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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Boys Choir’

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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img_5162The Price of Perfection

One of my favorite illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible shows the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, staring out from a mirror.  Her face is weathered, and however else she may have acquired that look, she did not get it from an absence of toil or anxiety.  In fact, as the passage from the Book of Wisdom reads, she is the image of eternal light.  Her face shows the result of a lifetime of service to family, to friends, and to those in need.  And in contrast with our conventional notions of physical beauty, hers is the face of eternal beauty.  Hers is the face of perfection.

In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that they must be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, and to my mind it’s a recipe for disaster.  In fact it brings to mind the sin of Adam and Eve, who in their hubris wanted to be like God.  They reached out for the proverbial apple, in hopes that as gods themselves they would be eternal, perfect, and in no need to report to some higher force.  They would be all-knowing and entirely self-sufficient.  But the price for the bite into the forbidden fruit was the awesome realization of their own fallibility.  Their hopes for personal divinity did not square with the sudden shock of their own imperfection.  They could never be what they aspired to be, because their aspirations were self-delusional.

img_5153We know the price that many athletes pay in their quest for perfection on the playing field.  We are all too familiar with the psychological toll of those unrealistic efforts to achieve lasting physical beauty.  Sometimes more than a few of us come to terms too late with goals that are clearly beyond our reach.  That kind of perfection is both elusive and perhaps even self-destructive, because it seduces us with the notion that we can be who we cannot nor should not be.  That disconnect from our own reality, our gifts, and the unique path down which God calls us can leave us with irreparable harm.

When Jesus asks perfection of us, that perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty or athletic prowess or professional expertise.  Certainly none of these are in and of themselves bad, but Jesus reminds us that they are not what life is all about.  Rather, the beautiful life embraces in its arms family, friends, and neighbors.  It is they to whom we are called to pay attention, and it is they whom we should love, in the same measure that we love ourselves.

Sadly there is an unhealthy disconnect within people of obvious talent who leave a path of destruction as they wander through life.  Like the muggers in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they shove person after person into the ditch, expecting someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made.  God forbid that we should ever become such people, and that is what Jesus cautions.

img_5173It’s interesting that in his Rule Saint Benedict wrote no chapters on quality control or professional development.  It’s not that he didn’t care about such things, because he did.  But his primary concern were the healthy relationships that should exist among the monks.  Love and respect should be the bonds that bring them together and congeal them into a family.  All else is bonus.

So it is with all of us who strive for perfection.  The perfection to which Jesus calls each of us does not preclude ideal physical health or athletic prowess.  Nor does it belittle professional expertise.  But all of these are secondary to our love for one another.  If, come the autumn of our lives, we have no wrinkles to show for our service to our brothers and sisters and to the neighbors whom we stumble across in our meanderings, then something important is missing.  We’ve fallen short of the perfection that God hopes for each of us.

img_5168Notes

+In my last post I neglected to report that a few days ago a water pipe burst in the attic two floors above my office.  From a selfish point of view I was glad that the resulting flood missed me by four offices.  However, it did a lot of damage to offices of several of my colleagues down the hall and to the theology department on the floor above.  It turned out to be a mixed blessing for our office manager, Marie, who had put off the filing of mountains of material.  She was able to abridge all that work by sending everything to the dumpster.  Happily, there were electronic copies of most everything anyway.  She also consoled herself with the news that her son, Ben, a senior at Saint John’s University, had just been signed to play football in Europe with the Stockholm Crusaders.  I see game-day trips to Stockholm in her future.

+On February 18th the 2017 edition of Hymnfest took place in the Abbey church.  The Saint John’s Boys Choir and The National Lutheran Choir were the featured singers.

img_5221+The photos in today’s post show the monastery of Pedralbes, located at the edge of Barcelona.  It was founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Moncada, the young (and third) wife of King Jaume II of Aragon.  He financed the construction of this abbey of Franciscan nuns so that she would have a place to live after his passing.  It is a highly unusual complex, for many reasons.  First off, it is the only three-storey cloister I have ever seen.  Second, because they had all the money in hand to build it, it took only some twenty years to construct.  As a result, it has a unified architectural style.  Best of all, it never suffered the ravages of war, and so all the elements of the original monastery are still in place.  The cloisters are serenely beautiful, and the dormitory (second photo) and the refectory (third photo) appear largely as they were built.  The nuns continued to live in it until the 1980’s, at which point they built a new monastery on the other side of the church.  I don’t blame them a bit, because  the old monastery had to be incredibly cold and impossible to heat in the winter.  Today it is a museum open to the public, while the nuns continue to pray in the adjoining church.  (At right is the screen that separates the nuns’ choir from the main body of the church.)  Pedralbes was a treat that I had not anticipated, and I’d return to see it in a heartbeat.

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IMG_2954A Bridge to Somewhere

Benedictine monasteries have generally had a great sense of place, largely because they root themselves in a spot and stay put for centuries.  I say generally because that’s not always been so in every case.  In the 7th century, for example, the monks of Lindisfarne settled on an island off the coast of England and thought they had the ideal spot, with long-term potential.  That was true enough for a while, until the Vikings discovered how easy it was to raid the place.  Eventually one of the monks posed the question that by then was on everyone’s mind:  “What were we thinking?”  Then prudence won out and they moved to a safer place, inland.

At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed with a scenic place, and thankfully our local Vikings have about all they can handle far away in Minneapolis.  We’re further protected from them by heavy traffic and endless road repair, and so we’ve never had to consider moving.  So it is that we’ve been here for 160 years, and by now several generations of monks have put their stamp on the place, and vice-versa.

IMG_2929“They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in the 6th century, and it holds true today just as it did then.  That said, through the centuries much of their work has been more on the order of administrative, as monks then and now have involved themselves in house-keeping, the sacristy, the scriptorium and the like.  They’ve also taught and done ministry.  Worthy of note is that many of these occupations were individual rather than group activities, and for the most part they didn’t involve hard physical toil.  Today that’s especially the case, as there’s just so little opportunity for that in the era of mechanization.

At Saint John’s in the 19th century monks made the bricks and helped in the construction of the massive quadrangle that still dominates our campus.  Nearly a century later a few monks helped in the construction of the new abbey church.  Still, such manual labor has been the exception rather than the rule in the course of 160 years.

IMG_2940However, we’ve not been idle, and every now and again there have been projects in which monastic hands have played a key role.  Many of the old stone walls on campus were the fruit of monastic effort, for example.  The forests show monastic management, as do the trails that crisscross them.  So too do the footbridges that ford streams and inlets around the lake.  And that brings me to the subject of our most recent enterprise:  the replacement of several bridges that have definitely seen better days.

The main trail from the monastery to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan dates back to who-knows-when.  Ages ago the monks put in place several bridges that made hiking both easy and a delight.  But as everybody knows, even bridges have a life span, and so we’ve begun to replace them, one by one.

Last summer several monks and volunteers built a trail-head to mark the entrance to the network of paths through the woods.  This year eight monks, in addition to many volunteers, have joined to construct the first in a series of bridges meant to replace structures in advanced states of decay.  Though not yet finished, the unfolding beauty of this first bridge hints at the potential of the entire project.

IMG_2973This new bridge is built from local materials and, like its predecessor, it is meant to last.  Trees harvested from our woods yielded the massive beams that should hold up for decades.  They in turn have been crafted so that their tongue-and-groove connection fits them together like a giant set of Lincoln Logs.  The results will be sturdy, and this first bridge will grace the woods and please the eye.

There’s something remarkable about people whose toil transforms them into a team.  In an era of rugged individualism it’s nice to see a group work toward a common goal, knowing that there has to be one supervisor, not eight or nine.  The result is the work of a community — not a committee in which subcommittees each get to design their own section.

IMG_2963Happily, I too contributed to this project.  I was very careful to stand back and not get in the way.  I was also wise by not offering any advice for improvement.  St. Benedict would have been delighted by my self-awareness of what I can and cannot do.  He would also be delighted by my appreciation of the talents that my brothers have.  Because they have their talents, and I let them exercise them, it means that I don’t have to do everything myself — save that I need to thank them when they’re done.

The abbot is scheduled to bless this first new bridge in September, and next summer work will begin on a second span.  Depending on funding and the energy of the monks, the project will continue, with one bridge per year.  Such is the pace of monastic toil.  All will get done, in its own good time.  That’s how monks put their stamp upon a place, and vice-versa.

IMG_2952Notes

+The University school year is upon us, and one sign of the changing times was the day-long department workshop that I attended on August 15th.  More obviously, we have seen the onset of the new school year in the arrival of many of our students, including members of the football team.  This week I also saw touches of red on some of the leaves of the trees.  Frightening.

+As today’s post narrates, work continues on the new bridge on the trail to Stella Maris Chapel.  Fr. Lew has directed those efforts, and this week members of the football team lent their expertise by lifting into place the heavy beams.

+This week The Saint John’s Boys Choir began its new season with a choir camp on campus.  Over the years their voices have added immeasurably to the beauty of our liturgy, and we look forward more of same this year.

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imageSacred Leisure or Wasted Time?

For those who track department store sales figures — (and who doesn’t?) — last week’s reports were not at all reassuring.  It seems that same-store sales at most chains have been flat or trending downward in recent months, and that has some economists worried.  And worry they should, because ours is first and foremost a consumer society.

Financial gurus immediately rushed in with all sorts of explanations, but two in particular seemed quite persuasive.  One pointed out that people have begun to shift their spending to experiences such as meals together and family vacations, and this has come at the expense of trips to the mall.  And a second theory had the ring of common sense about it.  This analyst noted that people have filled their closets with clothes and shoes and knick-knacks, and many have now run out of space for any more stuff.  Until they clear some of this old stuff out, there’s no room for new purchases.  So lack of storage is a partial cause of this shopping log-jam.  And in my eyes at least the solution to that is easy:  we need a crash program to build more and bigger garages and storage sheds in every corner of the country.

imageThis unsettling trend is nothing less than a challenge to our national ethos.  If shopping is no longer the central plank of our national mission statement, then what will become of our consumer society?  If spending time with other people begins to edge out the accumulation of things as our raison d’etre, an entire way of life — to say nothing of a few malls — could vanish.  It’s a frightening prospect.

For a long time I’ve railed against the notion that “we are what we own.”  From the Bible as well as from the Rule of Saint Benedict I’ve derived the theory that God did not plop us on this earth for the sole purpose of amassing material goods.  That said, I’m under no illusion that my words are to blame for these recent commercial trends.  While I appreciate the fact that several people read my blog, there simply aren’t enough of them to turn our economic ship of state onto a different course.  Clearly it’s somebody else’s fault, and I’m not entirely sure who that might be.  But it’s not me.

In a recent address Pope Francis spoke about the need for balance in the routine of our lives, and specifically he stressed the importance of taking time off to spend with friends and family.  He pointed out, among other things, that even God took a day off in the work of creation, and I suppose that if it’s good enough for God, then it’s good enough for us.  “Days of rest, especially Sunday celebrations of Mass and time with family, are important reminders that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is not a ‘slave to work.'”

imagePope Francis could have found no better source of inspiration for this than in the monastic tradition, which has always valued “sacred leisure.”  This is not some euphemism for idleness or laziness, because in fact it sees in leisure the chance to sit back and reflect.  And with that can come insight and creativity.  Not coincidentally, sacred leisure provides the opportunity to renew ourselves and to appreciate one another in an entirely new light.

If time off is necessary, then vacation too has importance, particularly in an overcharged world like ours.  That said, I have to own up to the fact that Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations in his Rule.  To be fair, it’s not that monks in his day had little time for it, or wouldn’t go if they could.  Rather, there simply were no resorts or theme parks available in the early sixth century.  It was also a known fact that leaving the monastery or the security of your village could be a pretty dangerous business.  So the safest course was to stay home and celebrate sacred leisure in security, with people you knew.

imageThat did not mean an endless stretch of monastic tedium, however.  Rather, the cycle of feast days and seasons added texture to the lives of the monks.  Certainly there were long stretches of ordinary days filled with work, but periodically the monks celebrated in both the chapel and in the refectory.  And they also enjoyed the presence of God in their fellow monks and guests.  For Benedict, then, the meaning of a monk was not tied up in his work.  Rather, the monk found meaning in the way he lived a full life, day in and day out.

If Pope Francis has reminded people of the need to spend time in celebration with friends and family, I take heart in statistics that suggest that at least some people are opting for experiences with friends and family, even if it means fewer trips to the mall.  These people have begun to realize that sacred leisure does not mean wasted time.  Rather, this is a decisive moment in the lives of some, when they have decided not to let the pursuit of stuff squeeze them out of their homes, nor let materialism squeeze the life out of  them.  And on a more positive note, perhaps they’ve also come to savor the presence of God in new and unexpected ways.  What a happy surprise to discover God in sacred leisure, spent with friends and family.

imageNotes

+On August 11th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey hosted the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Cloud for vespers, followed by dinner in the Great Hall.

+On August 15th the members of the football team at Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin their regular practices.   They are the first of our students to return, and so ends our summer tranquility.

+On August 16th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the abbey Mass.  This followed their traditonal end-of-summer workshop, and so begins their new season.

+With a nod to Pope Francis, who preferred a “staycation” at his residence at Saint Peter’s rather than go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gondolfo, I managed to stay home for quite a stretch of the summer.  The results were not entirely positive, as the work piled up faster and faster as the summer wore on.  However, I could console myself with memories of escapes that I’ve enjoyed through the years, including a one-day visit to the Cotswolds in England.  I’ve assembled a gallery of photos I took in The Cotswolds, and in this case pictures are almost as good as being there.  The photos in this post are from a small parish church in one of these towns.

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Christmas eve Mass 088

Enough Already!

One Christmas ditty you’ll likely not hear from a children’s choir is “Santa Baby, hurry down the chimney tonight.” Perhaps that’s because those innocent voices can’t muster the sultry quality that makes the lyrics come alive. Perhaps it’s because the tune’s gift list doesn’t really match the aspirations of most children. There are no pleas for dolls or toy trucks or computer games, because adult needs are far more practical. In an era of downsizing, the song gets back to the basics, like clothing and transportation. So this year Santa can skip the board games and the heavy books, and just concentrate on fine motorcars and all-natural furs (organic, of course.) This year we’ll make do with these, and Santa can forget the rest.

Christmas eve Mass 039I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t get everything they wanted this Christmas, but like everyone else I did my part to bolster the economy. Of course I didn’t get a fur coat or a limo, but I did get a cell-phone charger for my car, and a great cd of Christmas chant. I also got two books and four boxes of ink cartridges for my pen. The latter was a special treat, since I am one of those fossils who still likes to write with a traditional pen.

Buying things counts a lot for the economy, but it’s at the table where consumers show their stuff. While no one in the monastery kept an official tally, I’m sure that I more than held my own. I certainly ate a respectable amount of chocolate; and I managed to stay in the game in the dessert department. But in cookies I was a real stand-out. And now it’s time to go to the next level for consumers and invest in one of a bewildering array of diet plans.

I’m sure others did their part for the economy too, with equally grim determination. And that brings me to my only complaint about this Christmas. After all the work we did to buy stuff we may or may not have needed, it turns out that it was not enough. In the post-Christmas analysis, the data indicate that we did not buy enough, despite our best efforts. It turns out that retailers were disappointed with our performance. Same-store sales were not up as much as merchants had hoped, and now there will be heck to pay. And I’m sure you are as crest-fallen as I to realize that we let the retailers down. Our idea of “enough” was not enough for them.

Abbot John, preaching at Christmas

Abbot John, preaching at Christmas

As we begin the new year it’s not such a bad idea to take a quick inventory of our lives. Did we accomplish anything of value during the past year? What became our real priorities — the things we actually did, rather than the things we intended to do? What do we have to show for the 365 days that God gave us?

Perhaps one useful guage to determine success in 2012 is the simple word “enough.” What did we get enough of, and where did we fall short of enough? Did we get enough stuff, or did we actually get way too much? Did we eat and drink enough? Did we watch enough television? Did we play enough video games? Did we go to the office enough on weekends?

Then there’s the list of things we seldom get enough of. Did we spend enough time with friends and family? Did we devote enough time to worthwile projects? Did we do enough to help those around us who are in need? Did we do enough to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation?

Since we usually mark the end of the year with revelry, I don’t really want to shackle us with pangs of guilt. Still, the passing of a year is a not so subtle reminder of our mortality, as well as of our fallibility. Was this a year to be proud of? Or was it a year for which I have little to show? And what about next year at this time? Will I be feeling the same regret or delight with the way I used the days that God gave me?

Christmas eve Mass 034One of the cautions that Saint Benedict issues to his monks is to keep death daily before their eyes. He certainly does not intend that we wallow in depression, because he’s more content to remind us that no one has an endless supply of days. Death is a gift that comes to us all, and Benedict urges us to make wise use of every minute that we have between now and the hour of our death. Given that, would we want to live those days in a numb escapism, or would we want to live them with intensity? Benedict would likely be the first to encourage us to get a life if we don’t yet have one already. Life is too short to waste it on junk.

There’s a certain irony about Santa Baby coming down the chimney. We want him to hurry up so that we will have enough, or more than enough. Meanwhile, we sit passively, waiting for him to come and fulfill our dreams. The sad thing is that each year Santa brings us exactly what we ask for, but not nearly enough of what we really need.

As for 2013, the good news is that we won’t have to listen to “Santa Baby” for at least the next 300 days. I also hope that I’ll be better prepared for Santa next year. With luck, I’ll already have enough stuff, and with some hard work I won’t have to ask him this time next year to bring me a life. I figure I’ve got the next 365 days to go out and get one myself.

Chanting the Gospel: Fr. Edward, assisted by Br. Lucian

Chanting the Gospel: Fr. Edward, assisted by Br. Lucian

Various Notes

+Recently Father Edward Vebelun returned to the Abbey after several years spent at our priory in Fujimi, Japan. Once back, he’s wasted little in sitting still. At the vigil Mass for Christmas Father Edward chanted the Gospel, and on Christmas Day he assisted in two parishes near the Abbey.

+On December 26th I mourned the sudden passing of a dear friend. Lynn was beloved by her family and friends, as well as by me and one of my confreres. We were privileged to know her for several years, and our world is poorer for her absence. But happy memories of her will win out in time.

+On December 30th I attended a service of Lessons and Carols at Saint Dunstan’s Church in Saint Louis Park, MN. I went as the guest of two good friends, who are members of the parish. I was also pleasantly surprised by their very accomplished organist — an alumnus of Saint John’s who is also an oblate of the Abbey.

Christmas eve Mass 071+During the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to see Les Miserables. I found it to be wonderfully entertaining and deeply moving — a sentiment shared by most of us in the theatre that afternoon. Virtually the entire audience applauded spontaneously at the end, which should be enough of a recommendation for others to see it.

+The Saint John’s Bible

For the past sixteen years I have been involved with the Saint John’s Bible. Donald Jackson completed the text a year and a half ago, and since then we’ve been able to enjoy the great panorama of pages from this magnificent work. I thought you might appreciate the turning of the pages, as a wonderful Christmas meditation.

I wish you a very happy and holy Christmas season!

Eric Hollas, OSB

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The Saint John’s Boys Choir

Crowd Appeal

“Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s just too crowded.”  Yogi Berra

I can’t explain the allure of Yogi Berra’s brand of humor, but I give him credit for engaging the mind.  It takes at least a moment of thought to catch the inherent illogic, and any humor that teases the mind is far superior to slapstick, as far as I’m concerned.

As we begin Holy Week, Berra’s reference to crowds caught my imagination.  Crowds definitely are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, crowds can make a big job easy.  Crowds are a lot moe fun than empty stands at a sporting event.  Crowds can stir us to action when we are short on courage or ambition or energy.  In so many ways crowds can induce a very positive transformation.

Christ in the Desert, by Aidan Hart. Abbey Church.

But there are strong negatives as well.  We can lose ourselves in a crowd.  In a crowd it’s easy to smother our inhibitions and do things we would never do on our own.  In crowds we forget our principles and descend to the least common denominator.  In crowds we can justify behavior that we normally might reject out of  hand.  Crowds then can lead to a creative burst of ideas or group-think.  Crowds can be audiences or congregations or mobs.  Crowds then are a mixed bag, best handled with care.

Palm Sunday is the one feast in the liturgical calendar that features the crowd as a leading character.  For the longest time I have thought of it as the story about the fickleness of the mob.  One moment it welcomes Jesus to Jerusalem with cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  And only days later the same mob screams out “Crucify him!”  This crowd seems almost childlike in its ability to change moods; and its quick u-turn is scary, because any of us could get caught up in it.

But reading books can advance our understanding, and I recently tossed out the “fickle mob” theory after going through Pope Benedict’s second volume on the life of Jesus.  In it he makes the point that there are actually two crowds at work here.  The first consists of friends and fellow pilgrims who gather round Jesus as he travels from Galilee to Jerusalem.  As they walked with him, their enthusiasm for him grew.  By the time they got to Jerusalem they dared to think the impossible: This is the messiah!  And at the gate of the city they seated him on a donkey and spread their cloaks under him.  Truly he was the promised one.

The full-time inhabitants of Jerusalem made up the second crowd.  They had seen prophets and charlatans come and go, and they weren’t about to be taken in by a bunch of rubes from Galilee.  They were far too sophisticated for that.  They rejected Jesus out of hand, and in short order the disciples and their neighbors from Galilee melted into the landscape.

In all of this, two individuals stand out, however.  Caiaphas, the high priest, is a thougthful analyst who will not be swayed by any crowd.  He cuts to the core of the issue.  If Jesus is nobody, then he is expendible.  If Jesus is who they say he is, he will likely turn everything upside down.  Either way, it was best to sacrifice him.

Pilate is the other troubled soul.  He too saw the potential in Jesus; but while Caiaphas was willing to harness the crowd for his own purposes, Pilate just wanted to get out of the way.   This was the man for whom he would sacrifice neither his career nor his life.

These are not charming individuals in a sad tale of an innocent man caught up in a steam-roller.  These all have symbolic value for us, because sooner or later we all must confront some crucial questions about the meaning of our lives.

Since the dawn of civilization people have been tempted to throw in the towel and sacrifice their ideals in the face of public pressure.  Such temptations change with the times, and today they may come under the guise of materialism or political threat or simple angst about life.  But the challenges are undeniable:  little by little they can erode our good judgement and our finest aspirations, until our lives become numb.  We grow indifferent to our neighbors and friends and even to our own family.  Ironically then, the very same community that brought us together can morph into the mob that tears down the values that cause us to love one another.

We began Lent with ashes that remind us all of where we are tending in our mortal life.  We end Lent with the specter of the cross, on which one man died.  Lent then confronts us with the reality of our mortality, and it poses the ultimate questions.  Will you surrender your life to a mob mentality and peer pressure?  Or is there something more to your life?  Whether we like it or not, or know it or not, we will all choose anyway.  There is no evading.

Fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian cherish the scene in which Brian urges the crowd to think for itself.  He has whipped it into a frenzy, and in chorus they cry out: “We are all individuals!”  And then, as a postscript, there comes one lone voice: “I’m not.”  It’s an answer worthy of Yogi Berra, and for all I know he may have been the one who said it.  But it was the voice of one who refuses to shed responsibility for his life.  He will not turn it over to the crowd.

Whether we prefer to become individuals who embrace the gifts God gives us and the unique call that is ours is one option for us to consider.  Whether we choose to surrender our ideals is yet another.  Needless to say, that was one of the questions we should have considered during Lent.  If you didn’t get around to it, the good news is that there’s still a few hours left.  And if you consider the question well and elect to rise on Easter with Jesus, then you will have chosen well.

Jesus with Mary and John. Artist unknown. New Mexico.

The Calendar of events

+March 21.  I am happy to report — belatedly — that on the feast of Saint Benedict the cry of the loons returned to Lake Sagatagan.  The male of the pair, Big John, had been banded with a transmitter a year and a half ago.  That year he flew via Lake Michigan to Florida, where he wintered near Tallahassee.  We assume he did the same this year, but we haven’t dared to ask.

+On March 29th The McCarthy Center at Saint John’s University hosted Karl Rove, who gave a talk entitled “Election 2012: Insights from a Political Insider.”

+On March 31st we sang the vigil service for Palm Sunday that our confrere Fr. Jerome Coller composed for the Abbey church over forty years ago.  As befits the readings and events of Holy Week, the music is a dramatic introduction to this sacred season.  A general invitation had gone out to friends of the Abbey, and a great many joined us.  Afterward we adjourned to the chapter house for coffee and an exhibit of crucifixes from the Abbey collections.

+On April 1st we celebrated the Palm Sunday liturgy in our customary fashion.  The blessing of the palms took place in the Great Hall, and from there we processed across the plaza to the Abbey church.  The Saint John’s Boys Choir provided some stunningly beautiful music for the liturgy.

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Nobody likes getting overdue bills. At best they are an annoyance; and I can scarcely imagine the impact they have on those who are mired hopelessly in debt. But imagine the surprise on Matthew Parker’s face when he opened the long-unpaid bill for the execution of Thomas Cranmer, his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury. None of Cranmer’s successors would pay up, and with good reason. If you could take the profit out of executing archbishops, your own chances of survival increased. So Parker too refused to settle when he sat on the throne in Canterbury.

Today the original billing for Cranmer’s execution rests in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. It’s bound in a volume of sixteenth-century letters and documents, and I had the opportunity to study it several years ago. It startled me as no bland invoice could ever do. In a neat and meticulous hand, the accountant had listed the cost of Cranmer’s last days in custody. The meals were itemized, and included simple fare like bread, pears and walnuts. But it was the sterile format of the bill that was so arresting. There, in neat columns, were the entries: “Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch….Firewood” — for burning Thomas Cranmer.

Then, as now, executing people for religious reasons was reprehensible. Nothing can justify it. But what I found particularly poignant was the attempt to reduce Cranmer’s very life to a series of numbers on a page. It failed.

Last week the human population on our planet passed the seven billion mark. It’s easy to get lost in that number, and it’s a challenge to think of people whom we don’t know as anything but a cypher in a ledger. It’s also easy to reduce huge numbers to huge problems. And when decisions have to be made, who gets attention, and who gets neglected?

The Bible recounts another dilemma involving numbers with the story of Lot. Lot bargained with God over the destruction of a city, hoping that if he could find ten just men, then God might spare the rest of the population. You have to give Lot credit for the nerve to negotiate with the Almighty. But you also have to give him credit for his insight. When you look at big numbers you can forget the goodness within any individual — even if there are only ten of them.

Saint Benedict places a great deal of responsibility on the abbot, and he has to be concerned for the health and well-being of the entire community, no matter how big or small it may be. But he is also responsibile for each and every individual in that community as well. He can neglect no one, because each monk is brought to the community by God.

In massive cities and countries it’s very tempting to ignore people — even our neighbors. It’s simpler to reduce them to numbers, or file them away into general categories of race or religion or class. When we reduce people to mobs, we miss the creative genius of God. He made each of us in His image, and each is a gift to the human community.


Monastery notes

As the picture at the top of this post indicates, autumn color has now had its last hurrah in Collegeville. While still relatively young, the red oaks that line the road to the abbey church hint at the glorious canopy that will one day cover the road when the trees reach their maturity.

On Sunday, November 13th, The Saint John’s Boys Choir, The Collegeville Consort, and the Saint John’s Abbey Schola will present a concert of sacred music with readings and images from The Saint John’s Bible. The concert will also include the world premiere of the “Mass of Saint John the Baptist,” composed for three choirs and the monastic community of Saint John’s. It will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and the recent completion of The Saint John’s Bible. The concert begins at 3 pm, and will take place in the Great Hall.

The poster that announces the concert features “Life in Community,” an illumination from The Saint John’s Bible by English artist Aidan Hart. It is worth noting that the monks so appreciated Hart’s work that we have commissioned him to create several icons for use both in the abbey church and in the guesthouse.

On November 6th, as part of the “Sunday at the Abbey” series of lectures, we hosted Sister Mary Reuter, OSB, past prioress of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Saint Joseph, MN. She spoke on the topic “Running with Expanding Heart: Meeting God in Everyday Life.”

On November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls, the monks made our annual pilgrimage to the Abbey cemetery, accompanied by friends who have loved ones resting in the expanded cemetery. Below is the cross that presides over the monks’ section of the cemetery. Needless to say, the picture was taken in greener times.

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