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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s University’

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Stability:  Not Just for Monks

The other day a friend of mine asked about my stability.  I hasten to say that it was not mental stability that concerned him.  Rather, the stability in question was the distinctive vow that Benedictine men and women have taken for centuries.  What is that all about?

First of all, people seem genuinely surprised to discover that Benedictines do not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  If we don’t take those vows, then what do we promise in their stead?

img_9175The better-known vows of poverty, chastity and obedience came centuries after Saint Benedict outlined the three commitments that we Benedictines do make.  In the first of them, conversio morum, we promise to live a monastic manner of life.  That includes life in community, simplicity in our life-style and a balance of prayer and work.

The second vow, obedience, can seem straightforward, but it is more nuanced than you might expect.  What it is not is blind obedience to an arbitrary authority.  What it really is is thoughtful obedience to the abbot, who is our father and whom we believe holds the place of Christ in our lives.

The third vow, stability, is the real puzzler.  What is it and why is it such a big deal for Saint Benedict?  Well, the logic behind it is simple.  Unlike those religious orders which organize themselves into provinces that allow superiors to shift personnel to suit the need, we monks commit ourselves to life in a particular community, in a particular place, and we do so for life.  Benedict prescribes this because his paradigm for monastic life is the family.  In this family the abbot is father and the monks are brothers to each other.  In one another we strive to see the face of Christ, and we support one another in the life-long search for God.

7C1D9C25-2E92-413D-B78F-DADEAE25D903Within these parameters Benedictines seek to grow, and we hope to grow in many ways.  To cite but one example, experience taught Benedict that we all must face our personal demons, and if monks try to escape then the demons are sure to follow.  It’s better to confront them headlong with the help of many brothers.  In that struggle monks are accountable to one another, and in a stable community there is potential for measured growth as well as measured backsliding.  But as a family we help one another deal with the challenges of life.

There is no denying the occasional inefficiencies in this way of life, and unequal distribution of talents among monasteries can be one of them.  At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed to have several gifted organists over the years, as well as several monks who love woodworking.  By contrast, for generations we’ve been short of plumbers.  Despite that, we thank God for whatever talents that monks have, and we make the most of the opportunity.

9B0BDCA5-FD30-4677-8A9B-3E30A38935B3There is also a certain culture that stability can create in a community.  Visitors usually find monasteries to be well-tended, serene, and lovely places, and the reason for this owes something to our vow of stability.  We live here for life, and if we trash the place then we are stuck with it.  So we cultivate a reverence for the land, for the buildings, and for the landscape;  and we do so in the conviction that these will shape the kind of lives we will lead.

Creating a place that shows the work of God among us takes daily effort.  Failure is not really an option, because if we leave the place a dump then the next generation will rightly scold us for poor stewardship.

Finally, our culture tends to prize escapism and a wanderlust that discourages the formation of rooted communities.  That’s a subject for another day, but it is something that we should mull over nonetheless.  Civilization in the monastery depends on the willingness of monks to live and work together in harmony, both for their own sakes as well as for the sake of generations to come.  For that very reason I suggest that stability may be something we want to cultivate not only in monasteries, but also in our homes, neighborhoods, cities and even countries.  From experience monks can tell us that it can actually be a force for good.

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NOTES

+From June 1st through the 5th we had our annual retreat for monks in the abbey.  Delivering the retreat conferences was Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.  The retreat was notable for at least two things.  First, Abbot Jeremy delivered his conferences via Zoom, which was a first for him and for us as well.  Because of the need for social distance we monks had to make additional adjustments to the situation, and that included provision for lunch and dinner.  Rather than having us crowded in the abbey refectory, we decided to hold them outside in the monastic garden.

+On June 5th I participated in my first meeting of the advisory council of Saint John’s Outdoor University.  The Outdoor University creates and implements educational programs that introduce our students as well as the public to the abbey arboretum and the other natural resources at Saint John’s.

+Today’s post presents photos of the monastic garden, which was built in the late 1920s.  I have always found the stone walls there mesmerizing, and we are fortunate that they still stand sturdy and strong today.  The walls pictured in this post were built in 1929.

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“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  (John 21: 15)

If there were any bystanders to this exchange between Jesus and Peter, they must have been puzzled.  What was all this about?  Did Jesus doubt Peter and his loyalty as a friend?  Was Peter hurt by this line of questioning?  Were Jesus and Peter even on the same wave length?

It seems to me that the last question may be the key to figuring out what all this was about.  For Jesus this was not an issue of whether they were “best friends.”  This was about the nature of the love that Peter had for Jesus.  Did Peter understand what it involved?  And if it took three questions to pin Peter down, then so be it.

In the Middle Ages the bishops of Rome took as one of many titles “Servant of the Servants of God.”  Perhaps that is how best to appreciate what Jesus expected of Peter. Their friendship was one that brought responsibility and duty; and if Peter was to love Jesus, then that love had to extend to all whom Jesus loved.

For any who assume that love of Jesus brings special authority or privileged status, they are sadly mistaken.  It brings instead responsibility.  It entails feeding the Lord’s sheep rather than taking advantage of them.

That, it seems to me, is the very definition of what it means to be Christian.  It means that we love and also serve our neighbor, just as the Lord came to love and serve us.

379E466C-82C2-41C3-8E05-05782F028DA9NOTES

+On 27 May I participated via Zoom in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On May 29th I was the celebrant at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered that day.  At the beginning of Mass we prayed for peace in the hearts and neighborhoods of the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Since then we have prayed for them at all of our Masses and at morning and evening prayer.  It is a real human tragedy.

+On 30 May I gave a retreat conference to members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  Normally this retreat takes place in Malvern, PA, but this year of course we could not gather there.  If I had one misgiving it was this:  would members stick with me through my forty-five minutes on their computer screens?  Who knows.

+Sunday May 31st was the feast of Pentecost, and the photos in this post show a retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, now housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.  It was made in 1356 for Pedro López de Ayala for his chapel in Quejana in northern Spain.  The panel at top shows the Ascension and Pentecost.  At bottom is the entire ensemble.  The greenery in this post is a cluster of peonies in a garden outside the abbey church.  Known especially in Germany as the “Pentecost rose”, peonies usually bloom too late in Minnesota to earn that title.

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Time Out of Joint

The picture that chapter one in the Acts of the Apostles provides is curious.  Gathered behind closed doors in an upper room in Jerusalem was an eclectic group of people.  Their leader and inspiration, Jesus, had just disappeared into the heavens.  He had warned them, yet they weren’t entirely ready for it.  He had also promised not to leave them orphans, but they must have felt very much like orphans that day.  And as people tend to do when they feel desperately at sea and puzzled about what comes next, they prayed.

Among the curiosities tucked into this narrative is the roster of those in the room.  Eleven of the twelve whom Jesus had chosen were there.  By any measure these were simple yet sturdy men.  But each was also flawed.  They may not have betrayed Jesus as had the twelfth disciple, but they had wavered in their loyalty to Jesus, and most of them had run away when the chips were down.

3575E362-B0B2-44CA-9290-FBF598DB5665With them were a few women, and their presence suggested that this might be a band of refugees rather than the core leadership in a religious movement.  Finally, almost as an afterthought, standing with them was the mother of Jesus.  With no visible means of support, she too likely wondered what would become of her.

In sum, Jesus had left behind a small and rather unpromising lot.  Yet, these were the people he expected to take his message to the ends of the earth.  Had he been wildly unrealistic in his hopes?  Couldn’t he have chosen better people?

The fact is, Jesus had been long on ideas but short on specifics;  and there was not a hint of the bits and pieces that we’ve come to take for granted as his legacy to us.  There was as yet not one word of the New Testament, save what existed in the memories of those present.  There was no blueprint on which to build what would be a Church.  Perhaps the most glaring absence was the one man who would make the critical difference in all of this.  Soon enough the voice of Jesus would knock off his horse a man named Saul.  For now, however, Saul was just one of many threats on the other side of the closed door.  Soon enough Saul would delight in harassing these people;  but in time, as Paul, he would become the most ambitious in the cause of Christ.  For now, though, that thought would have seemed ludicrous to those gathered in that room.

31AF8616-FE53-4D0F-A584-3B6987F34596Eventually the disciples of Jesus opened that door and stepped out to meet the world.  The Acts of the Apostles detail their journieys in service to the Lord, and from that narrative we glean a few grains that might be of comfort to us.  First, these were very ordinary people.  Jesus could have chosen the wisest or the richest or the most sophisticated people to be his messengers, but he didn’t.  Perhaps because they had little baggage nor personal empires to defend they were willing to take a chance on Jesus.  Other people might have melted into the woodwork after the crucifixion, but these people chose to face their demons.  Instead of retreating to their homes in Galilee, they returned to Jerusalem.  There they would cast their lot and seal their fate with Jesus.  Whatever else they might be, they demonstrated that they were not quitters.

In a few days we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and to us.  For now, however, we celebrate the calling of some very ordinary people who ended up doing extraordinary things.  In the process they discovered that the Lord had indeed not left them orphans, and that with God it was possible to do what they had never imagined.

All of us face watershed moments in our lives, and during those moments we agonize over what might become of us.  Who are we?  What ought we be doing with the time and talents that we have at our disposal?  Are we destined to nothing of importance, or might it be that the Lord Jesus calls us to do something wonderful, just as he did the disciples?

DD39766A-0551-47B6-8146-9A4CD3EA7415Such moments of testing occur at predictable and sometimes very inconvenient times.  Such is the case with the current stretch, which a friend of mine termed “a time out of joint.”  Whether we had big plans or no plans for the last few weeks, we all agree that we certainly did not budget time for hiding behind doors.  What good would that do us or anyone else?  Yet, if this has merely been an inconvenience at best or a nightmare at worst, we may have missed one of the watershed moments in our lives.  This could be our time when we stand with the disciples in the upper room;  when we walk with Jesus for forty days in the desert;  or when we, like Saint Paul, have to clear the calendar and live as if we were blind until the Lord opens our eyes.

In short, like the disciples we are pretty ordinary people.  But also like the disciples, the Lord calls us to do some pretty extraordinary things.  What a shame it would be to squander these days that the Lord has made.  What a shame it would be to stay behind the locked doors, paralyzed by our demons and afraid to take up the yoke of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphans, and he didn’t.  He then walked with them to the ends of the earth.  As the Lord did for his disciples, so in these days and weeks and months Jesus renews his promise, and this time he makes it to us.

For our part we can treat this “time out of joint” as a horrible inconvenience or as a welcome wake-up call.  Should we see it as the latter and answer “yes” to the Lord Jesus, then for us too the Lord will do great things.  He will transform each and every one of us.  He will leave us alone to continue as very ordinary people.  But he will also transform us into ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

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NOTES

+On May 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon I delivered.  However, there was a twist that I had not anticipated.  As Fr. Nick read from Acts 1: 1-11, like a bolt of lightning I realized I had prepared a sermon for Acts 1: 12-14.  Every preacher fears that day.  Horrified, I had no choice but to improvise.  On the spot I came up with a new introduction, which I grafted on to the text I was set to deliver.  No one seemed to notice the difference, or else no one seemed to care.  To the Holy Spirit I give thanks for this minor feat of dexterity.

+Once again the campus was quiet this week, and for the 9th week running I did not set foot off of the Abbey and University grounds. However, we were all rewarded with a stunning display of flowering crabapples and lilacs.  I was especially delighted by the blossoms on two trees I had planted many years ago.  The photo at top shows them reaching above the fourth-floor roofline of Emmaus Hall.

+For the last few days the elevator that serves the main residential floors of the monastery has been capricious, at best.  Consistently it stops at only the basement and fourth floor, which has been great for me and my confreres who live on the fourth.  We have enjoyed an express trip to the refectory on the basement level, but it was not so nice for those living in between.  Unfortunately none of us monks know how to fix a cranky elevator, and no elevator repair people want to make house calls on Memorial Day weekend.

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Saints:  Too Many or Not Enough?

For those not in the know or who never gave it a thought, there are too many great saints to squeeze into 365 days.  To give everyone a turn, some have been rotated out of the liturgical calendar after a few centuries.  Still others have been doubled, tripled or even quadrupled up.  The latter is a nice gesture, but if I were a saint I would object to this practice.  I’d hate to share a day with some other saint, for one simple reason.  It would smack of pride to go toe to toe with someone else in a saintly popularity contest.

All the same, when two good saints fall on the same day, one or the other is going to come out a winner.  May 15th is a case in point.  It is the feast of Isidore the Farmer, a saintly laborer who lived in the area of Madrid and who died around 1130.  I have an affection for him because a drawing of him has hung for decades in a shed beside the abbey vegetable garden.  I have also visited his shrine in Madrid, where he is a local patron.  Since we all rely on farmers for survival, Isidore is a person worth recalling.

A918725A-2077-41C7-8B6E-B96CA395555AAs far as I know, Isidore is the only farmer in the liturgical calendar, and for this rather practical reason he may deserve to overshadow the monk Pachomius, with whom he shares May 15th.  Pachomius was born in Egypt and became an abbot who helped to shape the communal life that Saint Benedict outlines in his Rule.  He died in 348, but his relevance endures, and not just because he was a monk.  Today the Coptic Church celebrates his feast on May 9th, while the Orthodox and Catholic Churches remember him on May 15th.  In an era of local, political, religious and all sorts of other divisions, it is refreshing to run across somebody who can reach across ecclesial boundaries.  That ecumenical dimension alone should qualify Pachomius for sainthood.

However, there is another bit in his life that speaks to Christians throughout the centuries.  Pachomius grew up pagan, and as a young man he was conscripted into the Roman army.  Incentives offered to draftees back then were not as generous as today, which explains the practice of locking up new recruits every night, lest they run away.  While in lock-down in Thebes Pachomius was surprised by some of the locals who brought food and encouragement each day.  Puzzled, Pachomius asked a fellow soldier who these people might be.  “They are Christians,” was the response.  “They do this on account of their god.”  Astounded by their generosity to total strangers, Pachomius resolved to look into Christianity further.  Eventually he asked for baptism, and the rest of his story is history.

D0D5539F-EF63-4A58-A40F-EF7B212325D5For years I have savored this story, and eventually I paired it with a comment made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.  Asked to explain the importance of charity in the Christian tradition, his answer was clear and succinct.  “We help others, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.“

Jesus said that “what we do for the least of people we do for him.”  Three hundred years later Pachomius experienced those words in the deeds of the Christians of Thebes.  Centuries later they still ring true in the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

It is true that the experience of Christian charity can be so astounding that people will choose to follow Jesus Christ.  But in the 4th century and now in the 21st century that’s still not the primary reason to help others.  We help others not to make them Christian.  Instead, we help others so that we might make ourselves Christian.  It’s what Christians do.

98B990E8-4E59-43DD-B0FE-F241511CEE00NOTES

+On May 11th my mother was buried next to my father in a simple service in Oklahoma City.  In attendance was the pastor of our parish as well as my brothers and sisters.  Because of the challenge of travel these days I was unable to attend.  Our family will schedule a memorial service for her sometime in the summer.

+On May 11th I taught a class in monastic history to Novice Felix.  Quite by accident I had planned to speak that day on the abbey of Cluny, whose influence reached across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries.  By coincidence that was the feast day of five of my favorite medieval saints — Odo, Odilo, Maiulus, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — the five great abbots of Cluny.

+I had no meetings or events on the schedule for last week, but I did continue with my turn at some household chores.  That included cleaning the choir stalls with my confrere Fr. Nathaniel after prayer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.  I was also the reader at morning prayer during the entire work.

+Spring continues to bud out, as the photos in this post suggest.  I took the photos in and around the Quadrangle.

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A Time for Course Correction?

I was amused the other day when a good friend told me that he goes to the office every day in suit and tie.  I found it humorous mainly because his office is no longer in downtown Minneapolis.  Rather, it’s two doors down from the kitchen in his home.  It’s a really short commute, and in the course of a day it’s usually only his wife who sees him.  All the same, he dresses on the theory that you never know who might come calling — or whether there might be a roll call on who is wearing shoes during a Zoom meeting.

I’m not entirely convinced of the old aphorism that it’s the clothes that make the person.  After all, clothes function mainly as veneer to keep us warm or publicly presentable.  However, there is something about dressing up that lends itself to a reflection on the word integrity.  Are we decent to the core?  Does our outward appearance and behavior project who we are, or do they mask an inner coldness or a calculating soul?

D4444DA0-ADF3-4666-A172-8B1DB7A02AD8In a similar vein, if no one were looking, would we still do the right thing?  Sooner or later all of us confront that question, and our answer is an expression of our character.  Are we people of integrity through and through?  Or does any expression of decency depend on whether somebody is watching or not?

In a time of isolation it’s pretty easy to let our personal standards go lax.  After all, who will ever know if we start to cut all sorts of personal corners?  On the one hand, I suppose, it’s fair to say that God would know.  On the other hand, so would we.

Jesus reserved some of his sharpest criticism for those with a deep disconnect between their inner motivation and outer behavior.  He called them whitened sepulchres, because their carefully crafted public image belied their blackened souls.  They were deadened within because of this radical inconsistency.

A venerable practice in the Christian spiritual tradition has been the regular examination of conscience.  Certainly that involves an effort to identify the sins and failings that have been part of our day.  But more deeply it’s a matter of checking the alignment between who we say we are and how we translate that into action.

That self-examination doesn’t always come easily, and a frenetic life can allow us to put off that sort of introspection for days and weeks and even years.  However, one of the great benefits of a time of isolation is the chance to take stock of ourselves and make course corrections.  These are the changes in trajectory that can make for full and beautiful lives.  On the plus side, it’s absolutely never too late to do this.  Even better, there’ll never be a time like the present for the leisure to do it.

5340AC77-9DAC-4C34-918B-7131860FD7FDNOTES

+On May 7th my mother Lenora passed away.  She was 96 and had enjoyed a wonderful life devoted to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  The only disruption to this came during the last two months, when her assisted living home closed the doors to all visitors.  The best our family could do was visit through her first-floor apartment window.  Unfortunately I was not able to see her during that time.  On her final afternoon everyone was allowed in, and I watched and spoke with her via FaceTime, which was a real consolation.  A few hours later she quietly slipped away.

+On May 9th after evening prayer Brother Jacob gave a short concert on the now-completed abbey organ.  With 3,000 new pipes installed, it is twice the original size.  Brother Jacob put it through its paces, beginning with a piece that relied solely on the old section of the organ.  He then incorporated the other pipes in three additional selections.  It was a wonderful moment for us monks, and our one regret was the absence of guests who certainly would have enjoyed the occasion.

+On May 10th, following the abbey Mass, Abbot John blessed the two builders of the expanded abbey organ.  This week Martin Pasi, master organ builder, will pack up his tools and return to his studio in Tacoma, WA.  Meanwhile Casey Marrin’s journey to his home in nearby Cold Spring, MN, will be much shorter.

+On May 10th we should have celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University.  For the first time in its 60+ years the abbey and university church stood empty, while students celebrated the day in their homes and who knows where else.  All the same, the flags were flying to mark this important milestone in the lives of our students.

+During the Easter season the exuberance of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona offers fodder for a meditation on the resurrection.  The photos in todays post offer a taste of that.

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Has God Forgotten Us?

There are days when I think that St. Paul was one lucky guy.  As the Acts of the Apostles relate, God struck Paul from his horse, and in the space of a few hours Paul’s life turned upside-down and inside-out.  By the end of the week there remained not one shred of doubt about the new direction of his life.

Paul’s certainty is what I envy most.  He was sure of himself, and he marched ahead with confidence.  Meanwhile I and lots of other people wonder what it is that God has in mind for us.  What is it that God wants us to do with our lives — if anything?  Has God forgotten us?

It’s important to keep in mind that Paul is an exception to God’s rule.  Paul was a stubborn thorn in the side of the early Christians, and somebody like him required a grand gesture on God’s part.  The slow meandering approach that God uses with most of us simply wouldn’t have cut it with Paul.

DBB28606-4A13-46DE-9A8E-8DE85DEE5614I find a bit of personal consolation in the story of the time that Jesus spent in the desert.  In so many ways his forty days in isolation run parallel to our own experience of extended isolation.  Alone in prayer, Jesus considered what the Father asked of him, and in time it all unfolded before him.  But certainly he did not have clarity immediately, as his agony in the garden later suggests.

In the desert Jesus considered the opportunities that the devil unfolded before him.  His options included the same sort of attractions to power and fame and instant gratification that beset us all.  Like us Jesus had to come to terms with them before he finally put them behind him.  There would be no place in his life for such delusions of grandeur.

Unlike Paul, we’ll likely not be shaken up so decisively.  Far more likely, I and most of the people I know will continue to undergo an experience similar to what Jesus had in the desert.  In our lives there will be testing;  and there will be alternatives both good and bad to consider.  But there will also be glimpses of the divine when the Lord does gently touch us.

On a road to Emmaus two disciples had an experience that was very different from Paul’s road to Damascus.  They had wanted to believe in Jesus, but his crucifixion had disillusioned them.  Then alongside them walked a stranger.  That stranger teased them along with his words, but he didn’t grab them and shake them up.  Little by little, however, he opened their minds, until finally they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

That, I think, is the best treatment we’re going to get from the Lord.  We should expect little in the way of drama.  We should expect no grand oratory, nor will there be any shoving to the ground.  Instead, very gradually, we’ll discover the Lord as he speaks to us softly in the course of our day.  That, I firmly believe, is how the Lord does his best work on us.

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NOTES

+On April 27th I had class with Novice Felix.

+As with so many people now, online meetings have become the order of the day.  On April 30th I took part in a Zoom meeting with members of the Board of Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On May 2nd I was the prayer leader for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, as we prayed the Office of the Dead — via Zoom — for the recently deceased Grand Master, Frá Giacomo Dalla Torre.

+The inspiration for today’s post is the story of the conversion of Saint Paul from the Acts of the Apostles, which we read at Eucharist on May 1st.  The first two pieces of stained glass depict the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  They were made in the late 12th century for a church in Troyes in France, and today they are housed at the V & A in London.  Below them is an oil and tempera painting on an oak panel, by an unknown artist in the late 15th century.  It is housed at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.  At bottom is a magnolia tree in bloom in the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  It is an opening salvo of spring, which is beginning to assert itself at Saint John’s — finally!

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The Lord Can Help Us Repack

According to my appointment book, I’m supposed to fly to Lourdes this week.  Each year at this time members and volunteers in the Order of Malta converge on that southern French town, but this time around it is not to be.  The mere thought of bringing thousands of sick people to mingle with thousands of other pilgrims in a crowded town was simply too much to bear.  So for now the shrine is closed, and the disappointment is shared widely and keenly.

I too share in that sense of loss, but the cancellation has also triggered wonderful memories of pilgrimages past.  In particular, I’ve recalled the sermon I was privileged to deliver last year as members of the Western Association of Malta gathered for the sacrament of reconciliation.  I spoke that morning about memory and temptation and how they crop up for good and for ill in our daily routine.

9606BFE9-CCD1-4681-9D2C-D938D8F1511BI began with a reference to the ancient desert ascetics in Egypt, whose lives are replete with instances of spiritual endurance contests.  To untutored readers of our own time those stories can seem odd and even eccentric.  But we dismiss those tales at our peril.  The fact is, we are susceptible to the same temptations, though as always the devil fashions them to suit our particular weaknesses.

That morning I talked about baggage — both material and emotional.  As a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes I recall packing way more stuff than I needed.  The result was luggage bulging with things that became a burden to me.  That’s when I realized that we always need to pack with an eye to the point of it all.  Baggage is meant to serve us rather than the other way around.   So if it’s too much to haul around, then take less.

Then there is the baggage that we store  in the back of our minds.  The fact that we carry an inventory of hurts and slights and emotional ups and downs presents a special challenge.  We can tote those memories around for years, and sometimes they’re really hard to get rid of.  Saint Benedict alludes to this in his Rule, when he writes about nursing a grudge.  Left to run wild in our imagination, such memories can transform us into the sort of person we never hoped to become.

Not surprisingly, such memories surface in a place like Lourdes simply because it is a place of spiritual as well as physical healing.  That morning I urged people to take an inventory of the hurts that hobble them and to devise a strategy to leave behind as much of this mental baggage as was possible.  I recommended two things.

First was the sacrament of reconciliation, for which we had gathered.  I suggested that we leave our sins at the feet of the Lord and substitute for that burden the yoke of the Lord.  Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light.  So why not take him up on his offer?

E2DAAC34-F690-4001-9E52-D7DD9EC1A7D0Then I offered what is for me a playful yet quite deliberate approach to dealing with the hurts that bedevil us.  From experience I know that those memories can grip us, even in a place like Lourdes.  So my solution was practical.  As pilgrims enter the sacred precincts of Lourdes they cross a bridge over the River Gave.  It’s a fast-flowing current, and many a time it has overflowed its banks and done serious damage to the town and the shrine.  But like the waters of baptism it can effect tremendous change.  So that day I invited people to toss into the river their favorite grievances.  Then let the river carry them out to sea.  And they should keep doing it enough times until they can let go of that bit of emotional baggage completely.

I’ve reminded myself of this practice periodically, but it is especially useful now in a time of confinement and isolation.  That’s when the evil one stirs up the memories that cripple and burden us.  That’s when we need to recall the Lord’s promise to us all.  We don’t have to carry those awful burdens through life, because there is a strategy that brings healing.  As Saint Benedict suggests, we need to recognize the grudges and all the other stuff that stifles us, and then we need to deliberately excise those things from our minds.  Then we can take on the yoke of Christ, which really is easy and light.  It’s true, but we’ll never know until we let the Lord help to repack our bags.

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NOTES

+On April 20th I taught another class on monastic history  and tradition to our novice, Brother Felix.  This time I dealt with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in promoting the legacy of Saint Benedict.

+Among several things that did not happen during the past week was the blessing of the abbey organ.  It had been scheduled for April 26th, but we have moved that event  to the fall.  In at least one respect this delay turned out to be fortuitous, as Fr. Bob Koopmann confided to some of us last week.  When organ builder Martin Pasi returned to his workshop in Tacoma, WA, he discovered that he had left one pipe behind.  Until that pipe is installed the organ is not complete; but to my untrained ear it sounds pretty good already.  The organists in the abbey have been testing the organ since the Easter vigil, and it sounds spectacular without that one pipe.  But on the other hand, it’s not complete until that one pipe is there.  And so the organ becomes a metaphor for a community.

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We Can’t Go Back, and We Shouldn’t

As most of us are too well aware, the pandemic that has gripped the world has spawned a lot of suffering and fear.  But it’s also engendered a lot of humor, some of which is very dark.  So whatever else the coronavirus may have done, it hasn’t choked off our creativity and wit.

There’s lots of examples of that creativity floating around on the internet, but at the risk of offending a few people, I’d like to cite two examples.  Both come from fictional diaries of men who have been addicted to televised sports for most of their adult lives.  Both point to a problem peculiar to our times.

The first is an entry by a man who has just endured his first day without cable sports, and the heading is quite simple:  “Night one of no sports.”  What follows is this:  “My wife and I just had an hour-long conversation.  She’s really nice.  Apparently she works in the medical field.  Also, TVs are black when they are off.”

6B7511EA-09F8-4638-BED4-9341FA6914B3A second entry from another gentleman reads similarly.  “Day 2 without sports.  Found a lady sitting on my couch.  Apparently she’s my wife.  She seems nice.”

Not all outcomes of the coronavirus have yielded such pleasant discoveries.  Still, common to most of us has been the chance to get to know one another just a little bit better.  All around the world people are rediscovering the people with whom they live.  Isolation has bred greater appreciation for one another, though sometimes it’s brought out the worst in one another.  And we monks are certainly not exempt from these experiences.

People who don’t know us well often assume that we monks spend all our time together, in common prayer and in common work and recreation.  Certainly there is a lot of that.  But each day, after morning prayer and breakfast, many of us scatter to offices and classrooms and workshops and airports and the like.  In fact, much of our day is spent with people who are not monks.

But for nearly five weeks we’ve had the chance to rediscover one another.  And I have to say that it’s not been all that bad.  From this experience we could very well build a deeper and stronger community.  Already there is a growing appreciation for the service and sacrifices that our brothers are making for us all.  It’s let us glimpse the face of Christ more clearly in one another.

For all of us, whether monk or not, or whether Christian, Muslim or Jew or not, these days of isolation are critical moments.  And while it’s a cliché to say that things will never be the same, it’s still true.  We can’t go back.  We can never reclaim the lives we have left behind.  Out of this we must grow, or we run the risk of becoming nostalgic fossils.

2DE164A5-16C2-46AF-9EA0-C59F94CD8522Woodrow Wilson once commented that if you want to make enemies, then try and change something.  But change is inevitable, and trying not to change leads to change anyway.  And from a Christian perspective, change is what we are all about.  God calls each of us to grow — to grow in wisdom, to grow in the understanding of our vocation, and to grow in our love of God and neighbor.  And so, as hard as it may be to change, change we must.

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we have a description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem.  We read that each day they gathered to pray in the temple precincts, and then they gathered in their homes to break bread.  This is perhaps the only time when Paul’s words about equality really rang true.  These people were neither Jew nor gentile.  They were some sort of hybrid, but out of their uncomfortable isolation came the realization of who they were called to be.  Slowly they began to refer to themselves as Christian.  It was a struggle, no doubt, but out of that struggle came the legacy and the name that we carry today.

I’d like to think that the story of Thomas in today’s gospel is also a story about change.  Thomas doubted, but he also feared.  He feared what it would mean for him if the stories about Jesus were true.  If Jesus did rise from the dead, then life for Thomas would never be the same.  He could never go back to the life he had known.  And so I have the sense that Thomas didn’t want to believe even when he finally saw the wounds.  The sight of the wounds would demand a life-changing response, and he had no assurance of what that might mean.

BAFDAF81-713A-44A7-AD29-441F75CD1D00You and I are privileged to have those key moments when something shakes us out of our day-dreams.  They force us to answer whether we’re willing to change our plans from that day forward.  Metaphorically, are we going to watch cable sports for the rest of our lives when this is over?  Are we going to continue to ignore the people around us?  Are we going to drift along in our throw-away culture?  Or are we going to embrace the vocation to which God calls us?

I’d like to end with a short meditation on a line that I’ve read and largely dismissed hundreds of times.  “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I’ve generally dismissed that because Jesus meant it for the apostles.  Beyond that, the call is meant for bishops and religious superiors.  Any lower than that makes me nervous, because Jesus might have meant it for me.  In fact, however, he does mean it for me, and for you.  In essence it says that God created us for a purpose, and every moment of our lives ought to count for something.  That, I think, is what Thomas and the apostles were about to discover, and their lives would never the be same again.

God did not send this pandemic, any more than God sent the Black Death in 1348 or earthquakes or tsunamis.  All the same, these are signs of the times — signs that waken us to the reality of who we are.  We are nothing less than a priestly people, a holy people, people called by God to live with intensity and purpose.  And so may God who has begun this good work in us help to bring it to completion in the new and heavenly Jerusalem.

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NOTES

+As I did the week before and the week before that, I did not leave the abbey property during the past week.  However, on April 19th I did preach at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcription of the sermon I delivered.  Should you like to see a video of the Mass, which includes the sermon, go to http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org, and follow the instructions.

+On Saturday April 18th we received a new candidate for entry into the monastery at Saint John’s.  Michael had arrived on the Friday before Palm Sunday, but because of the coronavirus he stayed in the guesthouse for fourteen days before moving into the monastery.  That has to be the strictest entry requirement that we’ve ever put in place, and we were glad finally to welcome him into our midst.

+One of the casualties of the coronavirus was the suspension of our maple syrup harvest, in mid-cooking.  I recently hiked over to the site where the sap is boiled into syrup, and of course there was no activity to be seen.  However, I marveled at the work that had gone into the preparation of firewood for the cooking.  The photos in today’s post show the incredibly patient work that went into cutting, splitting and stacking the wood.  The latter is a work of art, especially when you consider the fate that awaits the logs.  Deep in our forest is the sugar bush where the trees are tapped, and it is a breathtaking and meditative place for hiking.

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We Are People of he Resurrection

“If Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  And if Jesus Christ died and did not rise, then nothing else matters.”

So wrote Jaroslav Pelikan, and his application of logic to the life of Jesus has profound implications for the direction of our lives.  Believe in him or not, Jesus was one of the central figures of human history.  But for Christians Jesus is more than an historical figure.  He is in fact the central figure of our lives.

I fist met Professor Pelikan when I was in college, and he was already an eminent historian at Yale.  The occasion was an appearance he made alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium, and together they made for a striking duo in the gothic sanctuary of Riverside Church in New York.  In his red robes Suenens contrasted sharply with virtually everybody else;  but it was Pelikan who dazzled me.  During the exchange that followed their talks, someone posed a question to Pelikan.  Without a moment’s hesitation Pelikan referenced a Czech theologian, whom he quoted at length, without notes, in Czech.  Then and there I decided that someday I would study with that man.

6862A6D6-A078-4157-8421-30AA5D90AFCAYears later Pelikan was the main reader for my dissertation and, true to his sense of the dramatic moment, he announced at a dinner in the Great Hall at Saint John’s that he had signed off on my work two days earlier.  It was an energizing moment for me, as you can imagine.  But that gesture underscored for me how important people can be in our lives.  Be they teachers, parents or friends, we do not walk this earth alone.  Such people are gifts from God to us.

I’ve often mulled over Pelikan’s words on the resurrection, not just for what they say about Jesus, but for what they say about us.  If Jesus did die and rise for us, then each one of us has intrinsic value.  As sons and daughters of God, each one of us matters, and each of us is a gift sent to our brothers and sisters to accomplish something important.

So the upshot of all this should be life-changing.  If Jesus Christ did die and rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.  That means that God loves each of us and to each of our brothers and sisters you and I are a gift.  It’s an extraordinary vocation that the Lord has given us, and nothing else matters.

30B89EBF-7CD3-4198-8FF7-557F02A55148Notes

+Not surprisingly, I did not leave the abbey grounds last week.  However, I am learning once again to appreciate the value of Benedictine stability and claustral life in the monastery, though the first couple of weeks away from the airports did not come easily.  Now I’m getting used to it and have enjoyed the chance to go for long walks on the abbey grounds.

+On April 8th my dear friend Fra Carl Noelke passed away suddenly, though not unexpectedly.  Fra Carl was a Knight of Justice, that is, a member in the Order of Malta who had professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  To look at Fra Carl’s face was to get a glimpse of the beatific vision, and he was a joy to be with.  He was widely respected within the Order, and all who knew him will miss him dearly.

On April 11th I led the Office of the Dead for Fra Carl, which we conducted via Zoom.  Ca. 60 of us joined together, and participants included members of the Order in Rome, Paris and London, across the United States, and in New Zealand.  Given my total lack of technical expertise, we were fortunate to have someone other than me to manage the entire exercise.  Following the service individuals were able to offer their personal tributes in memory of Fra Carl.  All in all it was a remarkable experience.  Fra Carl practiced law in San Francisco and was a member of the Bohemian Club, to which he contributed his deep booming voice.  He will be buried in his hometown of LaCrosse, WI.

+One of the surprises of the Triduum was the installation of an icon painted by our confrere, Fr. Nathanael Hauser.  At 7×12 feet it is certainly large, and it almost did not fit through the door of his studio.  It sits above the Abbot’s throne and dominates the space.  The last two photos in today’s post show an icon by Aidan Hart, commissioned for Saint John’s Abbey.  Aidan did significant work in The Saint John’s Bible.

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God’s Favorite People:  Deeply Flawed

In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah chapter 20 we read something that we wouldn’t normally expect from a prophet.  Jeremiah had preached the message God had asked him to preach, and for that effort his friends turned on him.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But what Jeremiah in turn asked of God certainly was.  He prayed for vengeance on his former friends.

In her reflection on this passage that appeared on April 3rd in Give Us This Day, Sr. Mary McGlone draws attention to this unfortunate flaw in Jeremiah’s character.  Unlike Jesus, who prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors, Jeremiah prayed for revenge.  He wanted to gloat as he watched his enemies suffer.

Whatever this may say about Jeremiah, this passage says something profound about God’s willingness to choose flawed people to do his work.  Among others, God called Moses, who didn’t speak well at all and also happened to be a murderer.  Then there was David, who was a philanderer and abused his power.  Later came Mary, who was a young girl with little in the way of power or connections.  Certainly to be counted among these stars was Paul, who had been a persecutor of Christians.  And then, as people called out of time, God most recently has called us.

Despite our flaws and in spite of our sins, God has plans for us.  It’s why God gathers us around the altar.  And so in the Eucharist Jesus Christ feeds us and then sends us out to do his will.  Much like the apostles, we go, ready or not.

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NOTES

+On April 3rd I celebrated the community Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey, and today’s post is the reflection that I delivered that day.  Give Us This Day, which I reference in the sermon, is a monthly publication of The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s Abbey.

+Just as was the case the week before, this week my furthest journeys were walks on the abbey grounds.  It was wonderfully quiet, and despite a dusting of snow on one day, the weather was largely pleasant.

+After much technical difficulty, the live-streaming of the abbey liturgies finally seems to be on track.  To view the liturgies of Holy Week, including that of the Easter Vigil on Saturday at 9:00 pm, please visit http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org.

+My major task this past week was the composition of a prayer that I was asked to prepare for members of the Order of Malta.  Because of restrictions on public gatherings, this will be for most members the first time in their adult lives when they are unable to attend Easter services.  The prayer, appended at the bottom of today’s post, is meant to accompany the lighting of a candle at sunset on Holy Saturday.  Please feel free to share this text with any who might wish to participate and proclaim from their homes that Christ is their light and the light of the world.

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AN EASTER VIGIL PRAYER

Loving Father,

We gather around this candle whose flame pierces the darkness and proclaims by our faith that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  We thank you for your Son, our Savior, and ask You to bless us and grant these petitions:

May this candle be our Easter candle in troubled times.

May Christ’s light warm the poor and heal the sick.

May Christ’s light caress the lonely and embrace the lost.

May Christ’s light reach into the corners of our hearts and dispel our darkest fears.

May we, by our charitable words and deeds, be Christ’s light to others and so light up the world.

And may we draw ever more closely to Jesus Christ, our light and risen Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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