Posts Tagged ‘The Economist’


Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.


+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.



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IMG_0455The Monastic Witness

Until last week I had been to Valladolid in Spain only once.  What brought me there the first time was research on my doctoral dissertation; and the arrival is the one thing about the visit that stands out in my memory.  As the plane prepared to land, the pilot calmly announced a delay, but it wasn’t due to air traffic, however.  It seems that a flock of sheep had wandered onto the runway, and we circled twice until the guy in the control tower finally located a shepherd who could shoo them off.

Times have changed, and last Friday I arrived on the bullet train which speeds from Madrid at 250+ kpm.  That’s not the only thing that’s changed in the interim, because now English pops up all over the place in Valladolid.  Through the years it has become a vibrant place, but this time I was there to visit something out of its distant past — the Benedictine abbey of San Benito de Valladolid.

IMG_0377The Napoleonic Wars scattered the monks from San Benito in the early 1800s, but two hundred years later much of the abbey’s heritage survives.  The church  now serves a parish congregation, while the monastery itself is a civic building of some sort.  Meanwhile, the magnificently-carved choir stalls and the altar panels, built in the 1520s, reside in the nearby Museo Nacional de Escultura.  They are absolutely stunning pieces of Renaissance design, and they took five years to carve, paint and assemble.  Luckily they never became kindling for war-time bonfires, which was the fate of so much other art in the barbaric times that followed.

I certainly regret the demise of a monastic community that had such a major impact on the life of the Church, but it’s still possible to appreciate the artistic and cultural legacy that it has left behind.  But that is even more so with the spirit of the monks, which still touches me deeply.

So what is their legacy, besides some choir stalls and altar panels?  It’s their spiritual tradition that lingers, despite the fact that most people don’t realize its endurance.  For quite some time San Benito presided over a congregation of monasteries that included the abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona.  Together they had adapted the devotio moderna into the monastic regimen, and this took practical form in silent meditation on the scriptures and a regular examination of conscience with an eye to a daily amendment of life.  The roots of the devotio moderna were in the Low Countries, and what the monks had borrowed, they freely shared.  So it was that the abbot of Montserrat lent his book, The Spiritual Exercises, to Ignatius Loyola when he came as a guest.  It made a big impression on Ignatius, and he ran with the idea and developed a spirituality that thrives to this day.

IMG_0379It has to be poignant for any monk to look at monastic ruins, but I’m long past the day when I wish that all the monasteries had survived.  For one thing, there were too many abbeys, even in the Middle Ages.  Then, when orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans came along, there was need for even fewer of the traditional monasteries.

The Reformation was not at all kind to the Benedictine monasteries either, but it was their near extinction in the early 19th century that I regret most.  Their temporary disappearance diminished the spiritual vitality of the Church.  Even if we didn’t need all of those monasteries, we still needed some.

On my second visit to San Benito I brought yet another perspective that I lacked the first time around.  I now realize that God makes pacts with people through their baptism, and does so as well with the Church and its sacramental life.  But everything else enjoys a life cycle, just as humans have a life cycle.  So it is that religious communities grow and flourish, but they can also wither away for all sorts of reasons.  And they wither especially when they no longer stimulate the spiritual vitality of the monks and nuns who live within them.  Of course it’s sad to see a community die, but in time another sprouts to take its place.

IMG_0388Besides serving their members, monasteries also witness to the world.  Ideally they should offer a vision that is capable of stopping the world in its tracks.  They should remind people of another dimension to their lives — a dimension that so many can scarcely imagine without some outside stimulus.

Viewing what remains of San Benito made that clear to me once again.  The choir stalls in particular stand witness in our own day.  They proclaim that regular prayer and a calling out to God are not some antiquated and useless activity of the 16th century, even if they are uneconomic.  They also cry out that modern society has yet to come up with an alternative and satisfying explanation for the meaning of our lives.  In short, those choir stalls still chant eloquently to the power of God and of the search for God that engaged those monks.  And they invite us to think outside the box.

Those monks have long since passed into a new life with God, but you can still see the visible echo of their witness.  They gathered in those stalls every day, and for several times a day.  For their inspiration I give thanks, and I hope I can make my own paltry contribution to the enduring monastic chorus.


+On January 13th I arrived in Madrid to attend a meeting.  I’ve spent two long stretches in that city — once for a semester on sabbatical and later as the director of our student program in Spain.  Undoubtedly the highlight of this recent trip was the visit to Valladolid, where I was warmly welcomed by Ed Rojo, a ’97 graduate of Saint John’s University.  Ed was born in Brazil, came to Saint John’s for college, and then moved to Spain after graduation.  There he began a wine export business, which he started up with his college roommate.  I would be telling a big fib if I said that this is a story typical of most of our alumni. Ed may very well be the only person in all of Valladolid that sports a Saint John’s University sticker on the back window of his car.

+January 17th must have been Dog Day in the neighborhood in Madrid where I stayed.  People and their dogs lined up for two blocks on either side of a church, where the priest individually blessed every dog that was dragged or carried in front of him.  This went on for upwards of four hours.  For the most part the behavior in line was pretty good.  The dogs seemed to enjoy the chance to meet one another, and the whole thing drew crowds of gawkers.  I was in that number.

image+In case you missed the New Year’s issue of The Economist, it carried an extensive and impressive article on the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  The author had interviewed the director, Fr. Columba, and praised HMML for its tremendous work in digitizing the threatened libraries of Timbuktu.

+The pictures in today’s post include a view of the church and monastery and choir stalls of San Benito de Valladolid, as well as two photos of Dog Day in Madrid.  In the case of the latter pup, I think he was praying for a miracle to cure him of his wrinkles.

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