”

And what might be the price-point on a home in which the Lord has chosen to dwell?  What would somebody charge for a place like that?  I’m not sure what the Property Brothers would have to say, but I’d put the cost at something just shy of priceless.

img_0032_2Notes

+On November 11th our Brother Damian Rogers passed away after a long struggle with cancer.

+On November 13th I spoke at three services on The Saint John’s Bible at Rockpoint Church in Lake Elmo, MN.  Lake Elmo is a suburb of St. Paul, located just before you would fall into the St. Croix River and swim across to Wisconsin.  The members of the church gave me a wonderful reception and I thoroughly enjoyed the morning there.

That afternoon I attended a memorial service at Assumption Church in St. Paul, for members of the parish who had passed away during the past year.  The monks of Saint John’s founded that parish in the 19th century and served it for many years.  For just as many years a statue of Saint Benedict stood on a side altar to the left of the sanctuary.  But alas, he has worn out his usefulness and will shortly be moved to a new home in the basement of the church.

+The photos in today’s post show Blenheim Palace outside of London.  It’s more than big enough to be a house but not really much of a home.  It has many of the amenities that people look for in a house, including a chapel where the Lord can take up official residence.

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img_3559One More Marvel in Our Eyes

All of us end up doing a few things that in a million years we never imagined for ourselves.  Many, if not most of these, land in the positive column and fall under the biblical heading of “a marvel for our eyes.”  Such was the case when I was privileged to speak a year ago from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, TN.  The church serves both its congregation as well as the students of Carson-Newman University, and I was there to speak on The Saint John’s Bible.  It was a happy experience, and I remember my time there fondly.

I describe it as an “improbable” event, because as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City I anticipated neither becoming a monk nor speaking from the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church.  In those days the Catholic population of my hometown was 3%, Episcopalians were 2%, and Lutherans were 1%.  In the context of the times, I’m confident that my Episcopal and Lutheran playmates –who were likewise scarce as hen’s teeth — also harbored no such ambitions for themselves.

Last week I returned to Carson-Newman to take part in the dedication of their gallery which will house both the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible and a fine collection of artifacts from the ancient Near East.  It was a lovely two-day event, and among the guests were Donald Jackson, the director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.  Since we are constructing our own Bible gallery at Saint John’s, curiosity was one reason that drove us to see exactly what they had done.  It was well worth the trip.

img_3547On 31 October 2017, Christians in the West will begin a commemoration of the Reformation, an event that has divided them for 499 years.  On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of the castle in Wittenberg, and that action unleashed a torrent of debate and conflict that endured for hundreds of years.  Only in our lifetime have the passions subsided enough to realize that what we share as Christians transcends the many items over which we disagree.

When we began work on The Saint John’s Bible we did so knowing full well that monks and Christians had made such Bibles for hundreds of years, but monks hadn’t made one in the last five hundred.  In the Middle Ages the very act of making a Bible from scratch defined what it meant to be both civilized and Christian, and we wanted to replicate the experience.  We hoped too that it would remind Catholics of the centrality of the Bible in our theology, spirituality and worship.  We also intended to make the point that, like our evangelical neighbors, Catholics and mainline Protestants were biblically-based.  There was no harm in pointing out what we all shared as Christians, and our hopes have scarcely been disappointed.

As Christians have begun to anticipate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action, people have struggled over the verb that should best-describe our observance of the event.  Do we celebrate?  Do we atone?  Do we mark it with indifference, as if it were just one more historical date to memorize for tests?  Do we note it with regret?  Do we emphasize our continued separation or our gradual movement toward each other?  From my vantage, I think all these should be factored in.  But no one’s asked for my views, as of yet.

img_3573Still, if we fail to note how far we’ve come in the last two generations, then we forget that quite possibly it is the Lord who has quietly accomplished this.  On a micro level, the mere thought that a Bible commissioned by an abbey of Benedictine monks might someday rest in a place of honor in the library of a Southern Baptist university has to count as a marvel in our eyes.  The fact that Catholics and Baptists can together give thanks for the Word of God is testimony to the Spirit of God stirring in our midst.

It’s also important to appreciate this one event for what it is not.  It is not an isolated instance in which a few Baptists and Catholics swam against the tide to build a wonderful relationship that’s based on faith.  In fact, it’s part of a larger and longer story that stretches back to events that long-preceded World War II and the advent of warmer ecumenical relations.  This common awareness of a shared faith in Jesus Christ is something that has been developing slowly.  It’s happened under the radar and beyond the coverage of the blaring headlines.  But it’s happened nonetheless, and we should cherish it as a sign of hope.

img_3556It’s easy to turn on the news or open the papers and conclude that our world is headed over the cliff and that there’s little we can do to prevent it.  Worse still, it’s easy to look at all that chaos and justify our own inaction.  But despair and sitting on our hands would be a mistake.

In fact, there’s lots we can do, starting with mutual respect for the people whom we run into each and every day.  From our reading of Genesis we believe that God created each and every one of us in his image — be they Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, be they Jew or Muslim, or be they people of little or no faith at all.  It’s a joy — if even a puzzling joy — to know that God expects progress as we try and live in this belief.  But we can do it, and we can do it in the confidence that the Lord is there to help us, every step of the way.

At least for me, and I hope for lots of others, this too counts as one of the great marvels in our eyes.  It’s yet one more sign that life itself is one continuous miracle.

img_0121Notes

+On October 3rd I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey.  Who is My Neighbor? is linked to the short homily that I delivered that day.

+On 5-6 October I took part in the dedication events for The Lynn and Lydsey Denton Gallery on the campus of Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, TN.  I had a great time and once again enjoyed their warm hospitality.  Still, my one regret was that I was too early for the fall colors.  It’s a gorgeous landscape, sitting at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.

+The pictures in today’s post illustrate how late we are with the fall colors at Saint John’s.  The photo at the bottom illustrates a portion of the gallery at Carson-Newman University.

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img_3433The Reward of Discipleship

Several days ago I preached on Luke 8: 16-18, and it’s a passage that ends with some words that some might find disturbing.  It reads thus:  “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

There you have it — just the sort of thing that would make a six-year-old scream that “it’s just not fair!”  And in my own jaded reading, I’m tempted to agree.   This verse suggests that Jesus too believed that life was unfair.  Worse still, if this is what Jesus really believed, then it puts the lie to the Beatitudes, where Jesus offered at least some shred of hope to those who have so little.  So what exactly is Jesus trying to do here?  Does he mean to drive the poor into despair, while the rich cry all the way to the bank?

An appreciation of this passage depends a lot on whether you take a materialistic approach to its interpretation.  Thankfully, most experts believe that Jesus was speaking about neither capitalism nor matters of social justice.  Rather, he was talking about the spirit in which people approach life.  If they are generous with their gifts and talents, then they very likely will discover a personal capacity that they had scarcely imagined about themselves.  Conversely, those who are afraid to test the limits of their gifts and talents run the risk of having little or nothing to show for their lives.

img_3468That’s how I developed the sermon, and I concluded with this note.  Life is filled with risk, but perhaps the biggest risk is to give without any assurance that our efforts will make a bit of difference to anyone.  That’s the most challenging thing in the world to do, and I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he offered this bit of wisdom.

At the end of Mass one woman came up to thank me for my thoughts.  She and her husband had recently completed ten years of service in a project that had demanded a great deal of time and energy.  Appearances to the contrary, it had required not a little grit as they butted up against a culture that ran counter to what inspired them.  Had any of their efforts mattered?  Had they accomplished anything in the course of ten  years?  Would their contribution of time and talent evaporate the minute they left the property?

These issues confront us all, and not just those who commit themselves to some major charitable projects.  Parents realize this instinctively as they raise their children.  Who knows what kids will turn out to be when they grow up?  What teachers don’t worry about what will become of the students sitting in front of them?  What mentors don’t wonder whether their efforts will make any sort of difference?

img_3469These anxieties trouble all of us, and we wonder whether we should have bothered to do anything in the first place.  Worse still, the instances when our efforts accomplished little or nothing sow further doubts.  Should we ever risk anything again?

These questions now haunted this woman and her husband, and they had become almost depressed about the whole thing.  But my words had suggested a way out of their emotional conundrum.

I’d not fashioned my sermon to deal with such practical experiences, but this woman made real to me the challenges that all of us face in the course of life.  How many times do we have the chance to give of ourselves and yet shrink back because we’re not sure of the results?  What if people take advantage of our generosity?  What if people remain unchanged, and our efforts go for naught?  These questions confront all thoughtful people as they risk stepping out of their comfort zone for the sake of others.

img_3524These are the moments when we need to recall to mind the suddenly sensible words of Jesus.  Self-giving can never be reduced to a contractual relationship with the people we help.  Service can never involve a quid pro quo in which we demand specific results from our kids or our students or anybody else whom we help.  All we really have a right to ask is that someday these people will make the right choices in life, just as we’ve been given that same chance.

Two things strike me as good takeaways from all of this.  First of all, giving of ourselves makes the world a better place.  That’s true whether our efforts yield no results at all or spectacular results.  If we don’t risk ourselves, then we can rest assured that nothing will ever happen.  If we do risk something, then there’s at least some chance of a good outcome, even if it isn’t exactly what we had in mind.

Second, in Luke 8 Jesus did not promise that our efforts would  transform the world.  He promised nothing of the sort.  All Jesus promised was that our efforts would transform us. That, after all, is both the cost and the reward of discipleship.

img_3519Notes

+On September 26th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  The Center has been involved in the preservation of documents relating to the history of the Order of Malta, and today HMML has more of such material than any repository outside of Malta.  The Center has been involved in this work for 40+ years and continues to digitize various collections as well as build its own collections of resources.  Among other topics, we discussed current work of the Center at the Cathedral library and museum in Mdina, on the island of Malta.  Since the middle ages Mdina has been the seat of the archbishops of Malta.  It was the medieval capital of Malta, and was only eclipsed with the construction of the Knights’ capital of Valletta in the  17th century.  The city and cathedral in Mdina have a wonderful charm, as this gallery link suggests.

img_3422+On September 27th I hosted my friends John and Jack during a brief visit to Saint John’s University.  Together, John and Jack and I have been working to establish a scholarship program at Saint John’s for graduates of Immokalee High School, which is located outside of Naples, FL.  The photo shows John and Jack with the first four students at Saint John’s from Immokalee.  If you care to learn more about this project and how you could help, please email me at the blog  email address in the box marked “Contact the author.”

+On September 29th I gave three talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Xavier University in Cincinnati.  I had a delightful time, not least because I got to page through one of my favorite books, The Nuremberg Chronicles, printed in the late 15th century.  It is housed in the special collections department in the University library.

+This last weekend in Minnesota it was absolutely stunning weather-wise, and I enjoyed daily walks around campus.  As the enclosed photos illustrate the autumn colors have been slow to arrive.  Included among the photos is one of the new footbridge, which was blessed by Abbot John last week.  It was also a great weekend to contemplate the beauty of Lake Sagatagan, over which the Abbey looks.

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