Posts Tagged ‘Saint Vincent Archabbey’

Blessed are the Self-Righteous?

No doubt Jesus had a few pet themes in his preaching, and in the middle of chapter 7 of the gospel according to Saint Matthew we have a prime example. In this passage Jesus offers a blistering critique of those who clothe themselves in self-righteousness. These are the ones who loudly display their good works, proclaiming that they are doing the work of the Lord. But Jesus has none of it, as he says in verse 23. “I never knew you. Depart from me you evildoers.”

What Jesus asks of people then and now is authenticity. It’s the authenticity that comes from actions that flow organically from his words. On those words we meditate and chew, and from that sacred food we draw food for thought. What should not result is some sort of convoluted logic that turns everything — including our own show of religious exercise — to our advantage.

Sometimes to our discomfort Jesus means it when he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He intends that we love all of our neighbors, and not just the ones who might return the favor later on. When he praises the good Samaritan for helping the victim in the ditch he means for us to lend a helping hand, even before we are called. Our own convenience ought not come into the calculation.

In short, Jesus asks us to be his hands when it comes to serving the sick and the poor, our confreres and our neighbors. Putting our hands in our pockets is somebody else’s work; but it is definitely not the work of the Lord.


+On 24 June we celebrated the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the patron of our abbey, university and prep school, and we are thankful that he shows up several times in the course of the liturgical calendar.

+On 25 June I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcription of the sermon that I delivered.

+This week Abbot John returned to the abbey after he had presided at the election of a new abbot at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Two weeks earlier he had presided at a similar election at Saint Martin’s Abbey, in Lacey, Washington. On his return he took up residence in the abbey guest house, where he will go through a two-week quarantine.

+Since early March most of us have not left the grounds of the monastery, and that includes the young monks in formation. Deeming it time for a break, the formation team divided the novice and juniors into two groups and took them in turn to our lake cabin near Nisswa, MN.

+One of the delights of spring and summer is the return of the birds, and various of them have their favorite spots for nesting on campus. Popular among the barn swallows are the various niches in the Quadrangle façade, which seem tailor-made for these great builders. Colonies of purple martins meanwhile have for years staked claim to the nest boxes provided for their comfort on the shore of Lake Sagatagan. Pigeons prefer the tiles of Alcuin Library, while bluebirds nest in boxes scattered throughout the property. The other species seem to fend for themselves all over the place. It would be nice to think that they sing for our delight, but we prefer not to kid ourselves on that one. They have other audiences in mind.

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imageThe Case for Fraternal Correction

Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat.  By any measure it can be a pleasant week, though there can be some challenges to confront.  Chief among those is work.  It takes iron discipline not to slip away to the office between conferences.  Second on the list of challenges is thinking about slipping off to the office.

It may seem odd that monks would rank work above sitting through spiritual conferences, but that’s because most peope don’t know any monks.  We are products of our culture, and on most monastic productivity scales work outscores most everything else by a long shot.  Like most people, then, that’s where our default settings are.

All the same, we do derive much benefit from speakers who come from outside of the community to deliver retreats.  For one thing, we sometimes learn something.  For another, such people provide a perspective that corrects our sometimes insular views on things.  They also have the advantage of being neutral when it comes to an examination of our own faults.  After all, they generally don’t know us, and they can’t be blamed if they hit the nail on the head when they identify our faults.  How could they have known?  And how can we blame them?

imageThis retreat was slightly different, however, because the refection committee caused a minor stir by posting several signs outside and inside of the monastic dining room.  As long as the retreat director was helping us to re-order our lives, the committee decided to use that as cover to issue a short list of points that fell somewhere between suggestions and demands.  Specifically, table etiquette had slipped markedly, and it was not just a matter of using the cutlery in unacceptable fashion.  No, this had to do with how and how not to go through a buffet.  And because words are not always enough, the committee used illustrations to help those who might not understand the prose.

Nobody likes to stick their neck out and scold a community, so this was a pretty brave thing to do.  Because of that, in true monastic fashion the committee took the precaution of listing the names of all the members in a follow-up email.  And also in true monastic fashion, the warning went out to everybody, rather than to the violators alone.  No sense blaming just the ones who deserve it.

imageSuch an issue normally rates a nod and a chuckle, but Fr. Brad tackled the subject again at Mass the next morning.  He could imagine each monk reading the signs and saying in mock horror:  “Surely it is not I, Lord!”  And of course they’d be right.  It’s always about someone else, or at least it is in my case.

If the truth be told, most of us could not possibly imagine that we’ve ever irritated anyone.  Most of us couldn’t think of a single thing we do that someone else might find obnoxious.  This is why sooner or later all of us deserve to be called clueless.  And we’re cluseless because we put ourselves at the center of our own little universe and imagine we can do no wrong.  Ever.

Saint Benedict was well-aware of the potential for petty conflict and irritation in the monastery.  As an abbot of a small monastery he likely had to staff the complaint department all by himself, but generally he hoped that monks would settle things amicably, among themselves.  “Fraternal correction” was just one method that he hoped might solve problems, long before such issues escalated into agenda items for committees.

imageEven so, it’s worthwhile periodically to do a self-examination of our habits and actions, and try to imagine whether we might be doing things that get on the nerves of others.  One never knows, because in time we can easily morph into the people we once found irritating.  So it was with one confrere whom I heard muttering in the refectory about one of his table-mates:  “That man ought to be in a barn.”  That of coure was years ago, and the offending monk has long since gone to the heavenly banquet, where he likely dines in the barn.  Ironically, the mutterer has gone on to fill his shoes, and now my only hope is that he can take the time to read the pictures.


+From June 1st through the 5th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat, with Fr. Edward Mazich, OSB, as our retreat director.  Fr. Edward is a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  The first monks to colonize Saint John’s left Saint Vincent in 1856 and within the year had settled in what became Collegeville.

+On June 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It happened to be the feast day of Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions; but we also celebrated the jubilee of ordination of eight of our confreres.  For a transcript of my sermon, please go to Priesthood in the Monastery.  Following the homily Abbot John thanked the jubiliarians for their many years of service, which included two monks who celebated seventy years of ordination, one who celebrated sixty, two who celebrated fifty, and three who observed twenty-five years as priests in the monastery.  Community members then extended their hands as the abbot blessed our eight confreres.

image+In between conferences I did slip away to visit the doctor for an annual physical.  While there I got two shots, which were painless enough.  When the nurse had finished I looked down, expecting to see the usual flesh-toned bandages.  Instead I was wearing two Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  I tried to explain that monks do not wear Bugs Bunny Bandaids, but the nurse waved it off.  They had bought a truck-load of cartoon bandaids, and the kids would wear the Micky Mouse Bandaids but turned up their noses at the Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  So that’s what they were giving out to the adults.  And they did not have any flesh-tone bandages.  They hadn’t been on sale.

+With generous rains and perfect temperatures, the landscape at Saint John’s has been lush and verdant.  The first three photos are from the Scary Mary Garden, which is tended by Fr. Geoffrey; while the last three photos come from the garden in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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imageBlessed Too Are the Paranoid

Sometimes the Beatitudes seem idealistic to the point of absurdity.  Take “purity of heart,” for instance.  What in the world does it mean to be pure of heart?  What’s so blessed about it?  And why would any intelligent person want to be pure of heart anyway?

At first blush the pure of heart appear to be little more than innocents abroad.  They’re the sort of people with whom conmen and muggers have a field day, because with them the pickings seem so easy.  They are the lambs who happily march off to the slaughter, oblivious to the fate that awaits them.  Who in their right mind would opt to be such docile prey?

Were Jesus to rework the Beatitudes for a 21st-century audience, and were he playing to the crowd, he’d definitely have to make some accommodation to modern tastes.  For one thing, he’d need to account for the street-smarts that many value as a virtue today.  Out would be ideals like purity of heart, because they only lead to trouble.  In would be a radically different perspective on the world, and better Beatitudes would naturally follow.

image“Blessed are the paranoid, for they will see enemies behind every bush.”  “Blessed are the deeply suspicious, for they’ll never be disappointed.”  And “blessed are the pessimists, for they shall see things going from bad to worse.”  Those would be Beatitudes better suited to our brave new world.

Well, here’s a chance for Christians to put on their counter-cultural hats and stick to the words of Jesus with a rigid literalism. The fact is, Jesus very likely meant what he said about the pure of heart, and he had not a shred of doubt that such people are truly blessed.

It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus never advised his disciples to be naive or simple, and on at least one occasion he counseled them to be sly as serpents and innocent as doves.  So attentiveness to the world and its ways is a must, he suggests.  Precisely because of that, the disciples of Jesus must be sure that their eyes always are wide open, so that they can survey the entire panorama.  They can’t spend all their time looking for the demon behind every door, because that’s only part of the picture.  In fact, there’s all sorts of other stuff going on, and they ought not miss any of it.

Given what’s out there to see, through what filter do we want to sift all the data?  Do we really want to gaze out with unabashed purity of heart?  Do we really want to be people in whom there is no guile?  What’s the benefit of such an approach?

imageOne quick pay-back is a freshness of vision as we see things we’d not noticed before.  If we’re open to others, for example, we might very well discover some of the goodness we had overlooked in them.  If we begin to trust others, we could very well conclude that a great many people are worthy of our trust.  If we begin to give others the benefit of the doubt, we might find that some people — if not a whole bunch of people — are trying to do the right thing and to do the best they can.  And as an added bonus, we just might realize that others trust us in return, and they try to give us the benefit of the doubt.

At the risk of reducing the Beatitudes to a series of either/or options, then, I do think that Jesus intended just such an approach when he speaks about purity of heart.  There are indeed two ways of looking at life, and we have to choose.  On the one  hand, we can look at life through the lens of paranoia, and we’ll see evil lurking everywhere.  In such a world the devil roams freely, unchecked, and things only get worse and worse.  People, as instruments of the evil one, can scarcely be trusted, ever.  And since people generally live up to the expectations we heap on them, we’re never disappointed when we expect the worst of them.

imageBut consider the alternative — the lens of purity of heart.  There’s no denying that the world is a mixed bag of good and evil, but the pure of heart are lucky enough to get frequent glimpses of the good.  They’re not afraid to draw the curtains open and discover that God is at work in the world after all.  The pure of heart also have the courage to let the scales fall from their eyes, just long enough to realize that God does some pretty awesome things.  And God does them through our friends and neighbors, and even through strangers.  Who would have thought!

Anyway, that’s my take on purity of heart.  The pure of heart get the chance to enjoy the big picture, and they’re privileged to see God using some very imperfect people to do great things.  Meanwhile, the paranoid have their work cut out for them too, even if the world they survey is much narrower.  Ironically, blessed indeed are the paranoid, because they always seem to find what they’re looking for.  But blessed too are the pure of heart, for they get to see God.  That’s not all that bad of a choice.


+On June 19th and 20th I was in San Francisco to attend the annual investiture of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  I had two good reasons for being there, the first of which was my sponsorship of new member Maureen Wright, a long-time friend.  I was also a member of the planning committee for the investiture, so I had a personal stake in the smooth running of the events.

On the 19th the investees and their sponsors gathered for a two-hour vigil service at Mission Dolores, the 18th-century mission founded by Junipero Serra.  The next day we gathered for the investiture and Mass at the Jesuit Church of Saint Ignatius, a gorgeous baroque church on the campus of the University of San Francisco.

It was a good liturgy by the Jesuit definition, since no one got hurt.  All in all things turned out wonderfully, despite one small disappointment.  At the hotel entrance, as we waited for our transport to Mission Dolores, a small crowd had gathered outside.  Naturally we assumed they were there to greet us, but we were wrong.  They were waiting for the Boston Red Sox, who boarded the bus in front of ours.  And unlike the Red Sox, no one asked for our autographs, except when it came time to pay the bills.

image+Occasionally I write articles for various publications, and here is the link to a piece I wrote  last winter on Pope Gregory the Great, who served as pope from 590-604.  The article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Journal, the newsletter of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  It is part of a series of profiles of several doctors of the Church.

+During the past week four of our monks in simple vows have been attending the annual formation program for young monks, held this year at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  In addition to hearing about monastic topics, it gives monks in formation from houses across the country the chance to meet and compare notes.   Brothers Richard, Lucian, Eric and David are attending the two-week conference.

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