Posts Tagged ‘Saint Paul Outside the Walls’


Taking Our Ideals Out of Storage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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“The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.”


You may recall that teen coming-of-age movie, “Sixteen Candles.”  As the stage is set, the most popular boy in high school finds himself at home, alone.  And so he does what any well-intentioned teen would do:  he invites his two hundred closest friends over for a party.  Of course the results are predictable.  Almost everyone and everything at his beautiful home is smashed.  It’s a disaster; but the lucky ones — those who can remember at least something — have great stories to tell.  This was the party of their dreams.  But it did not qualify as hospitality.

I’m not exactly sure whether hospitality is a lost art, but it is certainly an endangered item today.  Once upon a time careful etiquette defined hospitality.  It was intended to keep the work of the host within reasonable bounds, while it saw to the genuine needs of the guest.  Good hospitality helped to ease people into deeper friendship, or at the very least it reduced the potential for conflict.  Either way, this was a good thing.

We sometimes think that good hospitality has the sole objective of producing a raging good time.  In fact, in its ancient incarnation it was meant to defuse conflict.  In an era in which every stranger was a potential enemy, the rules of hospitality provided a truce.  The hosts graciously welcomed and saw to the comfort of  their guests.  For their part, guests could count on the guarantee of safety while they sat under the host’s tent.  For a moment all could feel safe.  At the very least, this led to a suspension of violence, since it was considered rude for guests and hosts to kill each other. But on a more positive note, this could lead to long-term friendship, and even peace between peoples.

Hospitality figures prominently throughout the Bible.  Abraham and Sara entertained three strangers who turned out to be messengers from God.  Jacob welcomed Esau at a meal — though he did use the occasion to cheat his brother out of his birthright.  In the Gospels Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and fed them at meals.  But common to all of these stories is one fundamental outcome of hospitality.  In each case lives have changed because people reached beyond themselves, across the social boundaries that normally separated them.  Then and today, guests and hosts each risk something, whether it be their own safety or their own privacy.  But they do so in hopes that their world will grow larger and their relationships deepen.

“Side altar, flanked by Saints Benedict and Scholastica.”

In many ways the purpose of hospitality has not changed, but people hesitate as never before to extend it.  Perhaps it’s because the demands of hospitality are so great.  For their part, hosts reach out and share what they have with others.  Guests can see them, warts and all; and this can be really scary.  Conversely, the guests have responsibilities as well.  If we as guests accept another’s hospitality, then we are obliged to respect the good-faith gesture of the hosts.  We accept them whether they are poor or rich, whether they are socially clumsy or sophisticated.  We are not guests in order to rip people off.  We are welcomed for a moment into the lives of our hosts, and we need to respect their vulnerability.  Given all that, you can understand why some resist opening themselves to such risk.  Who knows where hospitality could lead?

Since so many Benedictine monasteries have schools attached to them, people assume that the Rule of Saint Benedict requires that kind of work.  Though Benedict does refer to the monastery as the School of the Lord’s Service, he never really mentions education as a primary occupation for monks.

Much to our surprise, then, the only ministry that Benedict specifies for monks is hospitality.  For that reason every Benedictine community, since the beginning, has welcomed guests.  Whether the guest house was large or small, elaborate or simple, the reception of guests has been at the heart of the life of a monastery.  And this ministry has had a sacred character to it, because in welcoming the stranger the monks welcome Christ. And so the abbot or guestmaster extends to each guest the greeting of peace.  This is not “industrial level” hospitality, where hundreds of nameless people are processed through an ant-farm of a hotel.  This is hospitality that is personal, that respects each individual — because we just might be welcoming Christ.

Not since the twelfth-century hermit movement have western peoples lived alone in such significant percentages. But even in a world teeming with billions of people, it is surprising that there is such loneliness about.  Ironically, people hesitate to embrace the one sacred ministry that can bridge the gap of loneliness.  Hospitality is indeed a risky venture.  We put a little bit of ourselves on the line, including our privacy and our own convenience.  But we do it for the sake of others, and we do it so that the lives of both host and guest are enriched.

Sure, when we welcome others into our lives there is the element of bother.  And we do for a  moment open a breach in those sturdy walls we use to protect ourselves.  But I have to believe that opening our hearts and homes to another is one of those things we have to do to be fully human.  The rewards can be enormous, and they don’t end just with deepened friendship.  Hospitality is yet one more example of the great riddle Jesus puts to any who would follow Him:  “Whoever loses his life for my sake, gains it.”

Hospitality is a sacramental moment and a sacred art.  I hope for your sake and mine that it doesn’t become a lost art.

+Abbey construction update

The various renovation projects in the monastery have seen great progress during the past weeks, and the worst of it seems to be over.  The roofers have worked their way to the end of the wing; and while that’s bad news for the monks living there, it’s great news for those of us at the other end.  There has been no more pounding above my ceiling for at least two weeks now, and glass has replaced the wooden board that covered my window.  Unfortunately my blinds were destroyed in the process, and for two weeks the first rays of dawn served as my alarm clock.

On the third floor, below us, the formation housing is nearly complete, and the juniors and novices have returned to much-improved conditions.  Better still, they are once again living as a group, which facilitates both their recreation in common as well as various spiritual activities.  They are glad to be home, and there they’ll stay until it is time to take final vows and move  back to quarters among the senior monks.

+Blog update

This is my 52nd posting of “A Monk’s Chronicle.  After one  year of this I am grateful for several things — not least of which is that I’ve not yet run out of ideas.  The positive responses I’ve occasionally received have been a real boon to me, and readers have made this a labor of love.

This blog has made me much more of an opportunist, and I’ve sometimes scrambled to publish posts from rather odd locations.  As you may have noticed, I tend to travel at times,  but today’s location may take some sort of personal prize.  This 52nd posting originates from Warsaw, Poland, where I am travelling with a group of members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Next week I hope to include my first pictures from Poland.

+A Bit of History

The pictures in this post obviously are not from Poland, but instead come from the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.  Built over the traditional tomb of Saint Paul, the Emperor Constantine began the work on the vast basilica, which falls just short in size from Saint Peter’s.  Despite a fire in 1825, it still retains its original design and layout, and it feels just massive when you step inside.  From the early middle ages on, a Benedictine community has lived there; and despite some interruption the monastic life continues there today.  Unlike the medieval abbots, however, the current abbot is English by birth.

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