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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s University’

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How Will You Season the Season?

For years I’ve campaigned for the privilege of experiencing art first-hand.  That includes a visit to a gallery, listening to music performed by real live people rather than by a machine, or wandering through an architectural masterpiece.  Somehow it all seems to be the right thing to do, particularly if there’s a chance to thank the creative talents that have made it come to pass.

Last week I had the chance to experience Handel’s Messiah, which I’d not done in years.  I use the verb experience deliberately, because you can’t just sit there like a bump on a log, as if it were Muzak in an elevator.  Handel’s Messiah sweeps you off your feet, and so it was as my ears feasted on the voices and the instruments.

IMG_0087_2But it was a visual treat as well.  There, right in front of me, 120 singers performed with dignity and with a power that was alternately unleashed and restrained.  Along with them were the musicians, who seemed to cradle their tanned wooden instruments as if they were new-borns.  It was stunning on so many levels, and I was not the only one who had goose-bumps.  I know so, because several total strangers came up to me and volunteered the same experience.

As beautiful as it was, there was one other thing that struck me.  Amazingly, for the space of two hours, 140 wonderfully creative people surrendered their inalienable right to do their own thing and decided to act as one.  For that brief interlude no one glanced at email or cell phones.  No one strayed off onto some musical tangent in order to improve on Handel’s score.  Instead, in a grand display of self-discipline, everybody sang or played the notes assigned to them.  Nor did they drift around the stage when there were no notes assigned to them.  Instead, they performed as a community.  Together they achieved something that they could never have accomplished on their own.  For one brief moment they banished the rugged individualism that diminishes our world, and they offered to us a glimpse into a heaven we’d not noticed before.

Advent is not a time for rugged individualism, nor is it a season in which we wander off into our own personal reveries.  Advent is not the season in which to ignore other people, and that includes the people whose creativity enriches our lives and those whose ill health isolates them from full participation in the joys of life.  Advent instead is a time when all of us should step up and take an active part in the fullness of life that is spread before us.

Most obviously, Jesus is our best teacher for this important lesson.  He was not born as the son of Mary for the sole purpose of doing his own thing.  He had a mission;  he had a purpose;  and he came so that we might have life and have it in abundance.

IMG_0088_2For those of us who intend to follow in the steps of Jesus, then, it’s paramount that we embrace life and live it graciously and with intensity.  Obviously we can’t attend concerts or go to museums during every waking hour, but it’s important that we season our lives with such experiences.  Obviously we can’t help the sick and the poor whenever and wherever we encounter them;  but it’s important to recognize them as fellow pilgrims.  And just as obviously, it’s incredibly unhealthy to spend all our time just doing our own thing, as if no one else mattered.  Oddly enough, when no one else matters, neither do we.

Living this sort of full and balanced life is not always easy, but living as if I alone mattered is an illness for which there is a cure.  The cure involves thanking people for their creativity.  It involves reaching out in moments when we can make a tangible difference.  It involves using our hands to do the work of Jesus on a daily basis.  And if that’s too much to do year-round, then perhaps it’s a good exercise for Advent.

So what’s a person to do with Advent?  My advice to myself is to season the season with art — in all its forms.  Season the season with service.  Season the season with quiet time to consider God’s gifts to me and my neighbor.  If I do all that, I figure that Christmas might very well come a little early this year.

IMG_0089_2NOTES

+No doubt the highlight of the last week was a three-day trip to Ontario that I took with one of my colleagues from Saint John’s.  On December 7th we flew to Toronto, and on the evening of the 8th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Jerome University in Waterloo, Ontario.  The next evening we attended the production of Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Grand Philharmonic Choir and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.  That concert took place in Kitchener, and preceding the concert I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, to what turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd.  The performance of Messiah was wonderful, though my colleague had the misfortune of being seated next to a woman who decided to sing along with the choir.  As a result he did not enjoy the performance quite as much as did I.

+I actually do have one good friend in Waterloo, and my visit there gave me the chance to meet up with him.  Roman is a member of the Order of Malta in Obedience and is now president of the Order of Malta in Canada.  We’ve met many times over the years in Lourdes and more recently at an annual retreat that takes place in Malvern, PA.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the Church of Saint Séverin in Paris.  The first stained glass window shows Saint Martin of Tour sharing his cloak with a poor begger, while the others show Saint Vincent de Paul as he made the rounds among the poor of Paris.

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Andrew:  A Patron Whose Time Has Come

I’ve never been one of those monks who love to bolt out of church as soon as is decently possible.  Like most of my confreres, I’m happy enough to make my exit at a leisurely pace.  All the same, I do appreciate the caution that St. Benedict gave about lingering too long in the oratory when community prayer is over.  On this he and I are of one mind:  enough is enough, even for monks.

That latter point helps explain my general lack of enthusiasm when a feast day brings in its tow a second reading at morning prayer.  At that hour I’m either groggy or rehearsing in my mind the day’s to-do list.  So one reading is more than enough, and a second is a gratuity that brings no thrill.

There are exceptions, of course, and last week’s feast of St. Andrew was one of them.  That feast brought a second reading, and to my surprise it grabbed my attention as second readings seldom do.  It came from the pen of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and it pointed out something that was so obvious that I was embarrassed never to have considered it before.

IMG_5070Cardinal Newman opened with the point that Andrew and Peter were perhaps the first disciples whom Jesus called.  That I already knew.  I also knew that Andrew had shown his commitment to Jesus by bringing others to meet him.  What I’d not considered, however, was the reward that came to Andrew for being among the first and the most unwavering in his loyalty.  To paraphrase Newman, for all of his effort Andrew seems to have gotten the 1st-century equivalent of diddly-squat.

For perspective, consider Andrew’s brother Peter.  When the chips were down Peter denied Jesus three times, and he was impetuous in his behavior.  Yet he got it all.  He got the celebrity;  he got the authority;  he got the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose.  And what did Andrew get?  Obscurity.  Cardinal Newman wonders about the justice in this, and so do I.

As I listened to Newman’s passage, I thought of the promise Jesus made that the first shall be last and the last first.  That was certainly true for Andrew, and it left me wondering whether Andrew ever resented his brother Peter.  Anybody could see that Andrew was more promising executive material.  And yet, like Jacob’s brother Esau, he got passed over in the succession planning.

Then it dawned on me.  Andrew, at least in my opinion, should be the patron saint of all siblings who have to live in the shadow of a more charismatic brother or sister.  Andrew is the model for all those who toil without fail and with sterling reliability, day in and day out, largely unnoticed.  The Church should name him the patron saint for all who feel overworked and underappreciated.

IMG_5046That’s more than I normally get out of an average second reading on a feast day, and for that I’m grateful to Andrew.  I’m grateful for the way Andrew lived his life, and I’m grateful that he gave some good material for Cardinal Newman to work with.  And thanks to Cardinal Newman, I came away with a deeper appreciation for Andrew and the kind of person he represents.

At this remove, then, do I think that Andrew harbors any resentment that the largest church in the world is named for his brother?  Absolutely not.  Does he envy his brother for his celebrity?  I seriously doubt it.  Does he regret his brother’s impetuous and bumbling character?  Perhaps he found it slightly amusing.

Foremost for Andrew, however, was his relationship with Jesus, and he was eager to share his Lord with others.  That’s what he would recommend to us if he were sitting next to us today.

Still, we’re left with one nagging question.  Was life unfair to Andrew?  From the perspective of celebrity, Andrew clearly got the short end of the stick.  But on another level his reward was more than ample.  He was among the first to know Jesus.  His friendship with the Lord never wobbled for a minute.  That said, he got the reward but not the fanfare.  To my way of thinking, that’s a patron saint whose time has come.

IMG_2398Notes

+During the month of November we remember all those who have specifically asked us to pray for their deceased friends and family members.  People send in to the Abbot’s office their requests, which are then gathered in a basket at the entrance to church.  As we monks file in we take one of those slips with us and return it when prayer is done.  For whatever reason, I have found this custom to be wonderful.  It makes tangible our effort to be mindful of the needs of others.

+On December 2nd we monks had our monthly day of reflection.  In addition to the Abbot’s conference at 10 am, we went about our lives in silence from morning until the completion of dinner.

+On Sunday evening, December 3rd, Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud presided and preached at the student Mass.  That was followed by refreshments and the opportunity to meet and visit with the bishop.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of Saint John’s University twice over, and he regularly visits campus.  We are always delighted by his presence.

+The photos in today’s post come from a variety of sources.  At the top is an altar panel of The Annunciation by Bartolomaus Zeitblom, ca. 1500, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Below that is a carving of St. Peter by Roderick d’Osona, made in Valencia, ca. 1500, and housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  Next is yet another saint who gets a lot of press at this time of year:  Saint Nickolas, by an anonymous artist, ca. 1500.  It too is in the Museum of Catalan Art, as is the altar frontal from the Church of Saint Andrew, ca. 1200.

+On Saturday evening, December 2nd, Abbot John lit the first candle on the two Advent wreaths that we have, one in the reflectory and the second in the church.  The photo above is from the church, and Fr. Lew and Novice Jacob labored over that wreath until every last twig was in place.

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Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”

IMG_0025_2Notes

+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.

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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.

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“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.

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Notes

+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Remembering 31 October 1517

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses, and there’s no denying that they achieved a significance that he scarcely imagined.  Meant to be an academic exercise, they in fact became the spark that lit a fire that became a conflagration.

This year marked the 500th anniversary of that act, and people were not entirely sure how to mark the occasion.  Some celebrated;  some noted it with regret;  while a few dismissed its significance altogether.  Not surprisingly, some lionized Luther, though one op-ed piece in The Minneapolis Star Tribune went over the top when it gave the theologian credit for having ushered in the scientific revolution, modern capitalism, and constitutional democracy.  Luther, no doubt, would have been as surprised as I by this list.

What did not surprise me in the least was the brevity of the celebration.  By November 1st we’d all gone back to our cell phones and our hourly doses of politics, which is kind of sad.  It’s sad because we scarcely took the time to ponder the change that’s taken place to heal some of the wounds that have divided western Christians for so long.

IMG_2382I grew up in a part of the country where Catholics constituted 3% of the population, Episcopalians 2%, and Lutherans 1%.  I’m rather embarrassed now to admit that many of our fellow citizens thought that we three churches were going to hell together, but that’s not an unfair characterization.  As a result, we Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans became good neighbors to each other, long before it became fashionable.

I expected to find uniformly warm relations between Catholics and Lutherans when I moved to Minnesota, but I was surprised to find pockets of mistrust.  Still running around were some Catholics and Lutherans who were absolutely convinced that it was a big sin to step into each others’ churches.  Had I been naive to assume so much overlap between the two churches?  Perhaps.  But I was equally convinced that the differences were no longer canyon-sized, as a few believed.

A lot has happened in Minnesota and elsewhere to heal some of the rifts that opened in 1517, and most of it has occurred in the last fifty or sixty years.  So it’s important to realize what some Christian communities have accomplished in that time, even if it doesn’t make the evening news.  It’s a tribute to the vision and hard work of countless individuals, some of whom took a little heat as they labored to make our religious landscape a little more Christian.

Lots of people deserve recognition for their efforts, but for the moment I want to cite the monks of Saint John’s who forged our own particular contribution.  Since the 1940s they have accomplished things that certainly would have raised the eyebrows of our 19th-century confreres, but the latter had their mission and we have ours.

IMG_2388The litany of achievement is long, and I can’t include each and every detail.  Still, it’s worth noting that for decades we have welcomed Lutheran and other pastors who have come to teach and preach from our pulpit in the Abbey church.  Second, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Collegeville Institute, which invites visiting scholars for a semester or year-long resdence to pursue research on ecumenical topics.  On another front, individual monks and faculty at Saint John’s University have participated in Vatican-sponsored dialogues with Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches.  We’ve leased land to the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, which has allowed it to build the Episcopal House of Prayer, a retreat center on the Abbey grounds.  And daily we welcome all sorts of individuals and church groups to join us in praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the Abbey church.

As for me, I’ve ridden on the coat tails of all this work, and I’ve been privileged to speak and preach in many churches where I would have been unwelcome a hundred years ago.  These continue to be gratifying experiences, as I learn from others and they learn from me.

In that regard, I will always recall when, many years ago, I spoke at a Lutheran church in Minneapolis.  One listener asked whether I thought that Lutherans and Catholics would ever become one Church.  Of course the assumption running through the minds of many was that the Catholics would be the footdraggers, and it would never happen.  My answer came swiftly, supplied by the Holy Spirit.  “Yes, I do think we will unite, and I can tell you exactly when.  Catholics and Lutherans will unite exactly one month after the ELCA and the Missouri Synod Lutherans unite.”  Appreciative laughter erupted.

IMG_2353The task of reaching out in faith to one another is never done, which is a good thing.  It means that you and I have lots of important work left to do.  On the other hand, it’s important to be grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before us in faith and reached out to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

October 31st was as good a day as any to make note of all that.  On the one hand, we can regret many of the things that happened after 1517.  On the other hand, there is cause for genuine celebration for what people have done in the last two generations.  It’s a sign that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our midst — quietly and patiently.  For that reason I have no doubt that, come 31 October 2117, we’ll have even more to show for the work of the Holy Spirit among us.

IMG_2380Notes

+This past week I flew to Arizona.  Due to my back troubles last winter, I’d not been there in nearly a year, and my absence coincided with a week of cold weather at home.  One highlight of the trip was a stop at the mission of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  It was built in the 1790s, and the major surprise to me was a fresco of what the docent termed Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, located in the dome above the nave.  Nicknamed the White Dove, the mission stands out dramatically on the desert landscape.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate the mission, founded by the Jesuits and now staffed by Franciscans.  You can click on the photos to enlarge them, and in particular it’s worth taking a look at the fresco of Mary with the sheep.

+In recognition of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library has staged an exhibit of 16th-century books relating to the Reformation.  Among them is the very first book that the monks of Saint John’s entered into the holdings of the University library.  It has the accession number “1”, and it is a German translation of the Bible, printed in Cologne in 1572.  It was among the books that the monks brought with them when they came to Minnesota in 1856.

+On 11 November our football team bested Concordia in a game hosted at Saint John’s.  One observer wryly noted that in commemoration of the Reformation Saint John’s outscored every Lutheran opponent on the schedule this season.  To which I would add that we aspired to do the same with every Catholic opponent as well.  So there was nothing personal or confessional about this.

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Take a Chance on a Life Well-lived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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Christ is in the Tangles of Life

[This is a sermon that I delivered on 29 October.]

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been troubled by today’s passage from chapter 22 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  After all, Jesus seemed to be a pretty nice guy, who wouldn’t hurt a flea.  He always meant well, and mainly he only wanted to help people.  Given that, why in the world would the Sadducees want to trip him up?  And why would the Pharisees think they would succeed where the Sadducees had failed?  Why did it matter to them?  And why should their experience matter to us?

When the Pharisees asked Jesus to single out the most important law, they already knew what to expect from him.  The love of God and love of neighbor took highest priority in the Jewish tradition, and they and Jesus and everyone else knew that already.  Had Jesus named any other law, everybody would have been very much surprised.  And had Jesus done so, they would have sprung the trap.  But Jesus didn’t take the bait;  he said the right thing.  Meanwhile the Pharisees heard what they had expected to hear, but not what they had wanted to hear.  And so they quietly walked away to come up with Plan B.

IMG_5701What they preferred to hear, I suspect, was something along the lines of the laundry list of duties and responsibilities that God had enjoined on his people in the first reading for today, taken from chapter 22 of the Book of Exodus.  In that passage God is quite specific about the kind of behavior he expects to see in his people.  They must not oppress the aliens in their midst.  They should not wrong widows and orphans.  They should not lend money and then extort interest from people.  If they take anyone’s cloak as security for a loan, then they should return it before sunset.

God could have gone on and on, piling one regulation on top of another, but for the moment that was enough.  However, elsewhere in the Old Testament God does return to these kinds of specifics — particularly in the words that he puts into the mouths of the prophets.

That may be the sort of detailed answer that the Pharisees had hoped to hear from Jesus.  About those sorts of issues there could be endless debate, because the devil is often in these sort of details.  But in those details is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out the Two Great Commandments.  So it’s fair, for example, to ask how the words of Exodus apply to us.  What exactly does God expect us to do about the alien in our midst?  What exactly should we be doing for the widow and orphan, besides not oppressing them?  How exactly does God’s law figure into ethical business practices?

IMG_5703In all these issues there is grist for endless debate, countless books and articles, and the caution that gives us plenty of excuses not to act.  And if Jesus had only spoken about those things, then the Sadducees and Parhisees would have backed him into a corner and kept him there for a long time.

But for the moment Jesus refused to get bogged down in the devil’s details and went to the core of God’s law.  We must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our being.  Into every fiber of our being and into every moment of our day we must allow the grace of God to flow.  And from that unity with God derives the second great commandment:  we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

The important thing, it seems to me, is to realize that Jesus was not trying to avoid the hard and detailed questions of life — the very sort of things that the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up on.  And it’s definitely not because these things did not matter to Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus singled out the two great commandments, by extension he underlined the importance of all those other items.  The details matter — not as debate topics or excuses for inaction — but because they are the expression of whether we take love of God and neighbor seriously , or not.  How we treat aliens and widows and orphans and the poor matters because we love God and neighbor.  Those peoples are the detailed handiwork of God, just as are we.

I’m fond of quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, especially when he offers insights into his own troubled pilgrimage through life.  Augustine was troubled for lots of reasons, but not because he thought that life or God had been unfair with him.  Rather, he came to realize the fundamental connection that we have with God and how that makes all the difference in the details of the here and now.  For him there will always be uneasiness  until we bring into alignment our love of God on the one hand, and how we choose to tease that out into our lives.  And so it is that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

IMG_5704It should not surprise us, then, that we might be restless in our own pilgrimage of life.  As Jesus suggests,  our religious commitment is grounded in our love of God and our love of neighbor — above all other things.  And so it is that as members of the Order of Malta, and as Christians, we deliberately keep before us the need to weave the love of God and neighbor into the smallest details of our service to the poor and the sick.  There, not surprisingly, we at times encounter the devil in the details;  but yet we carry on, no matter the cost.

Does our work make a difference?  Will our lives matter?  On the one hand I think we need to forge ahead anyway, regardless of the answers.  And we do so in confidence that ultimately God will be the judge of those things.

But on the other hand, only when we take the plunge and immerse ourselves in the messy details of life, only then will we discover a great surprise.  We may have thought that the devil was in the details.  But in fact it is the Lord Jesus whom we see in the details.  And through the tangle of life it is the face of Christ peeking out at us.

IMG_5705Notes

+My major activity of last week was the retreat that I gave to members In Obedience in the Order of Malta.  It is a yearly gathering that takes place at San Damiano Franciscan Retreat Center, located in Danville, CA.  Danville is in the East Bay, south of Oakland, and it was spared the fire that had ravaged nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys.  Had we been scheduled to have the retreat during those fires, we would not have met.  The smoke was intense, and in the event of a fire we would have been toast.  The center sits on the top of a small mountain, and there is only one winding road up (and just as obviously, one road down.)  Today’s post is a sermon I gave to them on October 29th.

+By coincidence a group of extern sisters from Carmelite convents from around the country were also gathered at San Damiano.  The extern sisters are the ones who deal with the business of the convent, while the nuns in the community remain cloistered.  This brought to mind stories my mother had told of her contact with the Carmelites.  Before she married she worked at a school run by Carmelite sisters in Oklahoma City, and years later she often visited the cloistered Carmelite nuns who lived in nearby Piedmont, OK.  I mentioned this to one of the sisters at the meeting, and her face brightened as I spoke.  She was from the community in Piedmont.  So it was a small world that day.

+On October 27th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s.  The two inches did not last long, but it is a reminder that seasonal change is in the offing.  Just a few days earlier it had reached 80 degrees, so this is a rapid transition.

+The photos in today’s post come from the Cité de L’Architecture, a museum in Paris.  The museum houses plaster casts of historic architecture from around France, and it’s the perfect place to go if you want to see a lot of stuff without having to go very far.  The photos above depict the Abbey of Sainte Foi in Conques.

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