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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Pottery’

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Thoughts on The Cleansing of the Temple

I’m glad I wasn’t there when Jesus cleansed the temple.  My bias is toward order and courtesy, and the mere thought of Jesus upending tables and chasing people around makes me wince.

The Gospel of John chapter 2 suggests it was a chaotic scene, and those who were just trying to make an honest living must have been a little put out, to say the least.  I have sympathy for them, and they had every right to ask Jesus why he did what he did.  At least they were polite, according to John.  Jesus, on the other hand, comes off looking not nice.  In Minnesota, where I live, that’s a big no-no.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, until I consider this.  First off, Jesus wasn’t against commerce.  Elsewhere in the gospels he spoke of money rather dispassionately.  He paid his bills, and we know so from the instance when Peter paid the temple tax for the both of them.  So commercial activity in itself was not his target.

C80953FD-BBA8-4067-A731-37B35381F443This case was different, and it had moral nuance.  It was complicated by the fact that the animal-sellers actually provided a service to pilgrims who couldn’t pack birds or lambs or bullocks in their luggage for the trek to Jerusalem.  For their part, the money-changers let pilgrims avoid using the Roman coins that would have polluted the temple.  Despite these good intentions, things had gotten out of hand, and the point Jesus made was that commerce had displaced religious experience as the primary activity at the temple.

A common thread runs through the teaching of Jesus, and it casts light on his actions that day.  God places a higher value on a pure heart, even over the slaughter of animals.  That, in fact, was the point Jesus made in his death on the cross, and it helps to explain why Jesus seemed to lose his cool that day.  He was struggling, and that personal struggle would culminate in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  That day, then, Jesus expressed his anguish in deeds that continue to speak powerfully, even today.

As drastic as his actions were, Jesus was not an anarchist.  Rather, he hammered away at the spectacle of a commercial complex that had overwhelmed what should have been a sacred space.  And this is a critique that Jesus levels at us.  By extension Jesus takes to task anyone and everyone who would transform religious experience into a display of power or manipulation of others.  Not coincidentally, that dovetails with his concern with religious officials who load people down with burdens from which they exempt themselves.  Such hypocrisy has nothing to do with the search for God.

F4F2206C-4EA7-4F34-A382-AA29E0A4BB6BWhat Jesus did that day was a one-off in terms of the events of his life, but its symbolic value continues to echo.  In our own lives the spiritual quest can never be reduced to some sort of commercial activity.  In practice this means there’s never a time when we can reduce our relationship with God to a series of legal negotiations.   We may bargain with God on occasion, but we cannot demand pay-back from God for all our wonderful sacrifices.  That’s not what the search for God is about.  That bargaining with God will always be secondary, because getting a glimpse of God at work in our lives is at the heart of our spiritual quest.

That, it seems to me, is a good takeaway for Lent.  Clearly there are moments when I’d prefer to think of God as a merchant or a banker.  It would be so much easier to do business with somebody like that, and not just because I could keep my heart isolated and out of the transaction.  Those transactions would be clean and clear, and at the end I’d know exactly where I stand with God.

This puts a different value on our Lenten sacrifices.  Giving things up for Lent cannot be a business proposition.  Rather, they are an expression of deeper meaning in our lives.  God’s an artist and not a banker, and this explains God’s preference for pure hearts over bullocks or doves slaughtered on an altar.

Striving for a pure heart is not an after-hours job.  The point of it is to get a glimpse of God stirring within us.  So it is that we strive for lives of purpose and beauty.  That’s what makes all of us artists, full-time, no matter what our day jobs might be.

C5B6F14E-7A87-41A4-8688-FE991CB09558NOTES

+Today’s post is a reflection on John 2: 13-25, which happened to be the gospel passage for the Third Sunday of Lent.

+In last week’s post I noted that on February 26nd I would preside at the funeral of my friend Jo White.  It all turned out wonderfully, and she would have loved it.  The sisters chapel at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet in St. Paul was packed, and the liturgy was lovely.  The drive to the cemetery was a bit of an education for me, since I had never heard of the village of Credit River, MN.  Such a place exists, as I discovered after getting lost along the way.  Even my GPS couldn’t figure it out.  But I made it to the cemetery service just in the nick of time.

+This week Daniel Smith of Minneapolis joined our community at Saint John’s Abbey as a monastic associate.  For the next several months he will live and pray with us, and in the process learn more about the monastic life.  During this time he will work as an apprentice in the Saint John’s Pottery.

+On March 1 and 2 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+In today’s post are two pieces from the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  The first, at top, is a tryptich of the Descent from the Cross, made in the region of Cologne, ca. 1470.  The last two photos show Christ on the Cross between Mary and John, Cologne, ca. 1460.  At the bottom of the image is the family of the unknown donor who had commissioned the work.

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Soloists on the Path to God?

No one has ever accused St. Benedict of encouraging a lot of fun and games in the monastery.  In fact, in his Rule he outlined a pretty sober regimen of prayer, work and study.  When there needed to be talking, he advised keeping it to a minimum.  He also discouraged laughter, and he forbade gossip altogether.  The latter I can understand, since most gossip tiptoes beyond the limits of charity.  But when it comes to laughter I try to give Benedict the benefit of some doubt.  Like many of his contemporaries, Benedict frowned on laughter because it violated Stoic ideas about self-control of the emotions.  Still, that leaves us with an important question.  Did monks in Benedict’s community enjoy their lives?  Did they ever recreate?

It’s hard to answer, but we know that monks in later centuries did have their moments of enjoyment and relaxation.  For example, some of the legal customaries that regulated monastic life made provision for a break in the routine.  Medieval monks could take time off and go to the infirmary, even if they were not sick.  There they could rest, eat meat, and recover their stamina before resuming the routine.  It was their version of a vacation.

IMG_7500We also know that monks made time for community recreation.  Granted, St. Benedict didn’t make provision for this, but later monks did it anyway.  My all-time favorite example can be found in the life of Suger, abbot of St. Denis.  Located outside of Paris, St. Denis was an important place in the 12th century, and Suger gets credit for building the first truly gothic church in Europe.  It still stands today for all to see, though most people visit to gawk at its tombs of the kings and queens of France.

Suger spent a lot of time at court, and while Louis VII was off on the Crusades Suger served as a regent of the kingdom of France.  That leads to my point.  Suger writes that at the end of a busy day of running France he would return to St. Denis, and there he would gather round himself a group of monks to talk about the day’s events, both inside and outside the monastery.  It obviously was a relief to Suger to be with the people who mattered most to him.  It was also a reminder to even the youngest monks at St. Denis that they were not soloists on the path to God.  They were all on pilgrimage together, and they needed the support of each and every brother.

This is a long preamble to the experience I had in the novitiate at Saint John’s last week.  Part of the formation of our young monks involves getting to know the senior monks, and that is not always easy to do when people are busy and when the house is large.  To achieve this, then, our novices now and again invite individual monks to visit after evening prayer.  It’s their chance to get to know a senior, and last Thursday was my turn.

IMG_7476What do the novices want to know about?  Usually they want to know what brought us to the monastery, why we entered, and what we’ve done since we’ve been here.  In this case Jacob, Elias and Mariano knew a little about what I’d done over the years, but I decided to do a pre-emptive strike and open with a bit of show and tell.

I guessed, for example, that they would not think to ask about my work with the Order of Malta, simply because it’s pastoral work that I do away from the monastery.  So I brought along the Order of Malta chasuble and missal that I have, along with the decorations that I wear at Malta events.  (I also brought along the Danish-Lutheran ruffed preacher’s collar that some friends gave me several years ago — but that story is for another time.)  I spoke too about our pilgrimage to Lourdes, and I concluded with the observation that I volunteer with Malta because it’s an organization in which paying dues is not enough.  All are expected to serve the sick and the poor in some way, and that service is transformative.

The novices also knew that I’ve taught, directed a library, and now do development work in our University.  So I told them about one project special to me:  an effort to build a scholarship fund for students from Immokalee, FL, who come to Saint John’s for college.  I do that simply because it’s a chance to help some gifted young men to have a future they never thought possible.  Those guys are flourishing at Saint John’s, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of that effort.

IMG_7492We then drifted across a range of other topics.  For one, I explained my theory that people come to the monastery for all sorts of reasons, but they usually end up staying for an entirely different set of reasons.  I attribute that to the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer to transform a person over a lifetime.

Finally, I noted my hope in our future as a monastic community.   The fact that we have so many gifted young monks in our community inspires me.  Jacob, Elias and Mariano may only be in their year of probation in the community, but even in that first year among us they are gifts from God.  St. Benedict reminds us that the face of God can be seen in even the youngest, and so that presents a challenge for us who are their seniors.  Their presence demands that we look for the best in them.  Their presence is also a reminder that God has not forgotten us!

So those are some of the things we talked about at recreation last Thursday.  I’m sure that Benedict will forgive us our laughter, because it’s one of the ways in which monks support each other on the path to God.  It’s a reminder too that we will surely see the face of God in the next phase of life’s journey, because in the here and now we are blessed to see the face of Christ in the youngest in our midst.

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Notes

+On October 16th we welcomed into our community Elias, who was clothed as a novice, and Mariano, who was accepted as a probationary junior monk.  They join Novice Jacob in a year of probation in the community.

+On October 19th I visited with Brothers Jacob, Elias and Mariano in the novitiate after evening prayer.

+On October 20th the Saint John’s Pottery hosted a crowd of visitors for the firing of the giant wood-fired kiln, which holds some 12,000 pieces of pottery.  They fire the kiln every two years, and it is a huge bit of work to prepare for it.

+While the maples have lost their color and their leaves, the color has shifted to the ivy at Saint John’s.  The photos in today’s post show the reds and yellows of the Abbot’s Courtyard at Saint John’s.

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