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Posts Tagged ‘Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’

photoStaying in the Game

For years each group of novices in our community heard the story of the elderly monk, whose job included waking one novice early each morning.  That novice would then walk through the halls, ringing the hand-bell that called the monks to morning prayer.

One pre-dawn morning, as he made his rounds, the senior stopped to knock at the door of the novice who was the bell-ringer for the week.  But the door was open, the room was empty of personal belongings, and the novice was nowhere to be seen.  At a loss for what to do next, the senior ran into another monk, and asked him about the absent brother.

photo“Oh, he left yesterday,” was the reply.  “He wasn’t happy.”

“Happy?  Who’s happy?” was all the senior monk could think to say.

It’s sad but true that there are monks who go through life unhappy and depressed.  For the life of me I don’t understand why people would stay in a monastery if they didn’t find it to be an enriching experience.  But some do, because in their depression they see no way out. Nor can they envision any option that might be better.  In fact, they are caught in a Catch-22, where they are unhappy if they stay, and likely would be even unhappier if they were to leave.

Of course monks have no monopoly on unhappiness and depression, since those are pretty wide-spread conditions.  All over the place you encounter people who feel trapped by the hand that life has dealt them.  With no apparent exit strategy, they endure what seem to be lifeless marriages, tedious jobs, and aching loneliness.

photoI’ll be honest and say that so far life has spared me that sort of experience.  Though we all share moments of depression, mine have been brief and non-paralyzing.  Part of this is due to the fact that I am an incorrigible optimist, as I’ve noted in an earlier post.  But now I again admit that I have a really hard time finding the cloud that envelops the silver lining.  That makes it very difficult to nurture depression for long stretches, and that probably is a real gift that I’ve yet to understand.  But I appreciate it.  Such inveterate optimism provides the quick escape route I need when dark clouds threaten.  But that is not so for a few of my confreres, and certainly not so for many of our fellow citizens in the world.

There’s not a single one of us who hasn’t at times felt that life has not gone the way we wanted.  I’m the first admit my disappointment that the western world has yet to recognize my talents.  Others of us have dug themselves into a social hole because they think no one likes them.  Others have enjoyed little of the esteem or privileges that seem to shower down on the elect among us.  And on the most elemental of levels, virtually everyone, or most people, or a few people, or one person always does better than me.  What rotten luck always seems to befall me.  I have every right to be thoroughly depressed.

photoThese are the thoughts that percolate through our minds when we are tired or have our guard down.  Such thoughts come to all of us, but whether they reflect the truth is another matter entirely.  Granted, when bad things happen to good people, we do have a right to feel just a bit put out.  And when the wicked seem to prosper all the time, it’s enough to make one swear at the injustice of it all.  But sometimes we do get fooled by our self-pity and fall for it hook, line and sinker.

What surprises me most is that these thoughts creep into the minds of people who are talented and blessed in so many ways.  These people have absolutely no right to feel depressed about anything.  But on down days they do crash, and those dark  days can leach out from them any and all hope for the future.

photoIn her book on John Cassian, Thoughts Matter, Sr. Mary Margaret Funk gives a few strategies for pulling ourselves out of this dark hole and back into health.  But among her suggestions was one that caught my eye, because it sounded very familiar to me.  She recommends that one “stay in relationship with others.”  “If I begin to isolate myself, there is no end to the number of people I cross off my list.”

Years ago I adopted as my daily mantra one rule that I use to drag me wherever and whenever I don’t want to go someplace.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game” has served me well.  It’s been for me the antidote to occasional bouts of introversion.  It’s also been effective medicine for the days when I don’t feel like doing a thing, and for days when I’d rather stay in my room and hide.  But over the years I’ve learned this:  the longer I stay on the sidelines, the harder it is to get back out there and meet the world.  And after years of experience, I know that things always go much better when I do show up.

photoI had not realized that this was a good spiritual tonic.  Little did I know that the temptation to isolate myself could open me to all sorts of pitfalls .  Little did I realize that the antidote to such temptation was so close at hand.

I never did find out whether the novice who left did so because he was  unhappy, or because he had realized that this was not the life for him.  I hope it was the latter.   As for the senior monk, I have a feeling he was not being entirely honest that morning when he hinted at his own unhappiness.  After all, his quick wit that morning entered him into the ranks of the immortals in the monastery.  But beyond that, he continued to be the first to greet the dawn each day.  He must have had a lot to live for, because he never failed to show up to play the game.

Benedictine Volunteers

Benedictine Volunteers

Notes

+On Sunday, June 2nd, I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  For a transcript of my Sermon on Corpus Christi, click on this link or visit Presentations.

+In late May we hosted a cohort of recent alumni of Saint John’s University, who will serve as Benedictine Volunteers during the coming school year.  They were with us in the monastery for two weeks of orientation and retreat, and this September they will begin a year of service at Benedictine abbeys in South America, Africa, Israel, India, Europe and the United States.  This is the eleventh year of the program, and it continues to provide an extraordinary experience for the Volunteers.  As for the Abbey, we have been delighted to welcome into the Abbey four former Volunteers, who now live with us as young monks.

photo+On May 25th Saint John’s University alumnus Deacon James Peterson was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.  A native of Minnetonka, MN, Fr. Peterson was a theology major at Saint John’s and participated in track and field.  He also worked as a student ambassador in the Office of Institutional Advancement, which happens to be the office where I work.  Fr. Peterson is the second of two of our former student ambassadors to be ordained in as many years.  Congratulations to Fr. Peterson!

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6.LourdesFood: The Great Temptation

It all started with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Theirs was a perfect life, but they were not alone with their thoughts.  It was in Eden that they encountered what likely was the first major distraction on record:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Accustomed to a daily round of walks with God, plenty to eat, and camaradarie with the animals, everything seemed to be as good as it gets.  Who would want to upset that apple-cart?

35.Mosaic of JesusIt should come as no surprise that the first temptation recorded in the Bible centers on food.  It’s a basic need, after all.  You can’t go for very long without it; and if you do so, body and mind will insist on doing someting about it.  Not surprisingly, the early ascetics experienced this, and John Cassian writes of it as the entry-level preoccupation of the human mind.

Still, the Book of Genesis reports that Eve’s focus on that tree was less about food and more about the desire to go beyond her current state.  The story implies that she couldn’t have been all that hungry, despite the absence of soft drinks and fast food.  Nor was she aware of impending famine and the need to store up for the future.  No, by the time she plucked the first piece of fruit from that tree, something else was going through her mind.  This was not about fruit.  This was about power and self-esteem.  That’s what pressed her buttons that day.

13.Candles at LourdesIn her book “Thoughts Matter”, Sr. Meg Funk reflects on John Cassian’s teaching about the  thoughts that run through the minds of us all.  Constantly, throughout our waking hours, a steady stream of thoughts prance through our imagination.  Who knows where they all originate, but thankfully our mental spam filter deletes a lot of it before it gets onto our agenda.  Yet, some still make it through into our consciousness.  There they disturb us and inspire us and incite us into further thought, word and deed.  In short, they press our buttons hard enough to take over our waking hours for just a bit, or for a long time.

Food certainly is the most basic of human needs, but it’s never as simple as it seems.  Sure, we all like to eat, and some of us love to eat.  Some of us even live to eat.  But when we think of that big bag of chips, or whatever it is that gets us going, it can become really complicated. Thoughts of hunger and the allure of food remind us of the need to eat to survive.  They remind us that food could run out some day, and it might be prudent to lay in a big supply to allay our fears about the future.  Those thoughts might remind us that eating some foods brings prestige to the diner, as do the select places where we might choose to dine. Thoughts of food also bring out the latent competitiveness in all of us.  In order for me to get more, someone else must get less.  Isn’t it better to get yours before all the greedy people get it first?  And on a more positive note, if I eat the right kinds of food, in proper balance, I just might live a longer and healthier life.

19.GrottoPretty soon the mere thought of food can trigger all sorts of responses in us.  We can stop in our tracks to get some; we can eat beyond what is reasonable; we can eat beyond our means; and we can do the completely irrational.  That’s one reason I avoid the snack food aisle like the plague.  I know that one small bag of Cheetos is a nice treat.  But  I also know that if they manufactured twenty-pound bags of Cheetos, I’d get several.  I’d lay in a big supply, because you never know.  All the Cheetos factories could burn down.  Or someone might corner the market on Cheetos and drive up the price.  Anyway, that’s how Cheetos have the power to press one of my buttons and send me off into a chain of  uncontrolled actions.  That’s why I’ve always had a special sympathy for Eve.  She may have started with an apple, but in her mind it was about far more than that.

If our thoughts are complicated and savvy enough to catch our attention, they are also persistent.  The first Christian ascetics learned this early on, and we need to own up to that as well.  If early monks and nuns thought they’d leave their troubles at the cloister door, they always got a big surprise when they walked into their cell for the first time.  No sooner had they settled in, then the old familiar friends popped up in their imagination.  What they wanted before, they still wanted — but now with a vengeance.  Their experience explains why so many of us go to church and immediately start thinking of everything but church.  Know it or not, we all bring an awful lot of baggage with us, and the quieter the place, the sooner those bags get unpacked.

36.Mosaic at LourdesWhen I was a young priest I was always a little put off when people confessed to distractions during prayer.  In those heady years when I knew nearly everything, I tended to dismiss such comments as scrupulosity or fluff.  Now I’m not so sure, because my own mind wanders when I’m in church.  What kind of medicine should I be taking?

Through the years I’ve learned from many who are far more experienced in using strategies to deal with distraction.  The first point I’ve drawn from them is not to treat distraction as if it were sin.  Think of a distraction as a button that is being pushed, and then step back to analyze it.  What’s the point of this thought?  Where does it lead me if I follow through on it?  How best should I deal with this distraction?

31.Church FrontOne should also keep in mind that not all “distractions” lead us down the wayward path.  Some thoughts point straight to God.  Some thoughts lead us into doing the right thing.  Some thoughts tug at our imagination and help us prioritize our lives.  All this happens when we don’t let our thoughts run away with us.  Rather, we are better off placing our thoughts and preoccupations at the foot of the Lord, and he will help us sort them out.

So one day I prayed to the Lord about the Cheetos.  “What about the Cheeetos?”  I asked.  “Well, what do you think you should do about the Cheetos?” was the response I got.  “Well, they’re nice enough, but I don’t live for them.”  And God said: “That’s what I was thinking too.”

Then I knew I was ready for the next big thought.

53.The streets of LourdesNotes

+This week I am in Lourdes with the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage.  It’s an extraordinary experience, and everyone should  consider it someday, whether they are a believer or not.  People come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons, but spiritual healing ranks far above physical healing in the benefits that we all take with us when we leave.  Lourdes also reminds us of the contrasts between the sacred and the secular worlds.  At Lourdes one sees the sublime and the banal, and the edge of the shrine is the physical boundary.  On the other hand, one of the great lessons of Lourdes is that in all of our lives the sacred and the profane are not totally separate worlds.  They blend together in our own little world.  We also learn that one cannot live in a shrine forever.  You have to go home eventually, and you take a glimpse of the divine back with you to serve you at home.

Lourdes, like other pilgrimage destinations, is not all peaches and cream.  It rained for the first forty-eight hours after our arrival.  That was not fun.  But by far the biggest challenge to our psyche was our willingness to enter into sacred time and sacred space.  Upon arrival, quite a few people rushed down to the gates of the shrine to take it all in.  Meanwhile, a very unhealthy percentage of us (myself included) rushed to our rooms to turn on the wifi to connect with the world we had left behind.  The hotel wifi system promptly jammed for several hours.  I had to get up at 4 am to get access to the internet and get this posting out. Thank goodness all the greedy people were still asleep.

22.Bridge at Lourdes

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Stained glass E Pluribus UnumDo Thoughts Count?

Pope Francis continues to provide heathy grist for our musings, and I especially appreciated his use of a comment from Saint Francis.  “Preach always.  If necessary, use words.”

That’s an important point to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time preaching and writing.  Both genres depend on words, and there isn’t a lot we can do to make up for that.  One could, I suppose, sing and dance in the pulpit, or use other ploys to hold a congregation’s attention.  But more often than not such stunts leave people amused at the ineptitude they’ve just witnessed.  Most walk out convinced that the performer really shouldn’t have tried it.  As for a blog, I suppose I redeem myself by using pictures, which in theory count for more than words.  Plus, I send something every Monday morning, thereby demonstrating reliability by my deeds.  So there may be some hope for me.

Stained Glass 25Still, there’s a serious message in the words of Saint Francis.  At the very least, they presume that we are, or ought to be, more than mere talk.  Within Christian tradition we’ve always recognized this, even if at times we’ve only paid lip service to the ideal.  In the Confiteor, for example, we speak of sins of thought, word and deed.  That implies that what we often use in a perverse direction can also be channelled for the good.  But what it also speaks to is the integration that should exist in our lives.  Thought, word and deed are not individual items with nothing in common.  They are, instead, expressions of the core of our being.  And you cannot specialize in one or two and forget about the other entirely.

For once this sacred notion has some good crossover with popular wisdom.  “Talk is cheap,” and the need to “walk the talk” are but two examples of a commonsense parallel.  Both aphorisms point out the schizophrenia that results when there is a disconnect among thought, word and deed.  Even secular society sees the  hypocrisy in the person who is long on talk but lacks the ambition to translate that talk into action.

Stained Glass 27On the other hand, popular wisdom can also be self-contradictory.  Take as an example one phrase that we often lean on when deeds don’t materialize:  “It’s the thought that counts.”  Does it really?  I hope not, because if it’s the thought that really counts, then a lot more of us should be going to jail.  If the thought does count, then there are far more serial killers around than anyone ever imagined.  And you and I might even be among them.  Thank God the legal code demands that we walk the talk before we’re convicted for murder and similar such deeds.

I write all this by way of introduction to a weighty but very succinct book that I am currently reading.  With a title like “Thoughts Matter” you would suppose that Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, was coming down firmly on the side of just one of the various choices we might consider.  But in fact she too argues for an integration in our lives, and she offers a much deeper analysis of the nature of the thoughts that flow through our minds.

Stained Glass 29Sr. Meg bases her work on the writings of the early 5th-century monk, Saint John Cassian.  Arguably one of the greatest authors in the spiritual tradition, Cassian knew the desert fathers and mothers personally.  He traveled widely, and systematically sought out hundreds of ascetics.  From his many interviews he distilled a series of reflections that went on to become a major source for Saint Benedict when he composed his Rule for Monks.

Sr. Meg writes about the thoughts that pass through our mind as chatter.  And as Cassian has outlined them, they congeal around eight common themes: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory and pride.  I’m not going to explain or elaborate on them now, because in coming weeks I want to attend to those themes individually.  But significant to all of them is the pull that they exert on our attention.  Each draws us in its own direction, for good and for ill.  And whether pope or nun, or layman or laywoman, that chatter runs through all of our minds.

Stained Glass 30If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re going crazy because of all the stuff churning through your mind, be assured you are not alone.  The ascetics in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts faced the same chatter.  All we’ve done is accelerate the pace.  While we watch the news on television, we’re also glancing at the headlines that stream across the bottom of the screen.  While we are listening to commercials.  While we are texting and thinking about email.  While we are listening to someone trying to compete for our attention.  While we are remembering stuff we should have done.  And worst of all, while we are driving.

Who has time for deeds when all this chatter is running through our minds?  Those who install a good spam filter in their mind, that’s who.

Stained Glass 32Notes

+On Sunday April 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka, MN.

+On Monday April 22nd it snowed another nine inches.  Happily, by the following weekend it soared past 70 degrees and much of the snow simply slipped away.

+While the maple syrup harvest is not yet complete, the cooks have made over 400 gallons.

+In anticipation of the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, I escaped the snows and arrived in Paris on the 26th.  The early arrival gave me the chance to visit several medieval sites, pictures of which will show up in this blog in coming weeks.  I also had the opportunity to visit with one of my former students, who now lives with his wife and daughter and son in Luxembourg.  We met in Metz, which allowed me to visit that city for the first time. It also let me catch up on Jack’s life in Europe.  True to his imaginative approach to life, he and his wife have raised their two children in a bi-lingual household: English and Chinese.  But classes for the youngsters are in Luxembourgish, French and German.  What a world they will enjoy!

+There are many nooks and crannies around Saint John’s that reward the attentive explorer, and the most interesting collection of stained glass is to be found in Emmaus Hall, home of the School of Theology.  The pictures in today’s post all come from there, and they speak far more eloquently than my mere words.  But to show you this, it was absolutely necessary to use just a few words.

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