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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s Preparatory School’

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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.

B64BAF7A-A362-4C29-BD0A-79C349C09D25NOTES

+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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The Benefits of Online Trading

For those of you who assume that life in a monastery is routine and unchanging, I have news for you.  Yes, there is the regular schedule that varies little from day to day and week to week.  Yes, there are assigned tasks that include readers and servers and celebrants for Mass, and readers and servers for table, as well as sign-up sheets for other tasks and responsibilities.  Saint Benedict alluded to the need for this in his Rule, and these lists eventually get coordinated and posted on the bulletin board for all to see.  However, far from outlining some unchanging reality for the coming week, these lists merely suggest what ought to happen if this were the ideal world.

Like most every other place on earth, however, the monastery is not the ideal world, and that’s where email has become a great gift when the need to adjust comes up. Once upon a time, if I were assigned to be table reader and couldn’t make it, for whatever reason, this meant going from monk to monk to find a substitute.  Much like the mariner in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I would have to explain my situation and humbly ask for help.  My hope, of course, was that I would eventually find some generous soul who could and would be willing to take my place.  And naturally this sometimes involved horse-trading of a sort, with me offering to take on some job assigned to the other monk.  Generally, however, we all have to rely on the good will of our brothers and hope for the best.

IMG_0659The internet has changed the entire dynamic, thankfully.  The advent of a Listserve which can reach every monk has introduced to the monastery our equivalent of electronic trading.  Pretty much every day there’s one or two appeals from monks who desperately need a substitute for something because their schedule has changed or because they’ve accidentally double-booked themselves.  Usually we get an answer within minutes, which strikes me as the greatest benefit of our unique form of electronic trading.

I cite all this as a preamble to a trade I made last week, and quite by accident I was the one who came out way ahead on the deal.  I had been scheduled to be the celebrant for Mass on Friday, and my confrere Fr. Nick was up for Mass on Thursday.  Nick had sent me an email, hoping against hope that I would be willing to trade days with him.  To his consternation he had two appointments for that date, both at the same time.  But since there was only one of him, this made for a difficult situation.  Much to his relief I was able to make the trade, and that’s how I gave to him Friday of the sixth week of Easter, while I came home with the memorial of St. Bede.  I was the clear winner in that deal, at least from my vantage.

St. Bede may matter little to most people, but I’ve always treasured this 8th-century Benedictine monk from the north of England.  In the 8th century most Europeans considered the north of England to be pretty much the edge of nowhere; but despite both the location and the relatively recent advent of Christianity, Bede had become one of the greatest scholars of the day.  And he has had an impact that reverberates even to this day.

IMG_0820Bede was a prolific writer, but he is best known for his History of the English Church and People, which I read for the first of many times in college.  It remains a fascinating text, all the more so because he pushed the envelop when it came to two ideas.  For one, in his day there was not yet an English church, and many of his Celtic neighbors would have taken umbridge at the thought that Bede had lumped them into it.  There also was no such thing as an English people just yet.  That reality was yet to come.  In Bede’s day there were Saxon and Angle and Jute and other Germanic tribes resident in what would become England;  but it would be a big stretch to call them a united English people.  That would come later, and English would emerge as a language only after many centuries.

Bede, however, was a visionary, and the fact that his vision became reality impacts us culturally and religiously to this day.  What brought all these tribes together was the preaching of the gospel in what became England.  In Bede’s thought the advent of Christianity made and shaped the English as a people, and Bede grafted this people onto the history of the Mediterranean homeland of Christianity.  Ironically, then, most of us Anglophones today can easily name one or more Roman emperors, but ask us to name the tribal kings of the East Anglia in the 5th century and we draw a blank.  Call it cultural imperialism or whatever you wish, but that’s the way it is, and Bede and his succession of readers are responsible for that worldview.

IMG_0660At his Ascension Jesus gave his final instruction to his disciples.  Included in that was the great commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, which some of his followers took seriously enough to actually do.  Six centuries later that message reached the ears of a young man named Bede, who became a monk in a remote corner of England, far from Rome and even further from Jerusalem.  Bede grew up to be an extraordinary scholar, but he also became an example of what the gospel can do to energize the lives of any and all of us.

Today we may not have the opportunity to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, but we do have the chance to bring the face of Christ to the limits of our own little worlds.  And the lesson is clear for us all.  There are no geographic limits to where Christ can reach.  There is no aspect of our own lives which Christ cannot transform. And there is no limit to what Christ can accomplish through us if we but welcome him.  After all these centuries, Bede still reminds us of that — and more.

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+On May 25th I presided at the Abbey Mass, which happened to be the memorial of St. Bede.

+On May 25th I also gave a conference to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who on the 27th completed their two-week retreat and orientation.  In the course of the summer these nineteen graduates of Saint John’s will disperse to the four winds as they take up assignments at Benedictine communities around the world.

+Saturday May 27th was a busy day at Saint John’s.  It began with graduation for the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School.  Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud presided and preached at the graduation Mass that preceded the commencement exercises.  That day there were two burial services in the cemetery, and we rounded out the day by hosting 250 alumni of Saint John’s University, who had returned for a two-day rugby reunion.  Thankfully none of these four events ran into each other.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the cathedral of Toledo (in Spain, not Ohio).  They show the late medieval reredos behind the altar, and they depict scenes in the life of Christ.  I especially like the image of the Ascension, in which Mary and the disciples look up as Jesus goes to heaven.  Note the bare feet, which indicates to me that there is no need for shoes in heaven.

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imageA Pilgrimage to Chartres

The first and last time I’d seen the cathedral of Chartres was when I was a third-year graduate student.  Like any decent medievalist who’d not beheld this wonder, I was mortified every time the subject of Chartres came up.  My classmates would shrink  back in mock horror at my ignorance;  but this visit would at last earn my spot at the seminar table.  So it was that on New Year’s Day I and Brother Dietrich, my confrere, trained out from Paris to make the required pilgrimage.

The day turned out to be memorable, but not in the way we’d expected.  First off, it was cold and rainy, at least until it changed to snow.  As you might reasonably conclude, it was also overcast.  As a result, the stained glass was a complete bust.  It was as if someone had closed the blinds, because the gloom inside matched the mood of the weather outside.  Plus, for all the good it did, they needn’t have bothered to turn on the central heat.  Either that, or they didn’t have any heating at all.  Whichever, by the time we left, my fingers and toes were numb, and we both knew that our visit to Chartres had been less than a peak experience.

imageWe couldn’t say the same about the train back to Paris, however.  It didn’t take long to realize that we shared our carriage with a wild and noisy bunch.  Clearly they were  upset, and I think it owed more to spirits than to the spiritual letdown from a bad day in the cathedral.  Soon enough we found ourselves roaring down the tracks, in the middle of a drunken brawl, staffed by twenty or more participants.  It was absolutely crazy, and hilarious in a Hollywood sort of way.  Dietrich and I were bug-eyed in fascination, but it was no place for mild-mannered monks.  So we slinked away and settled into a much quieter car, just in time to see a determined lot of police headed down to the big fight.

We never heard who won; and frankly I didn’t care, because at last I had my story about Chartres.  Never again did I hang back in class when the subject of Chartres came up.  Others may have had their theories about the artistic program of the cathedral, but I’d had a near-death experience while on pilgrimage to Chartres.  I was the only one who could blend art history with a story straight out of The Canterbury Tales.

imageIt’s been thirty-plus years since that memorable day, and I’m glad I waited until last week to return.  I’m glad, because I can now look at the building with completely fresh eyes, as well as with a deeper appreciation for what the architects hoped to achieve.  They created far more than a setting for great sculpture and stained glass, because they intended it to be a complete experience — one that yanks you out of this world and transports you into another dimension.

It helps to have seen a few science fiction movies, because once you accept the notion of time-warps and worm-holes, as expounded by Star Wars and the like, then you understand what Chartres is all about.  For the sake of argument, put yourself into the shoes of a 12th-century pilgrim.  You’ve just walked two hundred miles, and there, pointing up from the wide plain, stands nothing like anything you’ve ever seen before.  The great portico almost sucks you inside, and once inside the grand space sweeps you into a world of sensory overload.  The glass tells the biblical stories with over-the-top intensity.  The stone vaulting reaches heavenward, and from its niches gaze down statues that give flesh to biblical figures — figures who invite you to join in their pilgrimage into eternity.

imageOnce inside, the walls of Chartres completely seal out any world that you’ve known.  Inside, you stand in another universe, one in which you matter as a spiritual citizen and as a creature of God.  You are not an alien here, because it is to this world that God calls you.  It is a world of goodness, and truth, and above all of beauty.  It is the realm of balance and harmony.  It is the world as God meant it to be when Adam and Eve first walked the garden paths of Eden.

Chartres purges you of the world you had brought in with you.  But it also reminds you to take the experience back home with you.  This is not meant to be a one-time event, stored in your memory.  Rather, it teaches that the divine realm has now claimed you for its own, even when you leave.

imageAs unique as Chartres may be, it also underscores that it’s not the only portal that opens to the divine.  Rather, when we pass through the door into our home, we should find inside the same experience of God.  When we cross the threshold into the monastery, we should expect to discover that same communion with God in a rightly balanced world.  And when we bless ourselves with water as we enter any church, we should be aware that we are about to step through a time warp and enter into the realm of God.

For me the lesson from Chartres is simple. When we re-emerge into the mix of gloom and sunshine in our lives, we ought not leave behind the spectacular serenity of any sacred space.  Rather, we can and ought to take it all with us.  Perhaps that’s why we end the Eucharistic liturgy with the simple invitation to “Go in peace.”  It’s not such bad advice for the train back to Paris, nor for any journey in life.

Notes

image+On April 30th I arrived in Paris, armed with a long to-do list.  My first discovery was that even then the crowds can be huge.  It’s always a good idea to have a back-up roster when the line outside the Louvre stretches for one and a half hours.  That’s when I first realized that it can be faster to take the train to Chartres (63 minutes), than it can be to get into the Louvre.  Or Notre Dame, for that matter.  If you’re willing to explore a host of lesser-know churches in Paris, however, your diligence is well-rewarded.  Most tourists leave such places alone.  There’s no wait, and scarcely anyone gets in the way of a good camera shot.

image+This year Saint John’s Prep School fielded two teams in the annual Minnesota State Knowledge Bowl competition.  As circumstances would have it, the younger of the teams edged out the more senior in the regionals, and it moved on to the state finals.  Among the several hundred teams that participated statewide, it won first place.

+On an entirely different note, the rugby team at Saint John’s University recently won the national title among small colleges.  It was the second year in a row for those dogged competitors.

+The photos in today’s post all come from Chartres.  The range of subject matter is quite varied, and the last window illustrates the month of May.

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