Posts Tagged ‘Santa Clara University’


God Issues a Challenge Grant

[The following is a reflection on Luke 19: 11-28.  This passage recounts the king who entrusted to his servants various amounts of money before going off on a trip.  On his return he was both delighted and dismayed at the ways in which his servants made use of those resources.]

Years ago, when I was still a novice preacher, I addressed this gospel at a Sunday liturgy.  I know I did really well — not because I recall what I said that day — but because I recall what somebody else said afterward.

D30251B3-A380-46FE-BBE5-E43C765B45CFThat person, an experienced college teacher, had puzzled over this parable until one day it finally hit him.  He’d just returned exams to his students, and one student protested the C he had gotten.  His complaint was tightly reasoned, and it went like this:  “I got every answer right.  I even quoted you word for word in places.”  To which the professor answered:  “Yes, and I applaud you for accuracy.  And for being correct I gave you a C because you told me what I already knew.  Had you taught me something I didn’t know I would have given you a B.  Had you dazzled me, I would have given you an A.”

For all those who think the king in today’s parable is unjust, consider it from God’s perspective.  God has given each of us talents and opportunities, and for most of us in this church that’s given us a head start over 90% of the people on this planet.  What more should we expect from God?  Should God pat us on the back because we maintained some of our gifts in mint condition?

It might be helpful to think of our gifts and talents as a challenge grant from God.  One way to respond is to sit on our behinds, trying to keep things just the way we found them.  Or we can use them as tools that can make a difference in the lives of others.  If we choose to do the former, we can begin to understand the anger of the king in the parable.  If it’s the latter, we can appreciate the joy we see in the face of the Lord.

For God’s best students there can be only one good response.  Given what you and I have been given, maybe good enough is no longer good enough.



+On November 20th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is the reflection I offered on Luke 19: 11-28.

+On November 20th many of the monks joined other faculty and staff of Saint John’s University in serving Thanksgiving dinner to our students.  It’s a dress-up affair, served family style, and after many years of doing this it has become a great tradition.

+During the month of November we monks remember those who have been commended to our prayers.  Friends send in slips of paper with the names of the deceased for whom they ask remembrance, and we place the slips in baskets at the entrance into the church.  We in turn take a name from the basket when we file in for the liturgy of the hours and Mass.  Once in a while we will draw the name of someone we know, which makes it particularly poignant.  As for me, I have lost three good friends during the past month, and I remembered Jean from Santa Clara, CA, at Mass on the 20th.  Jean’s husband, John, was an alumnus of Saint John’s University who taught physics and was dean at Santa Clara University for much of his career.  My other two friends were also from the Bay Area.  May Jean and Dick and Hardy all enjoy eternal life with Christ.

+The recent flooding in Venice saddens all who love that extraordinary city.  I’ve had a particular fondness for the mosaic floors of the city churches, which have been hard hit.  I’ve used several of these floors as screen savers on my computer, and they never fail to strike me with their whimsy.  These samples are from the Basilica of San Marco.


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IMG_2229He Must Increase

Last Friday I sat myself down in the cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, CA, waiting to hear the umpteenth sermon on St. John the Baptist.  It was the feast of his nativity, and the occasion was the investiture of new members in the Order of Malta — aka, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  The “St. John” in this case happens to be “the Baptist,” and the Order is so-dedicated because of the location of its first hospice, built in the late 1080s next to the church of St. John in Jerusalem.

That was a fortunate choice of geography, because John turned out to be a pretty good patron for the Order.  But I already knew that, and lots more.  That’s why I eased into a comfortable spot in the pew, in hopes that I could indulge in a pleasant daydream as the bishop told of other things that I already knew.

IMG_2274He began with the observation that we celebrate the birthdays of John and Jesus exactly six months apart.  That I already knew, but I consoled myself with the thought that others in the room perhaps hadn’t been so informed.  He then observed that only John and Jesus have official vigils on the day before their nativity.  Again, that wasn’t news to me, and perhaps to a few others as well.  Then he cited John’s self-effacing words about Jesus:  “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  Since every member of Malta should know those words already, I guessed they’d be a surprise to no one in the room.

Then came one item I’d never considered before.  Centuries ago some liturgy committee had settled on June 25th as the feast of John’s nativity, specifically with this gospel passage in mind.  How did they make the connection, and what was the point?  Well, they didn’t choose the 25th because they’d checked the birth registry in the public records office in Jerusalem.  In a decision that was brilliant for its subtlety, they landed on June 25th for reasons that were both arbitrary and quite deliberate.  It just so  happens that the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere falls between June 20 and 22, and the winter solstice between December 20 and 22.

IMG_2243And what precisely does that have to do with the birth of John the Baptist?  Well, it’s quite simple.  The summer solstice is the longest day of the  year, and from that day forward for the next six months the days inexorably become shorter and darker.  They decrease.  Conversely, shortly after the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — the days lengthen and brighten.  They increase.  So it is that the liturgical calendar takes advantage of the cycle of nature.  And just at the greatest moment of hope, John appeared on the scene.  But over time he diminished and gradually stepped into the shadows as he pointed to the coming of Christ.  Conversely, at the darkest moment Jesus came, but from that point on his figure increased brilliantly.  In short, John decreased while Jesus increased.  The seasons merely reinforce that lesson.

IMG_2267This little tidbit is not the only example of how the liturgical calendar uses nature as a reference point.  For better and for worse the lesson works well in the northern hemisphere and falls flat in the southern, but that was because people in the early church never quite anticipated the spread of Christianity so far south.  Aside from that, however, it’s meant to remind us that nature can reinforce the divine message.  God can and often does speak through nature;  just as the heavens are fully capable of proclaiming the glory of God.

The Bible too emphasizes the power of nature to speak of God.  Not by accident does the Book of Genesis open with the story of creation; and lest we forget, God only got around to creating Adam and Eve on the sixth day.  It’s a sobering thought to realize that God may have created us in the divine image, but for God we may have been something of a divine afterthought.  Our creation was not the icing on the divine cake but rather a nice ornament that completed the total picture.

IMG_2236It’s humbling for a monk to sit and listen to a sermon and realize that I’ve spent years missing the obvious.  To the bishop, then, I’m grateful that he let a little of his light dispel some of my ignorance.  And to myself I’m grateful that I hadn’t settled in too conformably into that pew.  Thankfully I stayed awake just long enough to catch a nugget of insight.  It’s a reminder too that I’ve not yet learned all there is to know.  There’s still lots of reasons for me to stay awake and listen, especially when someone has something important to say.

The last bit of wisdom that I take from this has to do with the light that shines in the darkness.  In my own ego-centric world it’s tempting to conclude that the light of the world emanates from me.  John the Baptist reminds me that it doesn’t.  Whether I’m happy about it or not matters little.  It’s simply true that I am not the light of the world, and someday the world is going to go on without me.

But John also reminds us all that our decrease does not mean our destruction.  Over the next six months the days will diminish and so will we.  During this time we will ever so gradually come to terms with the thought that we are not the center of creation.

Still, when all seems spent and empty, come December 25th we’ll discover that our lives are changed, not ended.  From that moment on you and I will further increase in the glow of the Incarnation.


+On June 14th and 15h I participated in the annual investiture of new members of the Order of Malta in the Western Association.  The vigil service took place at Mission Santa Clara, which sits on the campus of Santa Clara University.  The investiture service itself took place at the cathedral and basilica of Saint Joseph in San Jose.

+On 16 June I took part in the reunions at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  To get there on time I took the red-eye flight from San Francisco.  Each time I take that flight I vow that I will never do it again.

IMG_2226+On Sunday the 19th I attended a giant reception for two dear friends who celebrated fifty years of marriage.  The celebration took place at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul.

+The photos in today’s blog illustrate Reunion Weekend at Saint John’s.  Alumni returned to participate in classes offered by faculty members, and in general they simply enjoyed each other’s company and the beauty of the campus.  The weather held out nicely, but when we suddenly had a downpour the indoor beer tasting event became quite popular.  For whatever reason, there are a goodly number of alumni who have founded craft breweries, and several were on hand to introduce their work to classmates and friends.

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Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara

Letting Go

Like most everyone else, Pope Benedict’s impending retirement caught me flatfooted.  Of course as a historian I am aware that several popes have resigned;  but I never thought that such a thing would happen in my lifetime.  Shame on me!

I now realize how myopic my attitudes about the papal office had become.  The pope may be infallible when it comes to faith and morals, but no pope ever claimed to be divine.  Every pope knows he will someday meet his maker, just like the rest of us.  But they’ve also known that they can and do wear themselves out, and that no one is indispensable.  Most popes too have been under no illusion that there are more than enough candidates who are only too happy to step into their shoes.  Such paragons of self-sacrifice have always hovered near the papal throne.

Mission Church, interior

Mission Church, interior

While everyone professed to be flabbergasted by Pope Benedict’s decision, no one had a right to be surprised.  After all, the hints have been there for years.  Nor should anyone engage in the condescension that I have picked up between the lines of some of the commentary.  For one thing, medicine can prolong the lives of people well beyond the point of “useful” service.  Modern medicine can keep people alive for years while they are in a coma.  And modern medicine can become an end in itself.  Our ailments and their treatment can easily become the central focus of our lives, if we are not vigilant.

Was Pope Benedict possibly unaware of this?  Even granting him no benefit of the doubt, I suspect the implications of this dawned on him years ago.  In retrospect, his hints were frequent and obvious enough for anyone to pick up on.  But somehow the professional pope-watchers missed it all.  In fact, why should anyone be surprised that Pope Benedict paid attention to his own words on the subject?

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University

People are astonished at his readiness to walk away from power, and that’s another mistake.  We’ve too often thought of the papal office in terms of authority and the exercise of raw power, forgetting that the pope is a human being, just like the rest of us.  Should we be amazed that Pope Benedict thinks he’s getting up in years?  Why shouldn’t Pope Benedict be allowed to consider retirement?  At the age of eighty-five it’s probably a good idea to give it some thought; and it’s highly likely that he’s thought of it often.  After all, he’s spent many of his waking hours trying to find replacements for his fellow bishops, who all retire at seventy-five.

No, I suspect that Pope Benedict has been thinking about retirement from his first day on the papal throne.  For eight years he did the job out of a sense of duty; and he did it to the best of his ability.  But he also realized that someday duty would demand a different course of action.  That day came.

Pope Benedict deserves a lot of respect for his decision, but I’m not so sure he deserves it just because he’s done this at the age of eighty-five.  Rather, he better deserves our esteem because he’s examined the direction of his life at a critical juncture.  He weighed his life in a balance between ministry and his personal journey of faith.  So I give him credit for knowing when to turn in his two weeks’ notice; but I give him greater credit for knowing what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Ideas on how to spend retirement are already pouring in.  One writer suggested that Pope Benedict buy a condo in south Florida — preferably one with a nice pool and lanai.  No doubt that could be a great boost for Florida real estate; but the pope is no more likely to do that than he is to sit around in t-shirt and sweatpants, drinking beer and watching European football all afternoon.  No, that’s just not him.

photo (4)It should astonish no one that Pope Benedict has no plans to loll away his remaining years on sunny Mallorca like so many of his fellow Germans.  The reason?  He still has way too much to do.  I have no doubt that his job jar has been filled to overflowing for years; and he should know, because he’s been filling it himself.  He must be incredibly excited at the prospect of dipping his hand into that jar now and again.

If there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve learned from people like Pope Benedict, it’s this:  letting go does not mean giving up.  I have many friends who allege that they are retired, but they are far busier than I.  Walking away from a job did not frighten them, because there were so many interesting things that they’d put off for  years.  And now they are busier than ever and happier than ever.  And in so many ways they’ve enriched their community for it.  But why is it so much easier for some to let go of a job, when it is so threatening for others?

Santa Clara University:     Saint John's Bible Exhibit

Santa Clara University: Saint John’s Bible Exhibit

In his Rule Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to rotate work assignments so that no monk becomes proud or begins to think of himself as indispensable.  Of course not a few communities have suffered when a great cook passed the spatula on to a klutz, but you get the point.  What Saint Benedict meant to teach was something fundamental about the meaning of our lives.  While holding a particular job should be fulfilling, each one of us is far more important than any job we hold.  Each one of us has some terrific gifts and winning qualities, and perhaps we’ve used them well through much of our lives.  But if you’ve done one job well for forty or fifty years, what have you given up in the meantime?  What talents have remained dormant?  What have you failed to discover about your own life? Knowing when to let go is a matter of timing as well as an art.  But it’s a lot less scary if we recall that we’ve been given additional years to acomplish something really important.  I suspect that Pope Benedict can’t wait until 8 pm on February 28th.  He’ll go to bed a happy man, and on March 1st he’ll probably wake up early, because there’s so much he’s eager to get done.  Good for him!  And we should all be ready to do the same when the time is right for us.

photo (6)Notes

+The last week has been quite busy for me, and not entirely free from stress.  On February 9th I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, but the check-in did not  bode well.  As I watched the agent tag my bag, I pointed out that he was sending my bag to Puerto Vallarta.  I then asked my neighbor in line if he happened to be going to San Francisco, because his bag had just headed off in that direction, courtesy of my baggage tag attached to it.  He wasn’t; and it took two agents twenty minutes to scour the airport to retrieve and relabel his bag and mine.  Fun.

+On February 12th I delivered a talk at the Bannon Institute at Santa Clara University.  The Institute’s Winter Quarter theme is “Sacred Dialogue: Interpreting and Embodying Sacred Texts Across Traditions.”  My talk was entitled “Texts and Pen: The Legacy of Biblical Art and The Saint John’s Bible.

+On Feburary 15th I delivered the keynote address at a dinner at the cathedral in Los Angeles, celebrating the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s bull that recognized the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Order of Malta.)  Then on February 16th I spoke at a parallel event in San Francisco.

photo (7)+Our alumni of Saint John’s University continue to amaze me with their career choices.  This last week one member of the class of 2008, Joe Mailander, and his high school classmate, Justin Lansing, won a Grammy Award for the best song in the category of children’s music.  Known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin and Joe grew up in Denver.  Joe graduated from Saint John’s, and several friends from Saint John’s contributed to the background music.  They won the award for their album Can you Canoe, but all of their songs are a delight.  After you’ve watched this video, then listen to Brothers.  You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the music, the lyrics, and the lovely Minnesota scenery.

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