Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Saint John’s University’

62977638-03C7-46FA-9CD2-3720B3D7D7D0

Think Small.  Achieve Big.

I recently ran across an article that encouraged people to “think small.”  By no means did the author urge people to slack off at work or scale back on their ambitions.  Rather, his recipe for success was simple and counterintuitive.  If people want to accomplish great things, then they should begin with the little things that over time will lead to bigger things, and more.

Common lore suggests that impressive results require grand masterstrokes.  However, in all too many cases those masterstrokes end up gathering dust on the shelf.  Who hasn’t been dazzled by brilliantly articulated but largely ignored mission statements?  Who hasn’t wondered why an organizational chart meant to turbocharge a company fell far short of goal?  The author argues that grand plans often leave people scratching their heads, wondering where to start.  By contrast, people can make a contribution through concrete steps that appear at first blush to be inconsequential.  However, done over time, with discipline and attention to detail, those modest steps have the potential to transform an organization.

A84FE2EA-D1E7-4327-827B-3AD15C9791C2If that’s true for organizations, it’s particularly true for individuals.  All of us have made grand resolutions that we’ve failed to accomplish, while we’ve also made simple resolves that we’ve been able to put into action.  There’s a world of difference between a new year’s resolution to “achieve good health in the new year” and one that prescribes “exercise for thirty minutes, three times a week.”  The latter may sound a bit modest, but it has a better chance of getting done.  Furthermore, done with discipline and dedication, it might even result in the better health that was the higher aspiration.

There’s little doubt that Jesus asks idealistic things of us, but all the same we’re lucky that he tended to emphasize the measurable, if not always the achievable.  For that reason he stressed the importance of little things, as he suggests in the parable of the mustard seed.  That seed may be tiny to start with, but it contains within it the germ of something really significant.  When tended and watered and nourished, the seed grows into something all out of proportion to its original size.  So it can be with us.

I find the parable of the mustard seed useful in a couple of ways.  First, that seed is symbolic of each bit of potential still latent within us.  All of us have a variety of talents, and some we have developed and some not.  Yet all of them have the potential to accomplish something of value, and we should never forget the undeveloped potential within us.  There’s still lots for us to do in life.

27F20C59-69FE-424F-B098-EE93287FE826Second, you and I are the mustard seed that Jesus speaks about.  Now and again we’re all tempted to discount our worth as persons and our ability to make much of a difference in life.  But God doesn’t see us that way, and Jesus came to remind us of the possibilities within each of us.  We are created in the image of God;  we matter;  and God invites each of us to live to the full the life we’ve been given.

There can be moments when the two great commandments can seem much like the mission statements that are far beyond our reach.  Who of us can possibly love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves?  I suspect that Jesus appreciated the challenge of such pie in the sky expectations, and so he encourages us to think about the small things that can turn us ever so slightly in the direction of the bigger aspirations.  And so, if we can’t quite seem to love our neighbors as ourselves, then treating them as if they were Christ for thirty minutes, three times a week, is a good start. It’s measurable;  it’s achievable;  and it might even lead to bigger things.

CD0B4BE9-2496-4181-B330-D2277201FD2A

NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet for me, and I spent the entire week without leaving Saint John’s.  However, on June 14th I did host two people for a tour of the Bible Gallery and a luncheon.  The day came courtesy of a bid the two had made at a silent auction at the annual gala for Vocal Essence, the choral group led by Dr. Philip Brunelle.  Philip had asked me to make this offer, which I gladly did.  It was a delightful experience, though I didn’t have the nerve to ask what they had paid for the winning bid.

+This was a blessed week for two alumni of Saint John’s University.  Fr. Bill Lies, CSC, was elected the provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and as such oversees the 500 members, whose work includes the sponsorship of the University of Notre Dame.  Fr. Bill is an ‘84 graduate of Saint John’s, and he majored in English with minors in French and philosophy.  He later received his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  For the last several years he has been on the faculty of Notre Dame.

EAF9573D-C50A-43B6-8D83-0EE3DBB5AA2FFr. Gregory Mohrman, OSB, is an ‘86 alumnus of our School of Theology and Seminary, and he has been elected to serve as abbot of Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, MO.  At Saint John’s Abbot Gregory lived with us in the monastery for four years, and during that time he became a beloved and respected colleague before returning to his community.

+There are quiet moments in the summer at Saint John’s, but this was not the week for them.  Through most of the week we hosted nearly 500 high school students who attended the annual American Legion Boys State.  They were great guests, and they used virtually every class and seminar room on campus.  At the end of the week the annual camp for the National Catholic Youth Choir began, and on Sunday the choir sang at the Abbey Mass.

+Until recently the plantings on campus had not yet reached the point when they seemed ready for photography.  But in today’s post I present the first of many summertime photos from the Abbey gardens.  Of particular note are the ladyslippers, which are the state flower of Minnesota and rather uncommon.

+The article to which I make reference in today’s post was a short online essay by Bob Cohen, principal at the wealth management firm of Tamar Fink in Minneapolis.

86CCE6E9-B107-4E8F-85C3-D876CC2A0082

Read Full Post »

BF727F36-B8E7-4D5D-B05F-F25DB6E20504

Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

0B940A52-A951-4703-98B0-C668166F4C9ENOTES

+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

8105371E-6C9D-45C2-A4B7-3BE0D4E00529

Read Full Post »

0BFA5477-17EA-4BCB-8355-7301EF5E54B4

Our Own Personal Annunciation

Last week we celebrated the feast of the Visitation, and a friend of mine used the occasion to hark back to the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate normally on March 25th.  That’s a feast that has earned the fascination of Christian artists through the centuries, and as a result we have a ton of renditions of that biblical story.

Much of that art reflects the rather sweet character of the gospel story.  Oftentimes it presumes that Mary was in the middle of her prayers, though the gospels don’t explicitly say she was doing that at the time.  Anyway, an angel interrupts to confide that Mary has found favor with God, and God has invited her to be the mother of Jesus.  Mary’s positive response, recounted in the Magnificat, has for most of Christian history taken its place in the daily prayer of the Church.

432B0660-7CE4-4AA8-B531-4672CAA5A663Preachers have regularly commented on Mary’s ready response, but my friend wondered aloud whether Mary may have asked for time to think about it.  Why wouldn’t she ask for some time — time to talk with her parents or with at least one good friend?  No one could fault her for wanting to think things through — not even God.

That comment opened the floodgates of my own imagination.  If I had been Mary, my own assent would not have come so easily.  “You want me to do WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  What will people say?”  Then would have come a quick afterthought.  “At least give me some time to think about it.  What you’re asking is huge, you know.”

The gospel account contains no trace of any personal drama, but it does leave us wondering about what really may have just happened.  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the whole thing may have left Mary a little dazed.  After all, she pondered all this in her heart, and I’m guessing she did so every day for the rest of her life.

From one perspective this story is simple and straightforward.  Mary accepted God’s invitation;  she gave birth to a son;  and mother and son moved on with their lives.  But we also know that the story would have been entirely different had it been we.  Thank God we weren’t the ones at that kneeler that morning.  We wouldn’t have known what to say, but “okay, sure, make it so” would not have been the first thing out of our lips.

39D07D97-5DEA-4031-850C-0FFA4C8EF1ACAs true as all that may be, it doesn’t mean that our turn with God will never come.  God may have had a unique role for Mary, but God always keeps an eye out for other people too, including us.  Mary was neither the first nor was she the last person to whom God has pitched really crazy ideas, and sooner or later our day with God will come.

All of that serves as a good preamble to thoughts about what God has in mind for us.  Not surprisingly we find God’s invitations to us to be really difficult things.  Whether it’s a vocation or a personal crisis or a challenge that seems way beyond our skill set, the invitations from God come anyway.  And often they come at the most inconvenient of times.  Actually, they tend to come when we’re busy — when we have other plans.

”Why me, oh Lord?”  “This is way too much to ask of me.”  “I don’t have the strength to do it.”  “Ask somebody better-suited to take this on.”  “At least give me time to think about it.”  This is how we usually bargain with God for time and understanding.  This, coincidentally, is what we call prayer.

The fact of the matter is, sooner or later each of us will have our own annunciation.  For better or worse God asks something of each of us; and being a sly negotiator, God gives us all the time in the world to come up with a really good reply.  The good news is that God is patient with us.  The less good news is that God never gives up on us, so we can never beg off from God’s invitations.

45CB9377-93DB-4D74-9A08-77789FB40EC5God asks what sometimes may seem to be the impossible;  but it’s equally true that God never asks for more than we are able to do.  So it is that at the end of it all our story will be much like Mary’s.  As unlikely as it may seem to us, we too will join with a personal chorus of the Magnificat.  “Behold, the Lord has done great things for me;  holy is his name.”  Who would have thought!  I know I certainly never saw it coming.

NOTES

+Today we monks of Saint John’s Abbey begin our annual five-day retreat.  This year Abbot Gregory Polan will lead us in the retreat.  Abbot Gregory is a monk of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and he lived in our community for four years while he did seminary studies with us.  More recently he was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and he now lives at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome.

+The photos in today’s post were ones I took at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Annunciation, by Giovanni de Paolo (Sienna, ca. 1435).  Below that is a work by Masolino da Panicale (Florence, ca. 1423), followed by a work by Fra Carnevale (Florence, ca. 1445).  Next is a favorite of mine, The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio (Venice, ca. 1505); and at the bottom is The Holy Kinship, of south German provenance, ca. 1480.

01FA4D5A-E8C3-4D35-BEDB-4F0C20505522

Read Full Post »

BE1C5E42-6870-4A49-B5C0-C250D2A81B59

On Mission for Christ

Jesus may have sent his disciples to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, but soon enough that job fell to others.  It was not long before Christian merchants and soldiers and spouses began to do the heavy lifting, and that’s how the majority of the Christian communities popped up around the Roman world and beyond.

Eventually, trained missionaries stepped in, and ever since then most of us have assumed that the work of spreading the gospel belongs to the professionals.  So when we read Matthew 8, as we did yesterday on Trinity Sunday, we assume that Jesus directed his words to those best qualified.  He could not possibly have been thinking of us, since mission work is way above our pay grade.  Of course we do support those called to that work, but we tend to excuse ourselves by noting our lack of expertise and the absence of an unshakeable faith that’s needed for that sort of work.

In fact, however, Jesus actually did have us in mind when he commissioned his first followers to go out and make disciples.  For one thing, there was a sense of urgency in his voice, and this was accented by one fact staring Jesus in the face.  He had only eleven apostles, and that simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.  Jesus needed help, and he meant us to be the ones to provide that help.

58904846-8172-4481-9995-964AA43EE05CBut are we qualified to proclaim the gospel?  Do we have the skill set that suits us for the job?  Ironically, it’s some of our perceived liabilities that in fact count as strengths.  A sometimes shaky faith, laced with doubts and hesitation, would seem to disqualify us.  In fact that merely puts us in the same league with Peter and the apostles.  Lest we forget, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times, and the entire lot of the apostles ran away when the chips were down.  So we’re standing on soft soil when we excuse ourselves for lack of strong faith.  And to point out the rather obvious, who is better qualified to speak with those who don’t believe?  We in fact know where they’re coming from.

What else qualifies us to speak of Jesus in the public forum?  Frankly, I’d not thought about this until recently, but even we feeblest of believers have had at least some little experience of God.  Even if not every day, there have been moments when God has gently touched our lives, and we’ve sensed the Spirit of God stirring within us.  Who better to reach out to those who — like us — seek some fleeting experience of the divine?

D84A3155-E464-4491-8F5D-ABB82828B1A1Finally, there’s an attitude that sets apart those who are suited to proclaim the gospel to the ends of their own little worlds.  Perhaps it is better to specify who’s not in this group.  If we are curmudgeons or negative or angry people, or if we use religion as leverage to pressure others, then we are not in that category.  Such people merely reinforce the common misconception that Christians are joyless and strident human beings.  Who would possibly want to become such a person?

On the contrary, followers of Jesus need not wear the Christian brand on their sleeves, but the occasional brush with God should show in their daily demeanor.  In the bad times of life they can be confident that the Lord walks with them and sustains them.  In the good times they have an inkling that it is the Lord who bestows those blessings.  But above all, such people realize that life is a gift, and quite possibly it’s a gift from God.  Who then wouldn’t want such a gift?  That gift shows in their faces, and what better advertising can there be for the Christian way of life?

That kind of attitude shows in the face of a Christian.  A Christian, in fact, has the insight to see the face of Christ in others and to be the face of Christ to those who seek him.  Who is better qualified to be such an emissary for God?  Thankfully, such a labor is a labor of love, and it’s a mission to which all Christians are called.

D6E70975-1FC7-4FD5-9909-C7BA9B5C33DDNOTES

+On May 25th I gave a two-hour presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to members of the faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Australia.  Later that evening I spoke at the opening of an exhibit of Christian art, staged in the University library.  That day I also had the opportunity to visit with several of our students who are doing a semester of study at the University.  We’ve had this exchange relationship for eighteen years.

+Fremantle is the port city of Perth, which is six hours’ flying time west of Sydney.  I’d never been there before, and I really did enjoy seeing what is a uniquely charming city.  Fremantle is blessed to have at its core the largest concentration of Victorian-era buildings anywhere.  It’s not gingerbread Victorian, however.  After all, it was a port city.

+I’m not terribly familiar with Australia, and in anticipation I read Bill Bryson’s book entitled In a Sunburned Country.  In it he points out that Australia is arid and has more animals eager to kill or bite people than any other place on earth.  Happily, nothing tried to bite me, and I didn’t see a single kangaroo during my short visit.  Nor did I experience the aridity that Bryson writes about.  On the contrary, I got caught six times in torrential rains that came in from the Indian Ocean to pound Perth.

B493948E-8904-41CE-9BB2-87BA5855411FIf you’ve never read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to consider him.  He’s a travel writer, and an irreverent one at that.  His understatement is laugh-out-loud funny.  For example, he gives an insightful explanation of the game of cricket, a game which I long ago gave up trying to understand.  On the basis of a match between England and Australia that he attended, he gives some really useful information.  For instance, the intensity of the inaction on the field makes it absolutely necessary to pause for lunch and drinks several times in the course of the game.  However, one thing eluded him.  He never could figure out how England could lose all those wickets with all those people watching.  And where in the world were they losing those wickets?

The only thing for which I seriously fault Bryson is his writing style.  He writes brilliantly, and his turns of phrase are witty to a fault.  What I object to is that Bryson has used up most of the finest turns of phrase, leaving scraps for people like me.

+In today’s post there is a real mix of photos.  At top is the shrine of Saint Remi, in the abbey church of Saint Remi in Reims.  It was he who baptised Clovis, king of the Franks.  A simple inscription in the floor of the cathedral of Reims marks the spot of the baptism, and it is located quite near the grand pulpit in the cathedral.  The statue further down the page is of Saint Boniface, missionary to the German people.  It stands outside the cathedral of Mainz in Germany.  Next is a photo of me with students and one faculty member from our school, standing in front of an acrylic by Western Australian artist Joan Rastus.  At bottom is a street scene from Fremantle, complete with an ingenious pattern that has been painted onto the walks and buildings in the city.

541AAFD2-4EC0-4F70-ABCF-D4A270A05103

Read Full Post »

06EE0AB4-D4D3-4BBE-80E0-EA6F37D046A5

Pentecost:  An Everyday Sort of Feast

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the great parables of the Old Testament.  In brief, it describes a group of people who assumed they had no limits, and they expressed this in a tower that would reach endlessly upward.  But of course they failed;  and as the tale concludes, God frustrated their designs through the introduction of languages that disrupted their common purpose.

I call it a parable because that’s really what it is.  On the one hand it certainly does try to explain the variety of languages that impedes seamless communication among people.  On the other hand, it’s a parable that explains why humans as a group have such a hard time staying on topic and on mission.  One day we all agree on a common goal, but the next day rugged individualism and tribalism interfere with the best of common pursuits.

2A7EC61B-1D14-4A61-B2A7-D371C0D189C8Beyond that, the Tower of Babel is a parable of hubris.  Somehow people had come to the conclusion that they had created themselves.  In a flight of fancy they believed that they were like God or perhaps no longer needed God.  They imagined themselves to be almighty; and the Tower of Babel was only one of several instances in which God disabused them of that notion.

That’s a key bit of context for Pentecost.  Gathered in an upper room and afraid of the world on the other side of the door, the disciples were paralyzed with fear.  They locked the door, I suppose in hopes that the world might go away.  Then came the Spirit, and with the Spirit came the power to break free of the consequences of Babel.  Variety of languages no longer constrained them.  They spoke of the Lord in all languages, and in their new-found freedom the sky was the limit.

In retrospect it’s easy to appreciate how all of this energized the apostles.  On the one hand, they were the same people as before.  They still had their limits, and they knew them.  But the Spirit breathed new life into them, and the apostles then earned the right to take as their own the words of Mary.  The Lord began to do great things through them, just as he had done with Mary.

I suspect most of us don’t think about how the Spirit can work through us.  Most days I assume that the Spirit works primarily through other people.  Leadership is the responsibility of others.  Action is the responsibility of people of talent and energy.  And the works of the Spirit are for people far better positioned than I.  But of course on all counts I’m wrong.  All of these items are in my job description too.  As God did with Mary and the apostles, the Lord does with me:  the Lord can and will do great things.

6282581C-AF49-4349-8CB9-D00BC479D7CEFor centuries preachers have spoken of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, and that’s certainly true.  It’s the day on which the Spirit came to rest on the apostles and told them to stop sitting around and get on with life.  Jesus had come to give life, and to give it in abundance.  It was the job of the apostles to carry on with that work.

But the gifts of the Spirit did not end on that one day.  I give the apostles credit for realizing that the job was far bigger than they, and they immediately went off and shared responsibility.  They breathed on others the life of the Holy Spirit when they baptised.  They conferred the Holy Spirit when they imposed hands on others in confirmation.  They were the first to recognize that the Spirit was not meant for them alone.  The Spirit is meant for all, and the Spirit is a gift that speaks across any and all human boundaries — and not just the linguistic ones.

For the disciples Pentecost was the beginning of a strange and wonderful pilgrimage, and that same Spirit animates us as well.  That same Spirit urges us to step out from the sidelines and engage in life to the fullest.  The Spirit invites us to let the Lord accomplish some pretty significant things in us — things that could very well surprise us.

So it is that it’s nice to celebrate Pentecost once a year.  Still, the point of Pentecost is this:  it’s an everyday sort of feast.  It’s a reminder of how the Spirit empowers us to reach out and accomplish the impossible, even if it has to be on a weekday.

C2F920AE-003B-40D5-9D7B-0D610726B5C7NOTES

+This past week we hosted in the Abbey the twenty-two individuals who will comprise this fall’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  All graduated from Saint John’s University on May 13th, and so this marked their first week out of school since kindergarten.  It was a real delight to have them with us during their weeklong retreat in preparation for service next year in Benedictine monasteries around the world.

+I just finished reading a book which a good friend gave me for Christmas.  Now that I’ve finished it, I realize it did not really reflect anything of the Christmas spirit, but it was entertaining, to say the least.  Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf tells the story of Reynald de Chatillon, who turned out to be one of the most unscrupulous of the 12th-century crusaders in the Holy Land.  To his credit, Reynald did succeed in bringing Christians and Muslims together in a common appreciation for him.  It seems that people on all sides came to mistrust him.  And it likewise seems that he was noted for his indiscriminate violence, if both Christian and Muslim sources are to be trusted.  The book reads almost like a novel, and it illustrates how complex politics in the Middle East can be, even in the 12th century.

+In last week’s post I showed illustrations from the Abbey of Saint Pierre on top of Montmartre in Paris.  I noted that most of the people who trek up the hill rarely visit the abbey, but they flock in droves to Sacre Coeur, its more famous neighbor.  It truly is an impressive edifice, as these photos suggest.

68CC00D9-F63D-424B-AA50-5D606B5E7DA3

Read Full Post »

82679E73-10A9-4004-96EC-FB9B17455D4D

Will the Stones Speak of Us?

The landscape of Europe is littered with monastic establishments.  Some are ruins, whose skeletons reach up to the open skies.  Others are fragments of their former selves, and they long ago surrendered most of their stones to builders of cottages and manor houses and garden walls.  But every now and again there’s an impressive remnant to remind us modern folk of the Spirit that once animated the people who lived in these sacred spaces.

At the end of my recent pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends and I passed through Paris, and one morning we visited the stately basilica of Sacre Coeur.  It perches on the highest point in the city, and there it stands as something of a poke-in-the-eye of the Revolution in France.  It’s stately and amazing, even to a jaded critic like me;  and I was glad to have the chance to wander its aisles once again.

C4589408-1357-454A-85F3-079FBB06D06AHowever, I have to confess that I and my fellow pilgrims were there for different reasons.  They had come to see the late 19th-century basilica in all its glory.  I, on the other hand, came to get a peek once again at its lowly neighbor — the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre.

My first and last visit to Saint Pierre was in the 1980s.  When I walked through its doors back then it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The church was filled with dust that I assumed had accumulated since the monks had vacated the place in 1789.  Still worse, it was dark and decrepit and seemed ripe for the wrecking ball.  Given those times, that seemed a likely fate.

I returned wondering whether there was anything left of it, and I dreaded the sight of the tourist outlet that must have replaced it.  To my surprise, however, the church was still standing.  Even better, it had gone through a metamorphosis.  The dust was gone.  New stones had replaced the battered ones.  And signs of rejuvenated pastoral activity were everywhere.  Once again it was in the business of serving the spiritual needs of the denizens of Montmartre as well as the herds of tourists who accidentally wander in.

10E149F3-94C7-4211-BFE0-A39DF139AF6BThe most striking elements were the new stained glass windows.  There were also a few new statues, including one of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.  He was beheaded on Montmartre, and according to legend he picked up his severed head and walked away.  In this rendition the headless bishop couldn’t look more casual and relaxed.  And as for me, I thought of all those skeptics who naturally scorn such stories.  In answer to them Saint Denis stands there with his head and a nonchalant “so what!” on his lips.  After all, his story is no more far-fetched than most of the urban legends that we swallow uncritically today.

I left Saint Pierre with a comforting sense of reassurance.  While individual souls may be granted eternal life, God makes no such promises to monasteries.  Monasteries come and go, in response to the changing times.  That said, the monks who lived at Saint Pierre in the course of 850 years have every right to savor the legacy they have left on Montmartre.  After all these years their silent witness still touches the lives of all sorts of people.  And even if it was never their original intention to draw tourists from around the world, that’s okay.  That part of their legacy may have been unintentional, but God works in mysterious ways.

Here I find a certain consolation as I try to live my own life as a Christian and a monk.  Who knows how many lives any of us touch?  Who knows whether we do so for good or for ill?  All the same, it seems to me that we all ought to work with whatever resources God has given to us, and to let God figure out what sort of legacy we will leave.  And whether the stones will speak of us fondly a hundred years from now is a matter for future generations to decide.  But in the meantime, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be of some service to our neighbors in the here and now.  That in itself is legacy enough.

B9163722-BA63-4A7B-A798-A3D0B3C24357NOTES

+The conclusion of our Order of Malta pilgrimage was anything but uneventful.  For days some of us who planned to return through Paris watched the train schedule with apprehension.  Sure enough they were true to their word and the train operators went on strike on the day we had to return to Paris.  Our only recourse was to hire a van and drive from the south of France to the north, which made for a very long day.  What made it personally excruciating were the exit signs on the freeway.  Every few miles we passed a place that that I had read about for years, but of course there was no way we could stop and see even a single one.  That was a tough experience for me, but at least I now know where all those places are.

+Fortunely Air France was not on strike on the day of my departure.  I was to connect with a Delta flight in London, but alas the Air France and Delta computers were not speaking with one another on the morning when I checked in at the Air France desk.  They told me that my London flight had been cancelled and that I had to go to the Delta desk to find out what to do.  It was early in the morning, and the Delta desk was not open yet.  When it did open they told me the flight was not cancelled, and that I would have to return to speak with the people at Air France.  By then we had frittered away two hours, and with 45 minutes before departure I still had not checked in or gone through security.  It turned out that everyone was a little right and a little wrong.  The flight did depart from London, but it was several hours late.  Thankfully I made it through security in Paris and met the connection in London, but I also vowed never to construct such an itinerary again.

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre, that sits next to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre.  Needless to say, the abbey runs a poor second in attracting visitors, but that makes it a more awesome place to visit.

CE916490-285E-41FA-8C9E-B61D66E68537

Read Full Post »

82FBBD3A-ECDA-4A05-85A6-42ABEA04B141

The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

You’d be right to wonder how in the world anyone could keep busy for six days in a place like Lourdes.  Is there any decent shopping?  Are there great restaurants?  Is there much of anything else to do?  The answers to these three questions are short and sweet:  not much; no; and it depends.

First of all, I can assure you that no one on a culinary tour of the south of France makes a detour to Lourdes.  The restaurants are adequate, but the market for fine dining just isn’t there.  As for the shops, it’s fair to say that Lourdes caters to all tastes and none, but I can only think of four shops that I wouldn’t mind being photographed in.  As for things to keep you busy, there can be a surprisingly lot of stuff to chew up hours and hours.

097EFACE-14AA-4023-9890-D555C59EF61FFor starters, there is no such thing as an express Mass in Lourdes.  I can’t think of a single one that was over in less than an hour — and those were the weekday ones.  As for our Sunday liturgy for 25,000, that took over two and a half hours.  A close second in the time department was the candlelight procession that takes place every evening.  On the night we processed, we did so with 20,000 companions, and a procession of that magnitude simply cannot be hurried.  But to be fair, with 350 in our group, even a walk down the block takes planning.

I’m not going to recount the entire schedule, but I will note the two moments when I made my own particular contribution to the program.  On one afternoon I moderated a two-hour session with the care-givers in our group.  It was a moving experience for us all, and by the end of it I had a profound respect for these people who have given so much love and service to the people for whom they care.

A second instance came on the morning I led the stations of the cross for a large group.  It took place outdoors, across the river from the shrine.  There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus.

43B8EFC6-5AA2-4D83-B920-BF67738B18FFAs you can imagine, six days of pilgrimage also bring a flood of words, much of it in the form of sermons.  I’m relieved to report that most of them were relatively benign, but I must cite Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit for the most down-to-earth and moving words of the entire journey.  At the Lourdes grotto, where tradition says that Mary gave her message to Bernadette, he pointed out an obvious truth that had never occurred to me.  “Mary came to Lourdes, and not to Paris.  Mary chose to appear in the town garbage dump, and not at Versailles.  Mary spoke to an unlettered young woman, and not to some sophisticate.”

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict notes the awe with which we approach the wealthy and powerful, and he urges his monks to bend over backwards to pay equal attention to the poor and powerless.  In her appearance to Bernadette, Mary makes the same point.  She provides a not-so-subtle reminder that in our pilgrimage of life we’d be well-advised to pay our respects to any and all fellow travelers.  If the scriptures relate the stories of people who unknowingly entertained angels, then they suggest that we can never be too cautious ourselves.  There’s always the outside chance that we could be walking with the Lord.  Given that, none if us can be too careful.  After all, we could miss something really important.

A6C5E5E3-1D6B-4FD3-974F-002632DF48FANOTES

+The first full day of our pilgrimage to Lourdes did not begin auspiciously.  It rained the entire day, and it was cold.  The second day it rained too.  Then it got progressively better, until by Sunday it was gloriously sunny and even warm.  It was the first day on which most of us shed our coats.  That lifted everyone’s spirits and made it a lot easier for people to get around.

+On May 5th several of the monks as well as volunteers gathered to plant the first of 500 fruiting trees and shrubs in the Abbey Arboretum.  This wild orchard will serve both the wildlife as well as those in the community who make jams and jellies for our table.

+The photos in today’s post all show scenes from Lourdes.  Certainly the oldest structure in town is the medieval fortress, that was built on Roman ruins on top of the hill that dominates the town and the river Gave that flows through it.  The shrine that greets visitors dates from the 19th century, while the enormous basilica that hosts Masses for up to 25,000 is underground.  Given that space is tight at the shrine, the location  underground preserves a valuable plaza that sits in front of the shrine.

Lourdes is not a big town, but it hosts around 5 million visitors during the peak months of the pilgrimage season.  That makes it the biggest tourist destination in France after Paris.   In winter the town shrinks down to a few thousand, and most of the hotels close.  And as a footnote, after Paris Lourdes has the greatest number of hotel rooms of any other city in France.

9855848A-3427-4019-8981-04120F479D32

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »