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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s University’

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Retreat!  (But Don’t Run Away!)

The thought of monks going on retreat must strike some people as ridiculous.  After all, haven’t we already fled from the world to take up a life of prayer and asceticism?  What’s left to retreat from?

A second surprise for many is that monks are people too.  Like everybody else, we’re beset by distractions, even during prayer.  We also bump up against temptations, which are much like those that occur to most other people.  And we’re under no illusion that we’re the only ones who’ve ever thought of chucking it all and moving on to something new —- like a new job, new friends, new home, new way of life.  And we too see visions of grass that’s greener on the other side.  Of course it really is greener, but mainly in our dreams.

One of the ironies of the Rule of Saint Benedict is that Benedict makes no provision for a retreat.  He pretty much assumes that our lives will be one constant retreat in which we keep death daily before our eyes and live with intensity and focus.  That is certainly a lovely idea, but the reality of life in a monastery is somewhat different.  All too often the bias in our lives tips toward an emphasis on work and responsibility.  That comes at the expense of prayer, reading, recreation and even sleep.  It’s the human condition writ local, and long ago canon law in the Church made an annual retreat mandatory for all priests and religious — including monks and nuns.

F9FA4123-509F-4E92-BD50-946C8FCC2288So what do monks think about during a retreat?  For one thing, many of the monks I know think about work that’s not getting done because they’re sitting there listening to a retreat conference.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them, so I know what I’m talking about).  They’re also thinking about vital email that must be piling up.  They think about all the other useful things they could be doing.  And of course they’re thinking about the nap that they could be taking because they’re not at work.  And every now and then they think about how life could have been had they chosen another course.

The point of a retreat, however, is neither to run away from the monastic life nor dream about an escape to some new and idyllic circumstances.  Ideally a retreat is meant to focus our attention on the two great commandments around which all the big and little details of life should be organized.  Loving God with all our heart is the first of these; and loving our neighbor is the second.  I grant it’s a stretch to believe that these could be more important than putting in overtime or answering email, but there you have it.

When monks come to the monastery they bring the intellectual and emotional baggage that they’ve accumulated up to that point.  Once clothed in the habit the agenda shifts to sorting out the items worth keeping and tossing the stuff that’s extraneous or destructive.  It also involves training in how to distinguish between the guests whom we should welcome into our mental living rooms and those we should politely ask to leave.  After all, why should we allow the latter to live rent-free in our minds?

Monks, like everyone else, need a retreat once in a while.  And it’s almost secondary whether it lasts five days once a year or a half an hour every few days.  We all need to clean house and rearrange the furniture.  Far from being an exercise in running away, it’s an attenpt to take an inventory of our lives.  It’s why we do it, and it’s why anyone who’s not given it a try should do so.  It’s amazing what a good cleaning can do.

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NOTES

+On August 6th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On August 8th I flew to Dallas to give a retreat to the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  The Cistercians are a late 11th-century offshoot of the Benedictines, and they too follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.  This particular monastery had its foundation in a group of Hungarian monks who escaped following the anti-communist revolt in 1956.  Today they conduct a wonderful prep school.  Once I arrived I was thoroughly surprised to discover that the novice master, Fr. Ignatius, is a 1998 graduate of Saint John’s University.  At Saint John’s he was an art major and then went on to a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Texas before discovering his monastic vocation.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I was able to stay for the profession of first vows by their novice.  That retreat provided the occasion for today’s post.

+The various flowerbeds around campus seem to be particularly vibrant these days.  With so many possibilities to consider, these were the photos that made the cut.

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In Pursuit of Transfiguration

I’m probably not the best person in the world to make some sense of the Transfiguration of the Lord, for one simple reason.  I’ve always found this episode to be curiously out of place in the life of Jesus.  It seems so gratuitous and unnecessary.  Why in the world would Jesus pull off a stunt like this?  At worst it seems cheaply theatrical, meant to dazzle a few select disciples.  At best it seems like an irrelevant display of power meant to put distance between Jesus and us.

At first glance, in the Transfiguration Jesus seems to suggest that he’s not at all like the rest of us.  But in fact, years of puzzling over this now suggests to me just the opposite.  Jesus is very much one with us; and of greater importance, in this event he invites us to follow him in a lifelong pursuit of our own Transfiguration.

597FC45A-A9B5-4F96-A294-3B29884FE2BFFor me the key to understanding this episode is the guest list on that mountain with Jesus.  There’s Moses and Elijah, locked in mystical conversation; and watching, like children, are Peter, James and John.  The latter don’t quite know what to make of it all, but in fact Jesus has just invited them to join in this moment of Transfiguration.  Like Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John are meant to be part of the experience.  And by extension, Jesus also reaches out to you and me to pull us into the picture.

The Transfiguration, then, is meant to humble neither the disciples nor us.  Rather, in it Jesus extends an invitation to continue in a lifelong transformation.  In baptism we took the first step; in the Eucharist we grow further in our transformation; and in the little things of our lives we walk with the Lord on a pilgrimage that once seemed scarcely possible.

So as much as the Transfiguration may be about Jesus, it’s very much about us too.  It’s not some gratuitous stunt meant to put distance between Jesus and us.  Rather, it’s the moment when Jesus shakes us up to the reality of our own possibilities.  It’s an electrifying wake-up to remind us that there’s more to our lives than what we may have imagined.  There is in fact transcendent purpose to our lives.

We all are flesh and bone, as was Jesus.  But like Jesus there is more to us than that.  God has created us in the divine image, and Jesus has come to gather us and lead us into a lifelong process of Transfiguration.  So it is that the Transfiguration is no cheap theatric.  It’s a glimpse into who God calls each one of us to be.

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NOTES

+Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered at the abbey Mass on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration.

+Today’s post is something of a personal milestone, in that it begins the eighth year of this blog.  It is the 366th post, published on 366 consecutive Mondays.  The entire experience has reaffirmed one old saw that I regularly repeat.  If I knew at the beginning how much work it was going to be, I never would have done it.  If I’d known the positive impact it would have on my life, I’d have done it a lot sooner.  Thanks for reading this!

+This past week we hosted the Eden Prairie High School marching band for their annual band camp, and it was wonderful to hear their music as it drifted across the campus.  In addition to other groups at prayer with us this week, we welcomed at evening prayer on Saturday the incoming class of architecture students from the University of Minnesota.

+This week I am hosting for a five-day retreat a member of the Order of Malta from San Francisco.  He is here in preparation for his promise of Obedience, which he will make this fall.

+Relatively benign temperatures and plenty of rain have marked our summer at Saint John’s, and the 2.2 inches on Saturday served as icing on the cake.  The rains have worked their own transfiguration of the campus, as the photos in today’s post demonstrate.  They are from the cloister gardens on either side of the church.

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A Little Silence Can Be Golden

I used to think that only other people got to see the unusual things, while my daily rounds were pretty boring.  Lately, however, I’ve had my share of sightings, and I’ve perked up a bit.

Probably the most startling thing I saw in the last week took place on Saturday.  I was at a lunch, sitting at a table outside, when I heard a crash and looked up with a start.  Somebody had just rear-ended a pick-up, parked a few feet from where I was sitting.   The good news was that neither the driver nor the cell phone she had been using were injured.  The same could not be said for her car, though.  The parked pick-up had won.

95DDE85D-F528-453B-9A54-D9F74A4164F1Things like that used to show up in News of the Weird, but no more.  That sort of stuff now happens with such regularity that it scarcely deserves attention, which explains why I so casually turned back to lunch.   After all, just two days earlier I had watched as a young man who was texting walked right into a post.  The post won, and I awarded the post extra points for that.

The prize for the most eccentric behavior of the week I bestowed on a person who talked non-stop for almost two whole blocks.  I was stuck on the sidewalk behind her and her friend, but when I finally had the chance to pass, I didn’t.  By then it had become hugely entertaining.  For upwards of four minutes she talked at a ferocious clip, without resort to a comma, a semicolon or any other sort of punctuation.  Just listening left me breathless, but she seemed not to be.

That performance brought to mind Saint Benedict’s chapter on the restraint of speech.  There he cites Proverbs 10:19 to this effect:  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  I’m not sure that this person meant any harm with her torrent of words, but the verdict belongs to her long-suffering companion who seemed so pained by it all.

By contrast Saint Benedict was a man of few words, which likely explains the brevity of his Rule.  It’s not that he was against speaking, but he honestly believed that the fewer the words, the better.   And when it came to prayer the same held true.  So it is that after several chapters dealing with the details of the prayer cycle in the monastery, he rewards the reader with this rather terse comment:  “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should always be short and pure….”  And then he concludes:  “In community, however, prayer should always be brief….”

CA2BA3DF-ED02-4D9F-9DE7-8188C3C75E2BFor those who assume that prayer should be super-dignified, ethereal and long-winded, Saint Benedict offers a different perspective.  He doesn’t exactly say that we should talk with God as we would with our friends.  But in fact we should.  It should be a conversation in which we don’t hesitate to tell God what’s on our mind.  We shouldn’t be bashful to tell God what troubles us and what makes us happy.  God wants to know.

But as in any good conversation, there need to be at least two parties, and everybody should have a chance to speak.  Perhaps with that in mind Benedict begins his Rule with the word “Listen.”  That’s a key element in any praying that we do, and it’s necessary for any fruitful conversation — be it with God or with our friends.

”Listen” is the word I wanted to share with that overly-chatty person on the sidewalk.  But had I had the nerve, it likely would have come out ”LISTEN!”  So it’s just as well that I took the advice of Saint Benedict that day and kept my mouth shut.  For that moment, at least for me, silence was golden.

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+Summer is winding down at Saint John’s and in two weeks the first of our students begin to trickle in for the fall term.  However, there are still groups visiting and working on campus, including several of our students who are doing individual research this summer.  In addition, HMML has hosted two groups for month-long sessions.  First, it hosted the NEH summer seminar entitled “Thresholds of Change:  Modernity and Transformation in the Mediterranean, 1400-1700.”  That drew 25 professors from across the country.  Most recently HMML hosted Dumbarton Oaks Research Library’s Syriac Summer Language School, which drew ten scholars from around the world.  Dumbarton Oaks is Harvard University’s Byzantine research library and institute in Washington, DC. At the other end of the spectrum, we hosted the annual camp for the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  For an entire week their music filtered through the campus, and it was a delight.

+The first three photos all show writers at their craft.  At top is Saint Ambrose, made by a Spanish carver, ca. 1500.  Next is Saint Bridget of Sweden, writing down her Revelations.  It was made in the Netherlands, ca. 1470.  Below that is John of Patmos, writing the Book of Revelation on a scroll (Burgundy, ca. 1450-1500).  Saint James the Greater I have included because his feast day was on July 25th.  All four of these items are to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At bottom is a wrought iron panel, which has nothing to do with any of the sculptures here.  I just happened to like it and thought it would be a nice accent piece and serve as a period in today’s post.  It is housed in the V & A in London.

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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”

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+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.

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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.

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+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.

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Are We Citizens of Nazareth?
On Sunday morning Abbot John performed a ritual that’s been repeated for 160 years at Saint John’s Abbey.  At morning prayer he clothed our friend Jeremy as a novice, and so that day Brother Jeremy began his quest to see whether life in our monastic community is the vocation to which God calls him.

Having been a monk for more than a few years now, I can say for myself that it’s been a fulfilling experience.  But I also have to say that I’m not the same person I was when I first came to this place, and I’m glad about that.  I hope that along with age I’ve also grown in wisdom.  Some of my talents I’ve developed, and some are still dormant, unused and perhaps unneeded.  But along the way I’ve come to realize that my fellow monks have respected my individuality even as they’ve nudged me to grow.

061A77FE-B389-4A87-8E3C-7E0ABB700CA5If there’s one thing I now realize about monastic formation, it’s this.  We as a community are not interested in creating clones of some idealized monk.  And so eventually Brother Jeremy will have to come to terms with a community of wildly contrasting individuals.  In our community we subscribe to the advice that Oscar Wilde offered, and it’s the advice I would give to Brother Jeremy.  “Be yourself.  Everybody else is taken”

I bring all this up in the shadow of today’s gospel passage about the return visit of Jesus to Nazareth, the place where he had grown up.  In brief, the people of Nazareth didn’t like what they saw, and they rejected Jesus.  I can only speculate about what it was that irritated them, but it’s clear that Jesus had grown up into someone they no longer recognized.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to concede that as a youngster Jesus was not hell on wheels, or they would have been happy to see some maturity in him — at last.  At the other extreme, I can imagine the possibility that they recalled the young Jesus as a good boy, perhaps a bit shy, obedient and respectful to a fault.  Perhaps the young Jesus had given the impression that he would grow up into someone who would not rock the boat — someone who would blend quietly into the small-town society of Nazareth.  He would become a clone of everyone else, and no one need worry about him.

636C5C33-69D3-4488-9198-0244451E7434Well, it didn’t turn out that way.  Jesus left home and he had changed;  and for many in Nazareth the change was just too much.  Whatever Jesus had become when he returned to Nazareth, he wasn’t what many had expected.  And some were downright upset by what they saw.

It’s also possible to assume that Jesus had grown up and changed, and the best term to describe what had happened to him was that he had blossomed.  He had grown in age and wisdom, as the gospels say, and the seeds of his vocation had taken root and sprouted.  He now knew that he had come to do the will of his Father, and not the will of the people of Nazareth.

That scenario, of course, leaves us with a rather unflattering portrait of the people of Nazareth.  They had created a stifling social environment that left little room for the kind of maturity that they now saw in Jesus.  Whether Jesus had come to do the will of his Father or not, there was no longer room for him in Nazareth.

If all of this matters in the life of Jesus, then it also matters in our lives as well.  In the monastery, to take the example with which I started, we test a novice to see if his calling is from God.  But the clothing of a novice is also a test of the community.  Are we senior monks still prepared to grow?  Are we willing to stretch ourselves just as much as we are asking a novice to stretch?  How we respond to these questions determines whether we flourish as a community, or whether we stagnate or become a clone of the town of Nazareth.

C0CE6599-42C2-43F5-8578-A39DC1F41670But just because you may not be a monk doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.  Until your last day the Lord continues to introduce people into your life.  Be that new person a friend, a spouse, a child, or merely a stranger on the street, all come as gifts from God.  Some will be brand new to you, and some will be people who’ve grown up and changed before your very eyes.  If, like the people of Nazareth, you choose to reject such gifts from God, then you may be choosing an early death — metaphorically at least.

So what’s the take-away from today’s gospel story?  For my part I think it boils down to the issue of hospitality.  Can we be hospitable to all sorts of people and welcome them into our lives?  Or do we slam the door on them because they threaten our routine or our settled ways?  Can we accept others as gifts from God who can add something to our lives?  How we respond to such gifts spells the difference between life in the Spirit or life as a curmudgeon.

One of the first things we learn in the monastery is Saint Benedict’s advice that we are privileged to see the face of Christ in others.  But we have to be alert, and we have to look.  Sometimes Christ comes disguised as one of our sick or elderly monks.  Sometimes he’s disguised as a guest or as the abbot or even as a novice.  But Christ’s ingenuity doesn’t stop there.  He’s equally visible as a husband or wife, or as a child or a co-worker or a stranger.  But however Christ chooses to be present to us, he’s there to call out the best from us.

Sadly, Jesus once came as the Christ to the people of Nazareth.  He came disguised as their brother and neighbor, but all they could see was a stranger that they did not like.  And so Jesus could do no great works there.  That’s sad to consider, but it’s a wake-up call to us.  Let’s make sure we don’t make the mistake of the people of Nazareth.  When Jesus comes calling, may he not find us to be clones of Nazareth.  Instead, may Christ find in us his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters.  Amen.

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NOTES

+Our July 4th celebration was rather different this year.  Normally we have a picnic outside, but the intermittent rains prevented that.  Even so, it was a pleasant day.

+On Saturday July 7th I witnessed the wedding vows of Paul Lundberg and Laura Posthumus, which took place in the abbey church.  Paul is an alumnus of Saint John’s, while Laura is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict.

+On Saturday July 7th our confrere Fr. Julian Schmeising passed away in his sleep.  Born in 1931, he grew up in the nearby town of Meier Grove, and he was 66 years a monk and 60 years a priest.  Good-natured in his best years and long-suffering in his decline, his only complaint was that other monks kept slipping into the line for heaven before he could go.

+On Sunday July 8th Abbot John clothed Jeremy Welters as a novice in our community.  Brother Jeremy grew up in nearby Long Prairie, MN, and he is a graduate of Saint John’s University.  He then did a year as a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, before returning to work last year in our prep school.  He is a runner and has run several marathons.  The other day he passed me as I was walking — definitely at non-marathon pace.  I later asked how far he had run.  “Only twelve miles today.”

+Also on Sunday the 8th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+These days there are splotches of color wherever you look on campus, and in today’s post I’ve provided a sampling.  At top is Stella Maris Chapel, on the shore opposite the monastery on Lake Sagatagan.

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Taking Our Ideals Out of Storage

Please imagine this scene from II Kings, chapters 22 and 23.  Propped before Hilkiah, the high priest, was a scroll that no one had opened in a very long time.  Curious about his discovery, he unrolled it and began to read.  And he was stunned to discover that what he had in front of him was the Book of the Law, which had been lost for as long as anyone could remember.

Alarmed by its contents, he passed it on to the king, who immediately appreciated the gravity of the situation.  Sworn to follow the terms of the covenant, the Israelites had in fact ignored them for at least a generation.  And so, in a dramatic assembly, king and people recommitted themselves to the law from which they had strayed.

E486BFCF-AFC4-4A3A-B7FD-66B58BD1230EI preached on this passage to my fellow monks last week, and I confess to some initial amusement as I considered what to say about it.  First of all, why was Hilkiah surprised to find the Book of the Law in the temple?  Where in the world did he expect to find it?  Second, how long had the temple staff been looking for it?  Had they been looking for it?  We’ll never know;  but one thing we do know.  For the longest time its absence didn’t seem to bother anybody all that much.

In fact, the passage leaves us to infer that the discovery was entirely serendipitous.  Sadly, whatever its absence may imply about the quality of housekeeping in the temple, it does leave us to conclude that no one seemed to miss the Book of the Law.  No one had been looking for it; and laws that people didn’t know about were laws that people could safely ignore.  Quite likely — and not for the last time — the Israelites had gone through the motions of worship in the temple, but nothing about those visits had impacted their hearts when they left its precincts.

Though Jesus never alluded to this story, he must have known about it from his reading of the scriptures.  Furthermore, it meshed neatly with a theme that was a constant in his preaching.  Here was the story of a dramatic conversion of king and people who outwardly had done all the right things.  They had offfered bullocks and goats within the temple, but there was no connection with the lives they lived outside of the temple.

6FBEFA71-D08E-40AC-B644-B130983B5F38Beyond the bare facts of the story, there’s material enough for a terrific parable here.  It’s a parable about our ability to divorce what we do in God’s holy place from from what we do in the marketplace.  In sum, it’s all too easy for us to make sure that one does not impinge upon the other.  So we pay lip service to high ideals when we’re in the sanctuary, and then we securely lock them up in a metaphorical safety deposit box when we leave.  We periodically return to check that they’re all still there, but we leave once again, unencumbered.

That sort of hypocrisy never sat well with Jesus, and it was something he denounced on a regular basis.  Time and again he urged his listeners — and by extension us — to rediscover and dust off our commitment to love God and love our neighbor.  Today he still invites us to take those ideals out for a test-run around the block after we leave the sanctuary.  He reminds us over and over that those two commandments are paramount — they are greater even than the blood of bulls or goats sprinkled on the altar.

This is a rather sober reminder of what it means to be Christian.  In fact the demands are great, because God asks of us an integrity that is sometimes a bit of a challenge.  God asks that we be true to what we say we are, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  And so, if in the sanctuary we cry “Lord, Lord!”, then we should actively search for the Lord in our neighbor in the street.  Taking our ideals out of storage and into the streets can be tough, but it’s also a joyful way of life.  That explains why Jesus would say that his yoke is easy and his burden light.  It’s really true.

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NOTES

+On June 27 my friend Marianne and members of her family visited at Saint John’s, and I gave them a tour of The Saint John’s Bible Gallery.  Marianne is a fellow member of the Order of Malta and now lives in New Zealand.  Having grown up in San Francisco, she thought she would leave the earthquakes behind for good, only to have them show up in spades in Christchurch, where she lives.

+On June 27 I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of that homily, based on II Kings 22-23.

+After last weeks’s post about John the Baptist and the photo of the fire in our neighbor’s storage building, I got several interesting responses.  First, my confrere Fr. Nickolas informed me that in parts of Europe there is a tradition of building bonfires on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  My office colleague Raj then forwarded a photo of just such a bonfire in a village in Spain.  I assured both of them that our neighbor was not trying to burn down his shed in celebration of the feast.

Next I heard from my friend Amy, who lives in Oklahoma City.  Amy’s husband Pat, an alumnus of Saint John’s, is preparing for the diaconate, and last week he and his colleagues in the program delivered practice homilies on the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  In the course of two days Amy sat through 25 homilies on Saint John the Baptist.  Hopefully there was no repetition.

+In honor of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which we celebrated on June 29, I have included photos from the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls in Rome.  The first basilica dates to the 4th century, and after a major fire in the 19th century it was rebuilt to copy the original, and it includes many of the mosaics that had survived the fire.  Today it remains a Benedictine abbey, and a stroll through the expansive interior is breathtaking.  Nearly all tourists in Rome visit Saint Peter’s, but far fewer visit Saint Paul’s, which is a shame.

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