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Posts Tagged ‘Schuntzen Museum Cologne’

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Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.

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NOTES

+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.

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Wisdom Finds Delight in Us

Every now and again a passage from Scripture can surprise us with a meaning it did not intend.  Take for instance Proverbs 8.  It offers a sublime reflection on Wisdom, which from the beginning of time has hovered over creation.  Then, all of a sudden, it inserts what seems to be a rather snide reference to some people I know:

”When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains or springs of water;  before the waters were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth;  while as yet the earth and fields were not made, nor the first clods of the world.”

My cynical side wants to argue that here God was being honest with this little aside;  but my sensible side argues that it may be time for an updated English translation.  Either way, though, Wisdom’s real thoughts are best reflected in the verse that concludes this passage:  “And I found delight in the human race.”  That I find truly amazing, because sometimes I don’t see that at all.

B3597EA0-AAE4-404D-BF0B-3FFA3036A53BIn the liturgy on most Sundays of the year we recite the Nicene Creed, and in it Christians profess their belief that God saw the world and saw that it was good.  That includes not only the few masterpieces among us but also the clods and idiots and all those other deeply flawed people whom we know.  Of course by the time that we total up the complete list it pretty much includes us all.  Coming to terms with that reality is one of the ongoing challenges of life — at least for me.

Giving other people the benefit of the doubt, forgiving them, and owning up to our own faults are what make life so challenging.  They’re also what make life potentially so creative.  On any given day we all endure a tug-of-war between our better selves and the temptation to view others as Satan would have us view them.  From his perspective people are pretty much nasty, brutish, and a bunch of clods.  But of course that is not really the case.  Each of us, as a creation of God, carries some spark of divine life that drives us forward.  Certainly there are moments when we tend to come off as clods, but that’s not who we really are.

Sooner or later we all confront the temptation to write off our neighbors as hopeless causes.  But of course they are not.  Nor are we.  So whenever that inclination starts to well up within us, it’s worthwhile to recall God’s own delight in us.  If God sees in us what we can’t quite see, then perhaps it’s time we look again.

38005A36-26B0-49FE-8465-1A417DE4C3B9NOTES

+On June 10th I flew to Phoenix for a meeting and a series of visits with friends of Saint John’s.  Back in March, when I scheduled this, a trip to Phoenix sounded like a terrific idea.  Once I landed I had only one regret.  Save for Tuesday, when the temperature plunged down to a balmy 108, it reached 111 every other day.  It was not what I had hoped for, and in retrospect I should have gone sooner.

+On June 16th I received welcome news from Fr. Petrus Nowack, the librarian of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  For some time we have been in communication regarding the gifting of a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, made possible by Mrs. Hella Hueg, a friend of Saint John’s and native of Heidelberg.  Shortly before her passing she expressed the desire that her set be sent to an institution in Germany, and she welcomed the thought that it would go to Maria Laach.  We at Saint John’s have had a long relationship with the monks of Maria Laach, though we do not go back to the 11th century as they do.

+The translation of the passage from Proverbs that I’ve quoted in today’s post is from The New American Bible, which Catholics in the United States currently use in the liturgy.  It has its shortcomings, and recently the American bishops decided to abandon the current translation in favor of something more congenial.  They illustrated their decision with several passages from that translation in which the English has evolved to mean something other than what was originally intended.  Among them was one passage that recalled the Israelite conquest of a particular Canaanite town, after which “they paraded around with their booty.”  Seniors hear one thing and their grandchildren hear another when that passage is read.

+Wisdom is associated with the Holy Spirt;  and given that Sunday was the feast of the Trinity I searched for photos that might illustrate the Trinity.  At top is a piece of stained glass (ca. 1520) from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne, and now housed at the V & A in London.  Below that is a glass panel of the Trinity (early 16th century), now housed at the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The next photo shows The Saint John’s Bible and its case made at Saint John’s, positioned in the library of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  At bottom is a wooden Trinity, early 16th century, also housed at the Schuntzen Museum.

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Don’t Get Lost in the Wilderness

”Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?”  So protested the Hebrews in Exodus 17: 3-7.  It wasn’t the first time that they’d cornered Moses with their complaints, and it wouldn’t be the last.  This time it was about the water, and the lack thereof.  Other times it was about the wretched food.  But I think more than anything else it was uncertainty about the future that fed their discontent.  Where in the world were they going?  When would they get there?  Would they ever get there?  Who knew?

Moses felt the stress too, and so it should come as no surprise that he repackaged their complaints and passed them on to God.  “What shall I do with this people?”  Clearly forty years in the desert were no picnic, and even Moses had to wonder how it would end.  Had he known that he would never set foot on the promised land he might have turned around and gone back to Egypt.  But he didn’t.

359E78ED-67A4-40AF-A4BA-DBE6095AEC8FWe all have our moments of uncertainty.  We have our doubts.  We have our spoken and unspoken fears about what will become of us.  And concern for the future can easily transform our days into aimless wandering through a metaphorical desert of our own making.

These moments dog the firmest of believers, but all the same many people are stunned when they realize that the most respected of saints can share the doubts of the ordinary believers.  People should not have been surprised to learn that Mother Theresa wandered through her own spiritual desert, for example; and yet they were.  In her letters and diaries Mother Theresa described long stretches in which God seemed absent from her life.  It left her desolate and spiritually alone;  and yet she kept up her routine of serving the poor and those in their final moments of life.  And in those determined moments she finally glimpsed once again the God who had been beside her all along.

Lent can be our own wandering in the desert.  It’s that planned digression during which we refocus on the source of meaning in our lives.  Are our days pointless?  Do the little decisions that we have to make each day have some purpose or direction, or not?  Lent is when we learn once again that even the baby steps and the smallest of gestures matter — and they matter because we are indeed headed somewhere with our lives.

1F59AAA8-5554-4747-8D70-9325598CC1DDOne of the great ironies of their forty-year trek through the wilderness was likely lost on the Israelites.  Most of them, like Moses — were not destined to set foot into the Holy Land.  But as sad as that may seem, what really matters is that they wasted so many of their days on complaining.  They frittered away the hours, because they never quite realized that the journey has as much meaning as reaching the destination does.

The same is true for us.  Easter is an ultimate goal, but walking with the Lord in the here and the now is when the path to meaning and fulfillment first takes on some clarity.  It’s when we slowly open our eyes to our destiny to be with God.  But we need not wait until Easter for the full vision of the risen Lord.  Why?  Because it’s on the paths of Lent where we discover that the Lord already walks beside us.

NOTES

+On March 24th I make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Philip in the Hills Church in Tucson, AZ.  It was a nice experience, though my only regret was that it had not come a month earlier when it was really cold in Minnesota.  This time I hated to leave, since this weekend the temperatures inched toward 50 degrees for the first time since November.  It was too nice to go.

43E140B2-66D3-4164-B063-6505A387489D+In the popular imagination Lent is a time for the doldrums, matching the dreary pre-spring landscape.  However, there are moments when deliberate breaks come in the liturgical calendar, and mid-March offers three feast days that effectively call a time-out in the season of penance.  On March 17th we celebrated the feast of Saint Patrick, with all the gusto that a once-German community of monks can muster.  On March 19th we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph, and on March 21st we celebrated one of the two feast days of Saint Benedict.  There can never be enough of the latter in a Benedictine monastery, and so we also celebrate his memory on July 11th.

+March 25th just happens to be the feast of the Annunciation, which once again takes the liturgical focus away from Lent.  At the top of today’s post is a stained-glass panel of the Annunciation, made in the Lower Rhine, in ca. 1520.  Below that is a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, carved in the Eastern Alps, ca. 1220-1230.  Next is Christ on the Cross, carved in Cologne in ca. 1370.  Finally, the bottom two photos are The Golden Panel from Saint Ursula, made in Cologne ca. 1170.  All of these items are housed today in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.

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Buried Talents

Better known for his reliance on nature and agriculture to color his parables, Jesus nonetheless did reference other topics every now and again.  Still, his allusions to the business world are few and far between, and that scarcity makes them all the more remarkable.  Small wonder, then, that his reference to banking in Matthew 25 raised my eyebrows when it showed up in the lectionary for last Saturday.

In that passage Jesus describes a householder who doled out resources to the servants, only to discover that one of them had buried the talents rather than risk losing them.  Jesus concludes with the enigmatic observation that it would be better to put the funds in the bank where they would draw interest rather than sit idly, not accomplishing much of anything for anybody.

37338264-697E-4CC3-93F1-6433C67A8E4BI note the enigma here because in the ancient Hebrew world usury — the charging of interest on a loan — was forbidden.  That ban transferred into the Christian experience, and only in the 13th century did Christian theologians find a way around the prohibition.

So does Jesus condone usury in this case?  Probably not.  But what he is suggesting is the gravity of any situation in which people bury their talents rather than risk using and then losing them.  Nothing justifies such waste, and in this case Jesus might very well be suggesting that it is an offense worse than usury.

Beyond that, I tease out one further inference from the banking world.  A loan from the bank is not a gift.  A loan is never meant to become the personal property of the recipient, and in fact the bank eventually does want its money back.  In the meantime the loan is meant to accomplish something worthwhile.  But it’s definitely not meant to be hidden away to be counted and admired — but not used.

The same is true with any of the talents that God gives to us.  They’re meant to be on loan, in hopes that we will do something useful with them.  They are not meant as gifts to be hoarded as personal property, because they are meant to be used in service to others.

I’m not going to start listing what I think are my own talents, but I will share one exercise that I do now and again to remind myself that I don’t live solely for my own benefit.  One of the easiest expressions of respect and support for others is the simple greeting I can give when I pass them in the hall.  Certainly there are moments when I don’t feel like doing it, but I also know that sometimes even a simple greeting of respect can make all the difference in the world to someone who may be down in the dumps.  That’s when I remind myself that holding back does no good for anyone.  It doesn’t make me a better person, nor does it make me richer.  If the truth be told, I’m actually diminished as a person when I refrain from doing the simple good that I can do.

1A6962AE-CB4D-4139-8471-42C8A7223D23Support for one another is in the power of us all, but it’s only one of the many talents God gives to us.  But that talent only becomes a gift when we give it away.

NOTES

+On September 1st I participated in the wedding of my friend, Pierre Brunel, in San Francisco.  It didn’t quite count as a destination wedding, since it was a practical meeting point for most everyone.  Only 25 of the 165 in attendance were from the Bay Area, while the rest came from France, the east coast of the United States, and Australia.  The bride, Natalie, and Pierre both live in Sydney, Australia, and there they will make their home.

+The other major event of the week was my visit with one of my confreres to the State Fair of Minnesota.  I had not been in years, and visits to the animal barns are my chief interest.  The highlight was the barn that showed newborns, including the lambs in the photo at bottom.

+The three photos above show art housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  At top is a panel of stained glass, with John the Baptist at left, ca. 1528, originally in the Charterhouse in Breisgau.  Below that is a carving of John the Baptist, pointing to the Lamb of God, made ca. 1480 by Master Tilman.  Next is another statue, dated ca. 1425, by Hans von Judenburg.  At bottom are some newborn lambs of God, at the State Fair of Minnesota.

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