Posts Tagged ‘Subiaco’


Saints Francis and Benedict

I found Pope Benedict’s reflection on Saint Francis that we heard at morning prayer to be a real spark for my imagination.  As he pointed out, Francis has transcended the centuries, and he’s done so because all sorts of people have found different reasons to like him.  Francis truly was and is a man for all seasons, a man for all times, and a man for all sorts of people.  And in that light I want to comment on Saints Francis and Benedict.

Most every Benedictine monk knows that Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic journey.  There on one of the walls is a fresco of Francis as a memento of that visit.  Clearly Saint Benedict must have meant a lot to Francis, and perhaps he saw something of himself in Benedict.  And if at first blush they seem to have little in common, I think we’d miss an element that is key to the story of each.  Both of them fled social environments that they found toxic.  For his part Francis fled the bourgeois wealth of his family, and Benedict fled the wealth of Rome.

E45B1A7C-8B38-4DA5-A825-FCC20E425617All too often we’ve assumed that Benedict sought escape from the dissipated student life of the city.  In fact it may have been more likely that he fled the wealthy ways of the Church in Rome.  So I’m not sure what Benedict expected to find when he got to Rome, but it may have been the wealth and growing power of the Church that sent him packing.  The churches that he entered looked every bit like the basilicas in which the emperors had presided, and where the emperors had once sat the leading clergy sat instead.  And manuscript historian Christopher de Hamel notes that illuminations of the day show the apostles and bishops clean-shaven and dressed every bit like members of the Roman senatorial class.  And so it’s entirely possible that the wealth of the Church sent Benedict into the wilderness, just as it did the Egyptian ascetics in the 4th century.

What might we conclude about Benedict and Francis?  For one, they were not Manichaean dualists.  For them neither wealth nor creation were intrinsically evil.  On the other hand they each had seen how wealth and power could transform even the best of people.   Neither wanted to be in the number of the latter.

And so, on the feast of Saint Francis may we celebrate with joy all of God’s creation, as Francis did.  And then let us remember that God has put us here not to be transformed by the good things of the earth.  Rather, let us transform all those good things and put them into the service of the Lord.


+On September 30th through October 2nd I hosted four supporters of the Immokalee Scholarship Program at Saint John’s University.  While at Saint John’s I got to spend some wonderful moments with John, Jack, Sandy and Bill, and certainly the highlight of the visit was the evening when we join nine of our students from Immokalee for dinner.

+On October 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the text of the homily that I preached that day.  In the monastery we began the day with a morning prayer reading in which Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the appreciation for Saint Francis through the centuries.

+On October 5th I flew to Omaha, NE, and the next day I gave a tour of an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible, now at the Joslyn Art Museum for the next few weeks.  On Monday the 7th I will give a lecture to Friends of the Museum.

+Readers may find it a surprise to learn that Saint Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began life as a hermit.  The fresco of Saint Francis was painted shortly after his visit, and the absence of a halo indicates that he was still very much alive at the time of the painting.  That fresco is included in today’s post, along with other photos of the abbey of Subiaco.


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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”


+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.


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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.


+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.


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IMG_0024_2Is There a Merciful God?

Nearly a year ago the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle invited me to give a day of reflection, on the theme of the “year of mercy” that had been proclaimed by Pope Francis.  Since I’m used to giving retreat days, this was hardly an insurmountable challenge.  Still, the theme of mercy was one I’d not considered before.  But with a year to prepare, how hard could it be?

Ask anyone a year in advance to do something and it will seem like no big deal, and that was true in my case.  So I conveniently filed the request away, confident that I would find plenty of material just in the nick of time to craft some decent conferences.  This was not the first time I’d made such a foolish mistake, but this was something I only discovered eleven months later.

With the retreat less than a month away, I’d not come up with a single idea that I could use, and I started to worry.  Then one day I began to panic.  What in the world could I possibly say that might inspire me, to say nothing of the people I was supposed to inspire?

IMG_0019_2Saint Benedict in his Rule reminds monks that sometimes wisdom is found in the youngest monk, and it was one of my youngest confreres who saved me by his recommendation of a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, appropriately entitled Mercy.  Cardinal Kasper had begun the book after reflecting on the importance of mercy in the writing and preaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and he had hoped to turn his thoughts into a series of retreat conferences.  Unfortunately his retreat conferences never quite materialized, but for me this book was a God-send.  His nuggets of insight saved my hide in Seattle two weeks ago.

As we begin Holy Week, one point that Kasper makes early on in his book seems especially apropos.  It deals with a conundrum that we confront, and it touches on the leap of faith that all of us must decide whether we’ll make.  If there is indeed a God, then how can we call that God loving and merciful in the face of the horrors of the 20th century?  That is a variation of the age-old question that has dogged every believer.  How can a God who is all-powerful and good stand back and allow hideous things to happen to decent and undeserving people?

Kasper describes one modern response, which is to deny the existence of God altogether.  A good God simply could not allow the horrors of the 20th century, and so to protect God’s reputation we have to deny that God exists.  That certainly is one way to resolve the dilemma, but to my mind it leaves us high and dry in answering two questions left on the table:  from whence does our existence come, and what is the purpose of our lives?

IMG_0018Kasper’s elaboration on this issue is too much for this short reflection, but he goes on to write that the Christian response to all this is the point of Holy Week.  As Christians we believe that God is loving and does care, and a God who shows mercy is a primary attribute of the source in whom we live and move and have our being.  That is the message that the liturgies and readings of Holy Week seek to communicate.

Christians affirm that our life has its origin in the creative act of God.  God does love us and God does wish the best for us; but God also gives us the free will that allows us to formulate our destiny.  Just as parents bring children to life and watch them mature, they must also eventually stand back, let go and let them make their own mistakes.  So God does with us, because without free will any response we make to God is pointless and predetermined.  With free will our response can be one of authentic love, however.

During Holy Week the Christian community proclaims that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to share in our existence.  God did not spare that son from the same  horrors that can afflict us all, but God did affirm that tragedy is never the end of the story.  There is always redemption to be found, even in suffering.  The ultimate direction of our lives, then, is resurrection and continued life with God.

IMG_0026_2So if God does exist, as we believe, is God aloof and uncaring?  Does God get riled up by our petty misdeeds and our high crimes?  Does God get his jollies by allowing waves of catastrophe to crash upon us?  Not at all, and that’s the point of Holy Week.

Though God tends not to intervene in our lives like an omnipotent superman, God does care.  God does love us.  God does show us glimpses of mercy that pull is little by little along the path to the eternal.  And on a practical level God’s fundamental message of salvation is one of mercy.  That mercy is something we can experience every day of our lives.

Mercy is the corollary to the painful conundrum of the passion and death of Jesus.  And so mercy is what I will write about next week as we celebrate Easter.


+On March 16th we were surprised to look out and see that the ice had gone out from Lake Sagatagan and the other lakes at Saint John’s.  It may not have been the earliest date for this, but it was not far from the record.  The warm spring does not bode well for collecting a lot of maple sap, but I don’t think we are ready to trade our warm days for a return to snow and ice.

+On March 20th I attended the first of a series of meetings in Naples, FL.  The series will end with a reception on the 22nd for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  Happily I will be back at Saint John’s in time for the Triduum.

+This was a challenging week for my sister and our family.  On Tuesday and Wednesday her husband suffered two severe heart attacks, and he is lucky to be alive.  On Thursday they became grandparents once again.  Happily the baby was born at the hospital where my mother volunteers, and the birth took place on her volunteer day.  So my mom had the privilege of seeing her new great-granddaughter just hours after the birth.  On a different front, a dear friend has had her cancer return.  Please keep her and my brother-in-law in your prayers.  Thank you!

IMG_0138_2+The photos in today’s post come from the marvelous cycle of frescos at the Abbey of Subiaco, to the south of Rome.  It was here that Saint Benedict began his life as a hermit.  As disciples gathered around him the community grew, and eventually he moved to Monte Cassino.  Fortunately these medieval paintings have survived in good condition.  Among the prized items is the only portrait from life of Saint Francis, made shortly after his visit to Subiaco.

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imageAre We All From Galilee?

A recurring theme in the gospels is the rather shabby reception that Jesus got in towns that should have known him well.  In chapter four of his gospel John writes that in Galilee Jesus could expect no honor.  Elsewhere, in equally familiar places, he could do no wonders.  I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer for this, but perhaps his neighbors couldn’t possibly see Jesus in any other role than as the son of Mary and Joseph.  Or perhaps the village mentality asserted itself.  It’s the knee-jerk reaction of us all when we confront some young upstart who shows the potential to disrupt our cozy little worlds.  Whatever the reason, Jesus got no respect from his neighbors, as all the gospel writers attest.

Still later in chapter four John introduces a messenger from Capernaum, the city where Jesus had moved after leaving Nazareth.  In this episode an official has sent word, asking Jesus to heal his son.  The request is so matter-of-fact that it’s the equivalent of calling a pharmacist, and the rudeness irked Jesus just a little bit.  He did heal the son, but not before he had pointed out the presumption of the offical.  People in Capernaum, like people everywhere, enjoyed a good show of signs and wonders, noted Jesus.  But they expected this demonstration before they would believe.  If Jesus wanted their acceptance, then he had to jump through their hoops first.  Then and only then would they believe.  Maybe.  That’s what rubbed Jesus the wrong way.

imageTwo questions popped into my mind as I thought about this.  First, why did the evangelists feel compelled to include in their gospels all sorts of stuff that was unflattering to Jesus?  A modern publicist would edit the tale very differently, and so would I.  I, for one, would have a roar of hosannas greet Jesus at the gate of every town in his triumphant tour of Galilee.  And I’d  have people begging him not to leave.  Meanwhile, all that business about pushing Jesus over the cliff wouldn’t survive the first draft.  That’s how I’d like to see it; but that’s also why the Holy Spirit never asked me to write a gospel.  My sanitized and happy tale is not the story that Jesus meant to tell.

Then there’s the dogged determination that Jesus showed when he returned to all those hostile places.  Did he really have no place else to go?  I doubt it.  But the fact is, Jesus did go back, again and again, despite it all.  And you have to wonder why he even bothered with those people.  Why didn’t he just shake the dust from his sandals at the edge of town and then call down an air-strike of fire and brimstone?  That’s what I’d do if I were in his shoes.

imageWe may wonder why Jesus obsesssed with the people of Galilee, but there’s a very good reason:  those people are us.  For better and for worse, the population of Galilee did not exhaust the world’s supply of narrow-minded people, and in these gospel passages they do an excellent job of standing in for us.  That, in a nutshell, is why these ugly incidents are in the gospels.  These neighbors of Jesus remind us that people have scarcely changed in the last 2,000 years, and we’re in their number.

Like the people of Galilee and all the others who gave Jesus a chilly reception, we do the same sometimes.  We too expect Jesus to jump through our hoops.  Only after we’ve put our fingers in his wounds or seen him do his wonders will we get up from our bench on the sidelines.  Only after Jesus makes the first move will we respond.  And only after he meets us three-quarters of the way will we show some initiative.  And we do that to Jesus, because that’s how we often treat one another.

imageAs we approach the home stretch of Lent, Christians have a fundamental option to consider.  Will we always be observers in the story?  Will we always stand on the sidelines, looking for the trend lines, before we commit to something?  Or will we choose to act, despite all our imperfections?  To be blunt, will we reach out and help to carry the cross of Christ?  If we do, we’ll discover that we’re doing Jesus no big favor, because the cross he carries happens to be our own.

In retrospect I’m glad that the gospel writers included the stories of the neighbors who gave Jesus a rough time.  But they didn’t do it to stir our pity for Jesus, because he wasn’t welcome in his home town.  Rather, they told these stories to remind us that the Galileans represented us when Jesus, time and again, entered their villages.  And if we think that Jesus was crazy for going back, then I’m glad he was crazy.  Afer all, if Jesus came back for them, then it’s quite possible that he’d come back for me as well.


+On March 16th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices of the monastery.  Later that morning I presided at the Mass for the students of the School of Theology/Seminary, and then at 5:00 pm I presided at the Mass in the Abbey.  I did it on the theory that if a sermon is good enough to give once, why not give it twice?

+On March 19th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

+On March 20th I flew back to Minneapolis.  I had managed to have smooth flying throughout the winter, so it was only appropriate that on the last day of winter my luck would run out.  My morning flight was delayed by snow in Philadelphia, but I eventually got back to Minneapolis on a different flight.  Then my car decided to punish me for being gone so much.  I thought the battery was dead, but after a bit of work the people from AAA announced that the car’s security system did not recognize my key anymore.  Did I have a second key with me?  Of course I didn’t.  Who carries two sets of car keys with them?  So I left the car in the airport garage, simply because I had no other choice.  My car is still sitting there, pouting.  But two can play this game, as I have unfortunately discovered.

image+On March 21st Abbot John presided at the Eucharist as the monks celebrated the feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict.  The pictures in today’s post are medieval frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic life as a hermit.

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imageThree Days, Three Monasteries

Most tours to Italy try to carve out overly-ambitious itineraries that include way too many stops.  After all, the logic argues, if you go all that distance, why wouldn’t you want to cram in as much as possible?  But of course you can never see even a fraction of what’s there; so you have to choose, whether you like it or not.

My just-completed visit to Benedictine sites in Italy must seem like gross underachievement to some.  Our group could have seen a dozen sites a day.  We could have raced through churches, palaces, ruins and the like until we choked.  But we didn’t.  On the principle that more is actually less, I decided to focus on less when I built the schedule.  So we ended up — not with a blur of too much information — but with the memory and insight that come from seeing just a few things well.

So it was that we twenty-five visited the monasteries of Norcia, Monte Cassino, and Subiaco, in as many days.  All are in the region of Umbria; each played a distinctive part in the life of Saint Benedict; and each today houses a community of monks.  But to the surprise of many in our group, all similarities ended there.  Last week many learned that if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve not seen ’em all.  Nor is there such a thing as the stereotpyical, one-size-fits-all, monk.

imageTradition says that Saints Benedict and his twin Scholastica were born in Norcia.  A monastery has stood in the center of town for ages, but only in 2000 did a community return to set up shop after a hiatus of nearly two hundred years.  Today the town still owns the monastery, but it has welcomed the monks with open arms.  For ages the town has staked its reputation on hams and sausages, which are truly excellent.  But in a tough economy many of the civic leaders decided that a restored monastery might be good not only for the spirit but for business as well.  Time tells all, but I think their judgement is sound.

Monte Cassino sits in solitary splendor on top of its mountain, just as it has since Saint Benedict set up shop there in the early 500’s.  Unlike the modest buildings at Norcia, Monte Cassino overwhelms visitors with its renaissance arcades and its baroque interior.  It’s huge and imposing, and it just swallows you up.  Perhaps that explains why it’s been such a tempting target ever since the Lombards destroyed it in the 6th century.  Each time it has risen from the ashes, in tribute to the grit and determination of the monks.

Finally, Subiaco is the place where Benedict began his search for God.  He found refuge in a cave high in the mountains, and today the monastery encases the cave as it clings to the side of the mountain.  Here it’s not the exterior that impresses, however.  Instead, the building protects a collection of frescos that any museum would covet. Among them is the only life-portrait of Saint Francis, painted shortly after one of the monks recognized their famous guest.

imageThese monasteries each merit a visit, but our group learned something that most tourists fail to notice.  Monasteries may or may not have great art or great geography, but that’s not what really distinguishes them.  After all, there are monasteries with no monks that are equally impressive.  Instead, it is the community that makes the monastery, and no two communities are alike.  Some communities are tired and barely cling to life, while others are marked by warmth and vitality.  And they thrive or decline not because of any magic formula in their way of life.  Rather, it all depends upon their willingness to search for the face of God every now and then.

The second lesson is this:  monasteries differ because no two monks are alike.  Perhaps this was the biggest discovery for many in our group.  Those among us who had spent time at Saint John’s already knew this, but others were surprised by the unique personalities we encountered.  At Norcia the prior came after Mass to offer warm words of welcome.  Later, guestmaster Brother Ignatius let his lunch go cold as he went from table to table to speak with each person individually.  Quiet enthusiasm radiated from his face, and each of us easily imagined spending more time with him.

imageAt Monte Cassino the 90-year-old monk who greeted us did not have quite the same energy, and his words of welcome reached only a few ears.  Perhaps he had seen way too many a tour bus in the course of his life.  By contrast, Fr. Mauricio at Subiaco seemed to possess boundless energy.  Who knows how many groups he had ushered through those halls as he explained one fresco after another?  He was an over-the-top guide that day, as he probably was the day before, and will be tomorrow.

So what were our take-aways from visits to three Benedictine monasteries in three days?   For one thing, no one left with the impression that if you’ve seen one monastery you’ve seen them all.  No two are alike.  Nor did anyone leave thinking that monks come from cookie-cutters.  Each monk comes to the monastery with a distinct personality, and each remains a unique gift to his community.

imageI hope my fellow pilgrims picked up on one last insight that most tourists scarcely grasp.  People do not join monasteries because they have a calling to be a monk.  Rather, they enter because they have a calling to be a monk within a particular community.  This is what sets Benedictines apart from Franciscans, Jesuits and all the rest.  The latter go where the needs of the Order might dictate.  For us monks, place is all-important.  In one place, and in one family, monks pursue the face of God.

Happily, at Norcia and Monte Cassino and Subiaco the monks see the face of God in each other, and I hope they do so every day.  But they also get to see Christ in the visitors who climb out of the fleet of coaches that pull up every day.  Perhaps they even saw Christ in us last week.  And, in return, I believe we glimpsed the face of Christ in them as they welcomed us.


+On March 3rd I and my fellow pilgrims visited the monastery of Norcia, in Umbria, where tradition says Saint Benedict was born.

+On March 5th we visited the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where it rained torrentially.  It was the only foul weather of our trip.

+On March 6th we visited the Abbey of Subiaco, where glorious sunshine and high winds greeted us.

+On March 4th the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s University joined our group as we visited three Roman churches.  Mark Greci and John Dube are spending a year of service at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters in Rome.

+On March 8th several volunteers joined several monks in tapping over 1,000 maple trees at Saint John’s.  This marks the beginning of the maple syrup season, and it also allows us to  hope realistically for spring.

+The first two photos in today’s post come from Norcia, followed by two from Monte Cassino.  The last three come from Subiaco, where the fresco cycles are among the finest in Italy.


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The Abbey of Subiaco

The Leader as Servant

It happened quite by accident.  On the very day when I finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I also saw The Iron Lady.  In that movie Meryl Streep plays an elderly Margaret Thatcher, who slips effortlessly between moments of dementia and memories of a stunning career.  One might ask what Jobs and Thatcher could possibly have in common, but book and movie supply some startling parallels.

What these two people shared was a commitment to ideals and principles, and these ruled their lives above all else.  For his part Jobs put a premium on purity of design and the capacity of a product to make a difference in people’s lives.  In that pursuit he was willing to badger and humiliate his co-workers; and Isaacson recounts more than enough painful episodes to make the point.  Jobs was not unaware of this trait, but he was also unapologetic.  “This is the way I am,” he explained.  He was not about to change just to put the feelings of his colleagues above the quality of the product.

Margaret Thatcher’s career arguably centered on issues of greater social import, and she never wavered in what she considered to be good and necessary medicine for British society.  Her single-minded determination to make a difference transformed the country, but the personal cost was dear.  She too humiliated colleagues with withering criticism.   Along the way she alienated long-time friends and put family second.  And in the film, if not in real life, she seems painfully unaware of the personal life she has sacrificed in the pursuit of national recovery.

As a reader and viewer I found myself stuck on the sidelines, wishing I could have given Jobs and Thatcher some life-changing advice.  Just a little bit of tweaking could have made for much happier lives, I thought.  But I finally concluded that they were responsble for their lives, and I am responsible for mine.  So what have I learned from this?

One great piece of wisdom that I took with me from seminary was that any good pastor — or leader, for that matter — must learn to live with ambiguity.  It would be great if every issue was black or white, but most of life’s challenges are in fact very very grey.  That is doubly true when you have to integrate principles and ideals into human relationships.

The fact of the matter is, ideals can be wonderfully clear and simple, but people are not.  How do you combine the two?  If something has to give way, which do you choose?  In the case of both Jobs and Thatcher, each achieved great things, but more than a few people got trampled in the course of doing business.

From the mountaintop you can justify their choices easily.  To get things done you sometimes have to prune a lot of dead wood.  To draw the best from people, you have to push them to the point of pain.  But they’ll thank you later — at least they should!

The latter happened more than once in Job’s tenure at Apple.  Co-workers who deeply resented his tirades will note — in the same breath — that they would never have done what they did without him.  And I suspect that many of Thatcher’s direct reports would say the same thing.  But does every great leader have to trash their own poeple in order to get things done?  The answer, it seems to me, is a resounding “no.”

Effective leadership need not favor the larger goals at the expense of the individuals who must achieve them.  Good leaders must tend to both, if long-term transformation is to take root.  That certainly has been Wall Street’s worry about an Apple without Steve Jobs.  Without him there to browbeat people, would the company stagnate? Was Margaret Thatcher so dominant a personality that England risked slipping into old ways without her?  I would submit that if an organization cannot survive the passing of a great leader, then leadership has fallen asleep at the wheel.

In his Rule Saint Benedict addresses the issue of balanced leadership; and as befits his wisdom tradition, he summons up some provocative imagery.  For example, the abbot is a shepherd with prime responsibility for leading his flock.  He must not lose anyone entrusted to his care.  He must protect them from any bad apples in their midst.  And he must usher them into God’s presence when their work is done.  In short, he must tend to the needs of the entire community.

Saint Francis, painted from life.

But the abbot must tend to individuals as well.  Benedict then cites the wise physician who prescribes medicine that is appropriate for each person.  He must challenge the gifted to do better, and he must support those who are weak.  Above all, he must not lose any of the flock, and he must not bruise any of the reeds in the process of getting the job done.

So here we have the job description of a good leader.  Tend to the general welfare and the common good.  At the same time, be aware of individuals and nurture them into their fullest potential.  How hard can that be?

Good leadership is an art and a ministry, and you must be a good juggler of complex issues.  But it also requires a good dose of humility, because leadership is not about self.  It is about others.  Ideally, then, the goal is not to leave the sheep as dumb as when you found them.  The ultimate achievement of any leader is to prepare well for the day when it is time to step aside and allow others to emerge and take the helm.  What better testimony to good leadership can there be than to have successors who are just as wise?

Someday we all have to let go of responsibility, whether it be raising a child or leading a company.  How do  you want to greet that day?  One option is to go out in a blaze of ego with these words: “It’ll never last without me!”  A better option might be this: “They’ll go on perfectly well without me.”  If it’s the latter, your spirit will live on and thrive in them, because you have served and led them well.

Personal Calendar

+On April 28th I presided at Mass in the Abbey church.

+On April 29th I celebrated Mass and gave a presentation to a gathering of the Mothers’ Club at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On April 30th I presided once again at the Abbey Mass.

The Monastic Tradition

On April 20th our Friends of the Abbey tour visited the abbey of Subiaco, located outside of Rome.  It is here that Saint Benedict began his search for God by living as a hermit, and only after several years did he found his community at Monte Cassino.  In his career path Benedict was a contrarian.  Even his own Rule suggests that life as a hermit should follow testing in a community, but Benedict reversed the order.  He never looked back once he had established his community.

Pictures from Subiaco illuminate today’s post, and they illustrate the stunning frescos that have greeted pilgrims for eight hundred years and more.  Among them is the only contemporary portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi, painted while he was still living.  Francis too came to Subiaco as a pilgrim, and someone had the foresight to record the face of the great saint.  This explains the lack of a  halo around his head.

The geography of Subiaco is remote, to say the least.  Down the mountain was a summer palace of the Emperor Nero, and from there one accessed the Abbey by a path, until the “modern” road was built.  This site reinforced the commitment to solitude, but there was practicality as well.  For centuries both barbarians and roving bandits plagued the Italian landscape.  I suppose the monks concluded that if these vandals were coming to loot and destroy, you should at least make them work for it.  The remote location and steep mountains were the best insurance policy they could buy at the time.  And the narrow fortified door added punch to Benedict’s directive that easy admittance should not be given to those seeking to join.

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