Posts Tagged ‘Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo’


A Perfect End and a Great Beginning

As funerals go, George’s had more than its share of joy.  Of course his family and the crowd of friends that filled the church were sad to let him go.  He had touched the lives of many.  He had been involved in a full schedule of activities.  He had reached out to the sick and the infirm in his decades of service in the Order of Malta.  He had done so much;  and yet, if there was one regret, it was this.  George still seemed to be at the top of his game.

There were lots of wonderful stories exchanged that day, but one struck me especially.  On the day he passed George called his wife to say that he had just had the best day of his life.  Then, less than a minute after hanging up, he slipped into the arms of the Lord.  Totally unexpected was his leave-taking.

34B85D1E-F685-4B63-8717-0A0D0BD16DADIn the service of compline we pray for “a peaceful night and a perfect end.”  Not many say those words at the end of the day, but everyone should.  For one thing, who doesn’t want a restful night?  It’s why collectively we pay a fortune for beds and bedding.  It’s why we buy truckloads of pills and various sleeping aids to put to rest the anxiety or pain that can grip us at the end of a day.  And yet we sometimes forget that a key ingredient for a peaceful night is a day filled with purpose.

As for a “perfect end,” I’m not sure many want to think about that and fewer still pray about it.  It’s a topic best pushed to the margins of our imaginations.  And yet, as surely as the sun rises and sets, death comes to us all.

Rightly we all are anxious about death, but we as Christians strengthen ourselves with a bedrock conviction.  Death is not the end, because the Lord reaches out to us as we step into the greatest adventure of our lives.

Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries reminds his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  That’s not an invitation to live in terror or paralysis.  Rather, it’s his unique way of reminding us that every day is a gift, and it’s a gift that we would be wise to make the most of.

Benedict also speaks of life as “something of a truce”.  In the expanse of eternity our few years are our chance to accomplish something creative and wonderful.  They are the interlude when we can be artists with all the talents and opportunities that God has given to each of us.

06EFDE6B-2260-4D57-B2DB-230D92B1780EI was struck by George’s last words.   Perhaps he saw the Lord coming for him, but the Lord’s appearance was no surprise.  George had already seen him many times in the faces of the poor and the sick.  And just maybe for one brief moment George appreciated the coincidence that the best day of his life also happened to be the day when the Lord took him by the hand and welcomed him into the new Jerusalem.  In that moment George had both a perfect end and also a terrific beginning.


On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.

+On 26 September I attended the board meeting of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. I opened the meeting with a prayer and followed with a reflection on the importance of the virtue of respect for all people.

+On 27 September I concelebrated at the funeral of George Kiesel, which took place at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Burlingame, CA.  George and his wife Charlotte have been long-time members of the Order of Malta and also members in Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, of which I am a chaplain.

+I’ve always enjoyed the funerary monuments in medieval and Early Modern English churches, and in today’s post I’ve included several photos that I took at York Minster several years ago.


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imageA House of Prayer/An Architectural Treasure

A few years ago I was delighted to host at Saint John’s an abbot whose monastery was in the planning process for both a church as well as a monastery.  He’d never been to Collegeville, and though his community intended to build something in an architectural style very different from our own, he was still curious.  And so, after he had settled into the guesthouse, we met for the tour; and naturally the first stop was the abbey church.  He was bowled over by what he saw, and his spontaneous comment was one of astonishment:  “Good grief, you got it!”

The “it” was the goal of building something of enduring value, and that had certainly been our intention when we built the church fifty-five years ago.  The commission to architect Marcel Breuer had been simple and straightforward:  “Design an architectural monument to the service of God.”  He succeeded beyond our dreams, on many fronts.  But above all he conceived of something that would have lasting architectural merit, as well as something that would endure physically for centuries.  It was the latter especially that captivated the imagination of my abbot-friend.

The steady stream of visitors to the abbey church regularly reminds us of its architectural significance; but we who worship in it several times a day, year in and year out, can get just a little bit used to it.  That’s why two items during the past summer reminded us not to take for granted the handiwork of our predecessors.

imageThe first happened in early June, when the International Committee for the Documentation and Preservation of the Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement made a one-day visit to Saint John’s.  For brevity’s sake they refer to themselves as DOCOMOMO, and I can appreciate why they do so.  Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to say that.  This year they held their meeting in Minneapolis, and delegates from as far afield as France and Brazil came to Saint John’s to see something that very much surprised them.  All marveled as monk tour-guides led them through the dozen or so Breuer buildings that we have on our campus.  I suspect that they marveled as well at the care we continue to bestow on these structures.  After all, a prime directive of DOCOMOMO is the survival of a whole era of significant architecture.  I’m sure they were reassured to see that our buildings were not falling into ruin.

imageThe second item came as something of a surprise, when The Getty Foundation invited us to apply for a grant that would enable us to detail a plan for the long-range preservation of the abbey church.  Such grants are a prized commodity, and in the award of the grant The Getty Foundation noted that ours was the largest concentration of Breuer-designed buildings anywhere on the planet.  Preservation efforts at Saint John’s would benefit Breuer buildings around the world.  In effect, this grant was a recognition of the unique value of the abbey church, as well as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come.  Coincidentally, saving the church just happened to be our intention all along; but this initial grant spurs us to be deliberate about getting this work underway.

On October 24 we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and we begin it every year with a wonderful vigil service the evening before.  In the darkness the candles at the consecration stones remind us that first and foremost the building is a place of prayer, even if it is also an architectural treasure of international significance.  For fifty-five years it has helped to shape our prayer life at Saint John’s; and, God willing, it will continue to nurture it for centuries to come.

imageThose familiar with the Benedictine tradition realize that the contemporary architecture of the abbey church may be breath-takingly unusual, but it is not an anomaly within that tradition.  Benedictines have always sought to put current aesthetic style into the service of practical need, and testimony to this can be seen across the landscape of Europe.  Due to the Reformation and the French Revolution, a huge variety of monastic buildings have survived well beyond the communities that they once served; but today they serve another purpose.  Today those towers and vaults remind people of the presence of God in our midst.  In a throw-away world in which most everything has a short shelf-life, they give prophetic witness to the eternal value of the sacred.

That’s also the case with our abbey church and the bell banner that presents the gospel to the world.  Not by accident is it visible to the tens of thousands of cars that pass by on I-94 in the distance.  For those who take notice, it is a greeting of peace.  But it has an even greater value, because it proclaims that Jesus came for those driving by — and not just for the monks inside.


+From October 20-25 I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  As has been our practice for several years, we met at San Damiano Retreat House, run by the Franciscan Friars in Danville, CA.  It was a  wonderful retreat, though I confess that I was thoroughly relieved when I finally gave the last of seven conferences that I had to deliver.

imageEach year during the retreat we have a meeting of the chapter of the subpriory, which includes all who have taken the promise of obedience.  At this year’s meeting I was completely surprised by the announcement that last month the Sovereign Council, the governing body of the Order of Malta in Rome, had named me a Conventual Chaplain ad Honorem.  It comes with a wonderful decoration; and true to my own theories on the subject, when one wears such a thing it indicates to those in need that I am one of those people from whom they can expect help.

+In addition to the seven conferences that I delivered, I preached at three of the six Masses.  You can access one of the sermons, The Moral Imperative: Bringing Our Gifts to Maturity, by consulting this link.

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