Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Boys Choir’


Saint Joseph Revisited

There it was — tucked into the middle of the Gospel of Matthew chapter 2.  I had read or heard read that verse hundreds of times, but somehow I had missed it every time.  How could that be?  Like the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the desert, it had been calling out to me.  But I guess I was not ready to hear it until last week.

The passage in question dealt with the Holy Family’s exile into Egypt.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus were returning to Judaea, but along the way Joseph had a change of plan.  “…When he heard that Archelaus was ruling in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.”  So Joseph adjusted the route and took his family to Galilee, where they settled in a town called Nazareth.

In the Christian tradition Joseph comes off as a supporting actor in a cast of strong-willed or charismatic people.  It’s why artists have consistently portrayed him as an elderly man who quietly devoted his final years in service to Jesus and Mary.  But this verse suggests a determination in Joseph that I’d not considered before.  Joseph thought for himself, and he was was capable of decisive action.  And in this particular case he didn’t need an angel to tell him what to do.  In short order I had to junk my life-long impression of Joseph as the passive actor who stood quietly in the shadows.

E66009F8-F09D-458D-82F3-7FFA51AAD48ESo what have I learned from this?  First, I appreciate the fact that Joseph was an astute man capable of independent thought and decisive action.  He reminds me that God gave us brains and God meant us to use them.  And to those who think that being Christian requires checking an open mind at the door of the Church, Joseph offers a stern rebuke.  God gave us intellect and imagination, as well as the energy to put them into the service of the Lord.

The second lesson has to do with the value of revisiting the sacred texts day after day, week after week, and year after year.  As monks we read the same 150 psalms over and over and over again.  While some might see that as a pointless waste of time, in fact those same 150 psalms have a capacity to nourish that is astounding.

If that’s true for the Psalms, it’s also true for the Scriptures as a whole.  Medieval monks and nuns read big chunks of the Bible year after year, and they read those passages aloud.  In that exercise the text leaps from the page to the eyes, courses through the brain, and as it passes through the lips the ears hear the words as well.  In their experience the reader and the text became one, and it was a total sensory experience.  That said, the ancients would have been the first to admit that it could become familiar food.  But every now and again there was a morsel to savor in a new way.

That experience is not the exclusive preserve of monks and nuns — be they medieval or modern.  Those morsels are available to any who would take and read — or merely listen.  Perhaps the next time we take and eat the food that nourishes our body we should give a thought to the food that nourishes our spirit.  After all, it’s right there for the taking.  Better still, it’s free for the taking.



+On Christmas Eve we prayed vespers in the Great Hall, which is the space where the monks of Saint John’s Abbey prayed for eighty years before moving to the new abbey church in 1960.  The acoustics in that Romanesque space are perfect for our voices, and being there makes the beginning of Christmas a moving experience.

+Christmas Eve Mass at the abbey began with a concert of sacred music, presented by the abbey schola and The Saint John’s Boys Choir.  Mass followed at 10:00 pm, and over eight hundred guests joined us for that service.  As usual, the music was superb and Abbot John’s homily well-crafted and delivered.

+The illustrations in today’s post show a 13th-century altar frontal that originally was in the church of Santa María de Cardet in Cataluña.  Today it is housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.


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Bogged Down in Service to the Lord

Say the name Jeremiah and chances are the monks in our community will think Holy Week.  That’s when one of our monks will chant from The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet at morning prayer.  It’s a haunting melody whose notes underscore the desolation that Jeremiah feels in his soul.  There, stretched out before him, is a ruined Jerusalem.  For most of his career he had warned of just such a day.  Alas, few took his message to heart, and what he had anticipated finally came to pass.

Given that context, a reading from the Book of Jeremiah on a Sunday in mid-August seems a bit out of place.  That would be true, save for the fact that Jeremiah 38 serves as the before to Lamentations’ after.  In Jeremiah 38 we read of a prophet who’s not just been ignored but punished for the warnings he’s issued.  There we find him, cast into an empty well, waiting for death as he wallows knee-deep in mud.

Despite it all, Jeremiah didn’t succumb to despair.  A sympathetic court official intervened, and that friend was the unexpected answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.  That rescue allowed him to continue to preach on the Lord’s behalf.

DBC4503D-82B8-4373-87C5-F9780DE603E5From Jeremiah I’ve learned three things.  First, Jeremiah reminds us that being God’s servant isn’t necessarily easy business.  It’s not all sweetness and light;  and while God always answers our prayers, God doesn’t always give us what we are expecting.  We should never be shocked when surprises come our way.

Second, service in the name of the Lord sometimes requires grit and lots and lots of faith.  Faith is what allows us to go on, even when we have no idea where we’re going.

Finally, Jeremiah reminds us to be alert.  There are times when we all feel like we are stuck in the mud and going nowhere.  It’s in those moments that the Lord steps in and urges us to get a second opinion.  From the moment of our creation God has had something in mind for us, and no matter our age we are indeed going somewhere.  We need to be alert to those reminders, no matter who the messenger might be.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that he will give his customers exactly what they ask for and more than they ever imagine.  God does the same for us.  So whenever my life seems bogged down in the mire, it’s good to recall that God still has plans for me.  My life has purpose.  My life has meaning.  And if by chance there are mud-puddles and detours along the way, then maybe those too have meaning.  All help to shape my life on the road from here to eternity.


+On August 16th we gathered to celebrate the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Hilary Thimmesch, who died unexpectedly on the previous Sunday.  For most of his life Fr. Hilary taught English at Saint John’s University, and he served for several years as president of the University.  Until last May he also served as a faculty resident for a floor of freshmen in a University residence hall.  At 91 he decided it was finally time to retire!  Always a consummate gentleman, Fr. Hilary slipped away quietly, shortly after returning to his room in the evening.

+On August 17th I celebrated Mass for a gathering of some forty alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, who had gathered at the home of my friends Len and Kay in Edina, MN.

+On Sunday August 18th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the Abbey Mass.  It was their first performance of the new season.

+While rococo interiors are not everyone’s cup of tea, for sheer exuberance and joy they are hard to beat.  In honor of the feast of the Assumption, August 15th, I have illustrated today’s post with photos from the pilgrimage church of Maria Steinbach, located in Bavaria.  I took them six years ago in the course of a tour of baroque churches and abbeys in Bavaria, guided by my friends Johannes and Adriana.  The abundance of baroque and rococo interiors in Bavaria almost takes your breath away.


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The Big Banquet of Consequences

Matthew 18 is for me one of the more difficult gospel passages to digest.  On the one hand Jesus asks his followers to forgive their neighbors seventy-seven times.  Then in the next breath he tells the story of a slave whose sin seems unforgivable.  That slave had begged for and received forgiveness of a debt owed to his master, only to turn around and treat a fellow slave mercilessly.  For this act of meanness the first slave paid dearly, and it suggests that there may be limits to the “seventy-seven times” rule.  Given that this was likely a case of hypocrisy, however, I can understand why Jesus might be moved to make such an exception.

A couple of years ago I read an excerpt from columnist George Will that’s lodged in my mind ever since.  He cited Robert Louis Stevenson to the effect that “Sooner or later we will all sit down to a big banquet of consequences.”  Neither Will nor Stevenson were writing about religion, but the words apply, particularly so in light of the events in Pennsylvania during the past few days.  In this more recent case the sins of some were compounded by the official hypocrisy of others.  It was the latter who had demanded the highest of standards for others, but then in the next turn they expected people to give them the benefit of the doubt.

0793C23C-487C-41CD-9421-32666BFC518DIf I’m not mistaken, this was a major theme in the preaching of Jesus.  Regularly he hammered away at those scribes and Pharisees who placed heavy burdens on others while they crafted easy outs for themselves.  Fortunately Jesus never said that the sin of hypocrisy was unforgivable, but serious amendment of life had to figure as a necesssary prerequisite.

As surely as the sun appears in the morning, sins do come home to roost, and no one should be surprised at the ripple effects.  In this most recent case sin has devastated the lives of those sinned against.  But sin has also impacted those who were thought to be innocent bystanders.  The crushing disappointment that they now experience should astonish no one, because it’s a byproduct of the social dimension of sin.  Those who trusted that the Lord would walk with them always — in good times and in bad — now find themselves wandering alone in the valley of darkness.  Or so it might seem.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it may be this.  Whether we have amateur or professional status as sinners, our lives do matter.  What we choose to do or leave undone matters.  All things matter, for good and for ill, and our lives have consequence.  And so we can never let sin — in any of its forms — get the better of us.  So it is that we should prepare ourselves to sit someday at the big banquet of consequences.  And may we be so blessed to discover that we have been seated next to the Lord.


+On August 16th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expanded version of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+On August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the first of our students returned to campus for the fall term.  This group mainly consisted of members and trainers of the football team.

+On Sunday August 19th The Saint John’s Boys Choir provided music at the abbey Mass.  They did a sterling job, all the more so because they had just completed their annual beginning-of-the-season choral camp.

+On Sunday evening the students working as resident assistants in the University dormitories joined us for evening prayer.  By the time every one else had been seated, some one hundred visitors had nearly filled the choir stalls.

+Happily for me, I stayed home the entire week, and I had no complaints.  Just comparing notes with some of my confreres allowed me to count my blessings.  As University chaplain, Fr. Nick went with 120 freshmen and 30 upperclassmen on a several-day orientation trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.  The thought of overnights in the wilderness sends shivers up my spine.  Meanwhile, Fr. Lew flew to East Africa to visit several of our Benedictine Volunteers.  And in the last hint of the change of seasons, Br. Lucian returned to Notre Dame for his second year of doctoral studies, following a nice stint at home with us.

+In today’s post I’ve selected work from the church of Santa Croce in Florence.  At top and bottom are terracotta altarpieces by Andrea Della Robbia, both dating from the end of the 15th century.  The second photo shows the interior of Santa Croce, while the Annunciation is by Donatello, ca. 1435.


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Sitting at the Table of the Lord

It’s a fact that somebody went to a lot of trouble to set up the Last Supper.  As the gospels make clear, Jesus and his disciples did not just pop into a restaurant, sit down and order off the menu.  No, they were from out-of-town, and somebody needed to find and reserve a room suitable for at least thirteen.  Then someone had to set the table and arrange the room, order decent food and wine, and see to it that the evening went well.

The organizers likely had high hopes, but not everything went according to plan.  It was not a relaxed evening with friends, because tension began to percolate through the room.  It surfaced as a few realized this might be their last meal with Jesus.  One in their number had come into the room with treason in his heart, and he left early.  And for his part, Jesus knew what was about to happen.  This was supposed to be a sacred meal, but it was anything but serene.  So it had to be a big disappointment for those who had worked so hard to make it a success.

6E0BE8B2-38E2-42E4-BA03-75DE9D4E7898I mention this because of all the things that we monks have to do to prepare for Holy Week.  We may make it look easy, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not all peace and serenity.  For one thing, there’s a ton of work that takes place in the sacristy and church.  There’s hours of practice for cantors, choirs and musicians.  There are also rehearsals for the liturgy and sermons to be written.  Then there’s the refectory, where somebody has to plan out several days of special meals.  In short, for a lot of monks Holy Week stretches both patience and charity, and it’s easy for the work to sideline the sacred.

This brings to mind the evening when Mary and Martha hosted Jesus for dinner.  The gospel text suggests that Martha did the heavy lifting at that dinner, while Mary made the most of the chance to visit with Jesus.  The fact that Jesus gave his personal nod to Mary suggests to me that the discussion likely took a turn toward the intense after Jesus went home.  We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fun to speculate.

9865D3CF-F2E4-4853-BE56-0AF7F8AC9BDAI’ve naturally thought of Martha and Mary as polar opposites, representing those who value work more highly than the chance for human interaction.  It’s a nice thought, but I suspect it’s better to accept the fact that both Martha and Mary are resident within each of us, and each of us feels the tension once in a while.  Each of us, for instance, has work that we absolutely must do;  but there are times when our devotion to duty can sap the joy from life.  That, I think, is what concerns Jesus as he warns not only Martha and Mary, but us as well.

Work certainly is part of life, and in the monastery the work of Holy Week can easily sideline what should be a deeply religious experience.  For one thing, work can leave us too exhausted to appreciate what’s really going on.  But attention to detail can also shove aside the religious experience that is the whole point of Holy Week.

Of course this isn’t just about Holy Week.  It’s about life.  Work we will always have with us, but if we allow work to blind us to the joys of life then it’s time to get a grip on ourselves.  That, I think, is at the core of Jesus’ message.  Jesus came to give us life, not to enoucourage us to smother our best energy in the tasks that fill our everyday routines.  Work we have to do, but we should always remember the preference we should give to sitting with the Lord and his friends at the table of life.  It’s ours for the asking, so let’s make sure we make a reservation at that table this Holy Week.


+On 24 March the Arboretum hosted the first of its two-Saturday Maple Syrup festival.  Some 500 people helped to gather sap and learn about making maple syrup.

+On 25 March I attended the Saint John’s Preparatory School’s production of Les Miserables.  The musical was staged at the Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, and the students performed amazingly well.

+In last week’s post I wrote about a box sent from my office to Florida, where I waited fruitlessly for it.  Instead of in Florida, it turned up in New Jersey, and we asked the Post Office to return it to Minnesota.    That was where I left the story last week.  This week we discovered that they forwarded it to Florida anyway, despite the fact that I was no longer there.  The office in Naples alerted us, and once again we asked that they return it to Minnesota.  It arrived in record time — two days — and the contents were a shattered and jumbled mess.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the Palm Sunday liturgy, which began in the Great Hall with the blessing of the palms, and then continued into the abbey church.  As one photo indicates, we are still blessed with the persistence of piles of snow.


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A Happy and Joyful Christmas!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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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.


+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.


+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.


+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.


+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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