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Posts Tagged ‘The Saint John’s Bible’

img_4810Don’t Even Think About It

Perhaps a few too many times I’ve asked members of an audience whether they’ve killed anyone lately.  I admit that it’s an out-from-left-field question, but I enjoy the surprise I see on people’s faces because they rarely see that coming.  But I’m also careful about how I phrase the question, and I never ask for a show of hands.  You just never know when a few will get caught up in the moment, raise their hands enthusiastically, and then realize they’ve just incriminated themselves in front of a group of strangers.

These days I merely presume that no one has committed murder that day.  “And is that because of your deep devotion to the fifth commandment, or because of sloth?  Were you just too lazy to kill anyone this morning?  Or did you decide that the disruption to your schedule would be too much?”

Most people get the point.  It’s certainly one thing to kill someone, and it’s quite another to wish you had but didn’t.  The first might send you to hell, but the second will scarcely make you a saint, no matter the reason for your restraint.  The fact is, the thought does count, and that is the point that Jesus makes in his discourse on the commandments, at least in my opinion.

img_4811In Matthew 5 Jesus asserted that he had come to abolish neither the law nor the prophets.  However, a quick reading of his sermon in that chapter leaves the impression that he actually took the severity of the law and made it one degree tougher.  In one sense he did just that, but there he was merely being consistent in his teaching.

On more than one occasion Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, pointing out the obvious:  their exterior behavior masked an interior corruption.  They may project the image of fervent believers, but in their heart of hearts they are something different altogether.  Alive on the outside and dead on the inside, they have no right to lord it over others who are merely more obvious in their sinning.

So what is Jesus up to when he takes adultery as a for-instance and pushes it to the next level?  Who hasn’t lusted after someone else?  Are people who only think about adultery just as guilty as those who act out on their desires?  Are all equally guilty?  Or as Peter once asked, “Can no one be saved?”

There’s the rub, and I suspect that on more than one occasion Jesus turned to Peter with a delighted “Exactly!”  Jesus maximized the commandments and pushed them to their logical limits, to the point at which all of us are convicted of sin.  None of us can save ourselves because no one can follow the commandments perfectly.  And were we perfect, such adherence to each and every detail of the law is no more effective at pleasing God than a herd of cattle sent up as a burnt offering.  When all is said and done, we are all still sinners.  All of us are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  We cannot save ourselves, and so we look to Jesus as he stretches out his arms to us from the cross.

img_4812Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Had he done so it would give us all permission to slip into personal and communal barbarism.  But Jesus does challenge us with a new commandment — to love one another as God has loved us.  Here too we fall short — sometimes painfully so — but this is the more positive direction that Jesus prescribes for us.

This brings to mind one last element that I often consider in my own life.  Theologians have described God as the good, the true and the beautiful.  Nowhere have I ever read that God is the legally-correct.  God’s never excused himself by relying on some technicality, and I think God must chuckle at all the technicalities that we run by him when we fall short of being good, true and beautiful.  With the patience of a parent, however, God urges us on, with words that may seem tough but in fact are quite hopeful.

So it is that God still says to us “Thou shalt not kill.”  But to it he adds this hearty postscript:  “And don’t even think about it.”  Apparently God expects a lot from us, but he saves us nonetheless.

img_4871Notes

+On February 8th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to twenty-five guests of my good friend Mary Rudden, who lives in San Francisco.  The nucleus of the group consisted of members of her book club, and to my surprise I discovered that most of them are readers of this blog.  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet them over the luncheon that followed.

+On February 9th I and my confrere Fr. Don Talafous hosted a group of twenty-five alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, at a reception held in the refectory of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  I was grateful for their willingness to brave the storms to attend that evening.

+My travels to and from San Francisco were quite memorable.  The outbound plane from Minneapolis was delayed an hour, and once half of us were on board we all had to get off because of mechanical difficulties.  They eventually brought in a replacement plane, and we arrived hours late.  On the return trip our plane arrived forty-five minutes early.  Thank goodness, because I needed that extra time to drive home.  It turned out that one tire on my car was low.  I stopped to fill it with air, and a few miles later I checked it again.  That’s when I discovered the bolt that was lodged in it.  I got the tire changed and drove home on the spare, but it meant slow speeds on side roads rather than on the interstate.  Off of the interstate you see marvelous things, including the cars driving and parked in the middle of Big Lake in Big Lake, MN, and also on another lake outside of Becker, MN.  They were ice fishing, of course.  I also discovered a town I never knew existed in Minnesota:  Santiago.  Who would have thought.  So it all turned out to be an adventure.

img_4869+As I promised in last week’s post, I am including an example of 12th-century Catalan art that I found rather gruesome, in a detached sort of way.  It is an altar frontal from the church of Sant Quirc de Durro, and it is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The lower two photos show the more benign subject matter of another altar frontal, this one from the church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, ca. 1200.

 

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img_0012_2“Pray Always”:  An Impossible Command?

There’s a section in The Rule of Saint Benedict which usually comes as a surprise to novices in the monastery.  In it Benedict deals with the all-too-human conundrum that’s bound to happen in any monastic community.  In brief, Benedict wonders about the moment when the abbot asks impossible things of a monk.  What’s the monk to do?

Naturally there’s no easy answer to this, but I’ve always felt that Benedict’s sympathies fell with the monk who’s stuck in such a predicament.  All the monk can really do is to do his best and to hope for the best.  Being more practical myself, I would add one bit of counsel to Benedict’s sage advice.  If patience is a virtue, this may be one of those times when it can be a good strategy.  A patient monk can hope that the abbot will eventually forget what he had commanded.  And in the extreme, a young monk can rely on the passing of the years, which could very well leave him the last man standing.  Problem solved.

In the gospel of Luke Jesus seems to be asking one of these impossible things.  He tells the apostles to “pray always without becoming weary” (18: 1), and it must have left the disciples wondering.  It’s all well and good to speak those words if you’re the Son of God, but mere mortals like the disciples had a lot on their minds.  And it was not beyond their notice that even Jesus took time out to eat and sleep and to do all the other things that round out people’s waking hours.  Worse still, the disciples too must have realized the distractions that crowd the human mind, especially if you’re trying to pray.  Was Jesus setting the disciples up for a fall?  Was he asking the impossible of them?

img_0021_2Part of the problem of the command to “pray always” is that most of us are not at all convinced that it’s such a great idea.  Some of us have to go to work.   Some of us think it’s really important to concentrate while we’re behind the wheel on the highway.  Some of us have to deal attentively with other people — at least once in a while.  Wouldn’t it be better to reserve quality time for prayer at less critical slots during the day?  And do we really have to do it ALWAYS?

The good news is that Jesus never expected us to spend the whole day on our knees in prayer.  Nor does he expect us to pass the entire day, day after day, reading the Bible.  Nor does he expect us to spend our time in formal worship, ceaselessly.  Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus meant to speak literally when he asked the disciples to pray like this always, without growing weary.

What I think Jesus did have in mind, however, was an expression of prayer in which we consecrate the entirety of our lives to God.  In practice this means that there is no aspect of our lives that is off-limits to God.  Nor can we restrict God to certain gaps in our schedule, such as an hour on Sunday or the occasional fifteen minutes for a session of morning prayer.

Nor can we block off our work from a divine connection.  In practice this means that our work must be honest, done with integrity, and done with an eye to the benefit that it ultimately provides other people.  We must have a sense of mission about our work and do it well, because our work is an expression of who we really are.

img_0016_2The same goes with time spent with friends or in personal time out.  None of this can be cordoned off from God, because it’s all part of a full life lived well.  Such a life is always lived in the shadow of the Almighty, and we can’t reserve big chunks of it as if it were nobody’s business but our own.

Given that perspective, we begin to appreciate what Jesus is asking of his disciples.  Prayer then is surrender to God who has given us the gift of life, and prayer is the expression of the fulness of our lives.  Prayer means more than turning to God when the going gets tough.  Prayer is also the expression of joy and contentment and striving to better ourselves.  Prayer is the admission of God into our lives, in good times and in bad.

Finally, I think it’s important to own up to one item about praying always that intimidates most of us.  If we pray always, don’t we run the risk of sacrificing our distinct personalities?  Won’t God smother us if we pray always?  Could all this lead to a complete denial of self in which we fade into oblivion? By no means.

img_0018_2The goal of prayer is not to obliterate ourselves.  In prayer God neither destroys our identity nor our freedom to act.  On the contrary, God does promise to give us the strength to achieve far more than we could possibly achieve if left to our own devices.

In a nutshell, “praying always” sounds like a frightening command until we realize that God has absolutely no intention of wrecking or stifling our lives.  God merely wants to partner with us as we strive both to flourish and to meet the challenges that come our way.  Given the occasional ferocity of some of those challenges, I think I prefer to have the Lord walking alongside me, rather than me walking all alone.

“Praying always” is not such a fearsome command after all.  It’s nothing more and nothing less than the consecration of our lives to God, in the hope that God who has begun such good work in us will see it through to completion.  And with a little bit of patience, and just a little bit of insight, we might very well begin to see the finger prints of God in our lives.  They’re there, whether we take the time to notice them or not.

img_0023_2Notes

+On October 11th I attended a dinner in San Francisco, put on by the Order of Malta.  It was the annual fund-raiser for the Order’s free clinic at the Oakland Cathedral, but it also honored a very good friend of many year’s standing, Dr. Robert Stein.  He and his wife, Helen-Mary, have been very supportive in introducing me to the work of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On 13 October I attended the opening reception of an exhibit of original folios of The Saint John’s Bible, hosted by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Since Oklahoma City is my home town, it gave me a chance to see spots I’d not seen in quite some time.  That included driving by the hospital where I was born.  The exhibit will continue through the end of the year, and in November I will return to give a lecture at the Museum.

+On 14-16 October I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Mundelein Seminary, outside of Chicago.

img_0015_2+A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the town of Norcia in Umbria, in Italy.  The monastery there is built on the site of Saint Benedict’s family home, and our group had the opportunity to tour the church and ruins, as well as attend Mass.  We also had time to explore the quaint and lovely town.  Unfortunately the monastery and town suffered significant damage in the recent earthquake, and for a while the monks have had to relocate to Rome until repairs could be made to make the monastery safe once again.

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IMG_1830The Stones Do Speak

My first visit to the medieval abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire had an element of the forbidden about it.  It was cold;  heavy mist blanketed the landscape;  and here and there patches of green grass poked through the snow.  What made it an especially delicious moment, however, was the fact that the place was closed.  It was December 26th — Boxing Day — the holiday on which the English gentry used to bestow gifts on their servants.

Given that there was no one to collect the £1 entry fee, Brother Dietrich and I did what any monks who had come 4,000 miles would do.  We climbed over the fence and made ourselves at home.  For over an hour we had the vast ruin to ourselves.  Then an English family drove up and climbed over the fence.  By then we were more than glad to share the haunting beauty of the place, and so we all exchanged greetings, in lieu of gifts.

IMG_1844For years I’ve wanted to return, and last week I finally had the chance.  Happily, the times have been kind to the abbey, and today a small visitors’ center and cafe welcome guests.  Even better, there are restrooms.  Unfortunately the admission fee has shot up to £8, but it’s definitely worth the price to see one of the most impressive monastic ruins in all of England.

Cistercian monks from Burgundy founded Rievaulx in 1132, and its most famous monk, Aelred, presided as abbot from 1147 until his death in 1167.  By his time nearly 600 monks and lay-brothers called it home, but by the 1530s it had shrunk to a more realistic twenty-five monks and no lay-brothers.

IMG_1846As the site guide today states quite emphatically, it was a spiritually sound if not large community when Henry VIII booted everyone off of the property in 1538.  He commandeered  the lead roof for himself, to be turned into bullets and cannons, I presume;  and the rest he awarded to a shrewd neighbor.  The latter in turn promptly stripped it of every scrap that could be carted off and sold.  Today not a lot remains except for the pillars of the church and the foundation stones, but what is still there is due largely to the preservation efforts of people like William Wordsworth and his fellows in the Romantic movement.  Fortunately, an inspired owner rescued and landscaped what still stood, and today visitors savor the gardens that frame the buildings.

What goes through the mind of a 21st-century monk as he meditates on a once-thriving community?  For one thing, I can’t help but be impressed by the dynamism of the monks who built such a fantastic place and for 400  years worked and prayed daily in it.  Like many others I also ponder the many misdeeds of Henry VIII, whose life began with such promise and ended in such personal disappointment.  Then there’s the practical side of me that calculates what it might cost had such a complex survived intact.  To maintain such a pile today would be an insurmountable financial burden — one that no monastic community could possibly manage on its own.

IMG_1856Beyond that, I appreciate the enduring attraction of a site that draws even more visitors now than it did in Abbot Aelred’s day.  Therein is an obvious irony.  The enterprising individual who wrecked the place and sold the stones in the local market would be surprised to learn that he’s only remembered for his act of vandalism.   Whatever he did with the proceeds of the sale matters little today, while the stunning ruins he left behind preach a message far more powerful than his commercial ventures.  The walls proclaim that for hundreds of years men gathered in that place to seek God.  They led sometimes challenging and yet beautiful lives.  Those walls also invite thoughtful visitors to consider the direction of their own lives.  To what purpose or mission have we visitors committed ourselves?  Ironically, the stones ask these questions on behalf of generations of monks, and they do so eloquently.

In sum, I’m grateful for the witness of these monks.  If today their home stands ruined, there’s consolation in that as well.  They lived for God and not for the walls.  Wonderfully, the walls remind us of that too.

In the end we have to wonder who it is who is more creative in life.  Are they the ones who build up or the ones who tear down?  Are they those who live solely for themselves or those who try their best to serve their neighbor and the generations yet to come?  It may be a stretch to imagine that the monks of Rievaulx meant to speak to us in the 21st century, and yet their message  has lost little of its urgency though the centuries.  Theirs is a witness well worth pondering.

IMG_0062Notes

+For most of last week I was in England, to be present as Donald Jackson, the scribe for The Saint John’s Bible, received a papal knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Cardinal Vincent Nichols presided at the ceremony, which took place at Westminster Cathedral in London on June 15th.  Present for the occasion were nearly 170 guests and friends of Donald Jackson and Saint John’s.  Among the latter were a group of twenty-five alumni who had flown from Minnesota, as well as a small group of friends of the Bible who had come from New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Sydney.   Also in attendance was Bishop Nicholas Holtam, the Anglican bishop of Salisbury, who is a long-time friend of Saint John’s, and Abbot Geoffrey of the Benedictine abbey of Douai, located near London.  On the previous evening we held a reception at the Church of Saint Martin in-the-Fields, at which Donald Jackson gave a lecture on his experience in creating the Bible.  Saint Martin happens to own a set of the Heritage Edition, which is on permanent display in the educational center.

IMG_1873+During the two days preceding these events Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and I led a group of 25 on visits to Greenwich, downriver from the center of London, and to Hampton Court.  The latter has always been one of my favorite places in the world, because it is two palaces in one.  The Tudor portion dates to the time of Henry VIII, while the other half is the creation of Sir Christopher Wren.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the abbey of Rievaulx, which I visited on June 16th. In that area of Yorkshire there were three monumental Cistercian abbeys whose ruins survive today.  Fountains Abbey, which I visited many years ago, arguably is just as impressive as Rievaulx;  and Bylands is equally large in scope.

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IMG_0025_2We Know Neither the Day Nor the Hour

I met Elizabeth Swenson nearly thirty years ago.  Known to her friends as Betty, she lived in Washington, where she’d spent a career in the office of a senator from New England.  She was perfectly suited to those more refined days in the nation’s capital, and her trademark red-framed glasses said “welcome” to anyone who caught her eye.

In her volunteer work she was involved with an organization called The American Friends of Caterbury Cathedral.  While there was a fund-raising side to the mission, their heart had its focus on the Benedictine character of the Anglican tradition.  To that end they organized pilgrimages to sites both in England and on the continent, and that’s why Betty first reached out to me.  Perhaps a real live Benedictine along for the ride might add value to the experience.

I never quite knew what I added to the mix, but what I received still resounds in my imagination.  For starters, I experienced Canterbury Cathedral for the first time as a monk rather than as a tourist.  Compline in the crypt of the cathedral was a goose-bump experience, for example.  Hours earlier the ushers had escorted everyone out, and there we twenty were, with the vast and silent expanse of the cathedral all to ourselves.  It was awesome to climb the steps that led from the crypt up into the nave, where the only light came from the stained glass — lit dimly from the outside.  For four nights we had this routine, and it gave me a glimpse into the days when this was a working monastery.  For nine hundred years the monks had prayed by candlelight.  People like Lanfranc and St. Anselm and Thomas Becket had walked those very precincts, doing the daily things that we all must do.

IMG_0024Other moments were less dramatic, but common to each was the transformation of the ordinary into something special.  Because of Betty I got to spend my fortieth birthday deep in a forest in Burgundy at the abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire.  We prayed late in the evening — by candlelight — with the nuns of Bec in Normandy;  and we tromped through the ruins of the romanesque abbey of Jumieges.  We listened spellbound as the monks of Chevetogne recorded a CD of their Byzantine chant, and we groaned along with them when a NATO jet swooped low and ruined the entire session.  Oh well.

The latter moment reminded us that we all had to make room for the unexpected, and at this Betty was a true Benedictine.  None of us will forget the lunch under the trees at a restaurant in Luxembourg.  It was all lovely until a big bird in the tree let loose and the bomb landed in the hair of an English lady.  Betty graciously soothed her and then moved us all to table across the courtyard.  There it happened again — same lady, different bird.  What were the odds?

IMG_9821One of Betty’s finest moments came at the venerable abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  Before the pilgrimage she had visited an island off the coast of Scotland, where she had purchased a bottle of an expensive single malt.  She had cradled that bottle every step of the pilgrimage, intending to share it back home in Washington.  As we stood on the steps of the guesthouse, she held aloft her prize, for all to admire.  Then it gently eased through her fingers and shattered on the pavement below.  In stunned silence she froze, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  She laughed, because that’s what Betty did best.

In later years The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral morphed into The Friends of Benedict, and Betty and her colleagues hosted a yearly “Benedictine Experience” at the Episcopal House of Prayer at Saint John’s.  It was a treat to see her, and as time rolled by I came to appreciate what a singular impact this stately lady had had on my life.  She wasn’t a nun, but certainly she was a true Benedictine, and as a Benedictine Betty gave me glimpses into the monastic way of life that have made all the difference in the world.

IMG_9820A few days ago Betty passed away, unexpectedly.  Like all the rest of us, she knew neither the day nor the hour, but to her credit she savored each and every thing that came her way on the pilgrimage of life.  Like any true follower of Saint Benedict, she lived with intensity, and perhaps because of that even the little things counted for a lot.  They were gifts too.

Every now and again God sends such people into our lives.  God means them to be teachers of wisdom to us, and it’s important that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear.  After all, they are speaking on the Lord’s behalf.  Betty was that sort of person for me, and I’m absolutely certain that she did the same for many others.  For the gift of God that she was, I give thanks.  And for all the other surprises that God continues to send into my life, I also give thanks.

IMG_9819Notes

+For more than a week I have been dogged by a cold, and last week it was especially ferocious.  For that reason I had to leave off class with our novice on Tuesday, in hopes that I could spare my throat and recover for two talks I had to give later in the week.  By week’s end I was not cured, but it was a lot better.

+On February 17th-18th I attended a series of events and gave two talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Mt. Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY.  As speaker I was hosted by the Catholic and Dominican Center.  The college occupies a gorgeous perch overlooking an expansive bend in the Hudson River, and I was quickly reminded that Dr. Mary Hinton, who is president of our sister College of Saint Benedict, had been vice-president there.

IMG_9817+The first two pictures in today’s blog show a tower in Trier, Germany, with a wonderfully appropriate inscription below the clock.  The clock may remind us of the time, but as the inscription says, we know not the hour of the Lord’s coming.  The next four pieces of stained glass actually come from one window that today resides in the V & A Museum in London.  It was made for a church in Troyes in France, ca. 1170.  The first two panels depict the temptation of Jesus.  Particularly charming is the scene in which the devil carries Jesus to the brow of the hill and is ready to throw him off.  The third photo depicts the feeding of the five thousand, while the last shows St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) as he is being drafted as bishop of Myra.

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IMG_9617Remember Lot’s Wife

For years Fr. Godfrey had a small sign fixed to the top corner of his door in the monastery.  It was an odd spot to put a notice, but its location made the point.  Confreres really didn’t spy it until they had drawn up alongside, and they had to turn their heads to read its spare message:  “Remember Lot’s wife.”

I cite this bit of local monastic humor because last week a reading from the liturgy quoted these words from Jesus.  When Jesus asked his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32), he knew he did not have to recount the story for them.  As the disciples well knew, his words recalled those few who had fled Sodom on the eve of the town’s destruction.  God spared Lot and his household, but with the pardon came a stern warning:  “Don’t look back!”  But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist, and for glancing back for one last peek she was transformed into a pillar of salt.

The whole episode begs two questions.  First, why in the world did Lot’s wife yield to the temptation to look back?  Second, why would Jesus urge the disciples — and us — to remember her?

IMG_9649Theories abound as to why she looked back, and it never hurts to ask why she defied God and did it anyway.  First, in the interests of full disclosure, simple curiosity would have turned my head as well (just as it did with the sign on Fr. Godfrey’s door.)  Who wouldn’t want to know what punishment befell the citizens of Sodom?  And the fact that God commanded Lot’s family not to look back virtually guaranteed that somebody would.  From experience in the Garden of Eden God knew that this was bound to happen.  God had commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the forbidden fruit, and that pretty much assured that somebody, some day, would reach for it and take a bite. So this was a test that somebody in the Lot party was bound to fail.

But I’ve always thought that the command to Lot was more than a loyalty test.  If that’s all it had been, then Jesus would not have bothered to recall it.  Instead, it has everything to do with how we choose to live our lives; and that’s why Jesus asks us to remember Lot’s wife.

IMG_9639Lot and his family are symbolic of us all.  For all sorts of reasons we remember things; but with memories, both good and bad, come the temptation to live in the past.  We carry those memories as if they were our personal baggage, and they sometimes bog us down.  In the case of Lot’s wife, perhaps she recalled the good old days when she was a big deal in the local social scene.  Perhaps she savored moments that were the best days of her life — or even the worst days of her life.  Now, however, she faced an uncertain future, and she turned her head for one last wistful glance at a life she found hard to leave behind.

Along with her, Lot and the rest of the family were walking into an uncertain future.  Like her they could face the challenge squarely or risk becoming a pillar of salt.  Lot certainly had no idea where God might lead him; but he knew that his past would be a guide to his future.  In spite of his apprehensions, then, he was certain of one thing:  God had walked with him once, and God would continue to walk with him.  And so Lot chose to stride into the future.  Unlike his wife, he did not look back.

Psalm 136 recounts all the great things that God had done for the people of Israel, but the refrain in this litany is a reminder that there is a future.  “For his great love is without end!” is a verse that encourages us to confront with confidence all the uncertainties of life.

IMG_9596That, I would submit, is what Jesus means to suggest when he urges us to “remember Lot’s wife.”  It’s important to recount all that God has done for us, but it’s equally important that we not live in the past.  If we can recall one good thing that the Lord has done for us or through us, that’s also an assurance that God still has some use for us.  God still walks with us.  God is not yet done with us.

It’s far better to walk into the future with confidence rather than stumble because we live in the past.  That’s why Jesus asks us to remember Lot’s wife.  By implication, however, we remember Lot too.  Lot never looked back.  He may have faced an uncertain future, but he knew God walked with him.  God does exactly the same with us.

IMG_9623Notes

+On November 13th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to members of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Minneapolis.

+During the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey recall the deceased family and friends of those who have asked for our prayers.  Those who wish to do this fill out a simple form, complete with the names of the people for whom they ask our prayers.  As is our custom, when we enter the church each monk takes a request from the basket and prays for the people inscribed on it.  Seldom does a monk know the names personally, but every now and again something strikes a chord.  Yesterday at morning prayer I took a card from someone in Daly City, CA, a place I’ve been through many times.  At evening prayer the card came from New York.  It’s a wonderful reminder that the community of believers is always a bit larger than we imagine.

+As some of the photos in today’s post indicate, the leaves are gone.  Now we wait for winter and the snows.

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IMG_0968Who Thought to Ask?

For historians of the Catholic experience in the United States, the prospect of Pope Francis standing before the Congress last week had to be nothing short of incredible.  What 17th-century Catholic in Maryland could ever imagine such a scene?  What 19th-century German or Irish or Italian immigrant could conceive of the day when the pope would occupy the moral high ground as he stepped out onto the balcony of the Capitol to address tens of thousands gathered outside?  Well, for some it’s stranger than fiction, and it stirred even the stony hearts — my own included.

I leave it to the professionals to analyze the significance of the pope’s visit, but what really matters is the experience of the tens of millions who participated in this.  Somehow the pope managed to bypass the talking heads and cut through into the hearts of so many, and the welcome they offered to the pope was intensely personal and genuine.

IMG_0964At Saint John’s we too shared in the curiosity, a curiosity which some of us acted upon.  Our monks in formation and the monk-seminarians endured a long bus-ride to Washington to see for themselves.  Later in the week a large group of our college students flew off to Philadelphia to attend the conference on the family.  And on the home front clusters of monks gathered in front of the television to take in as much as they could.

I didn’t go to Washington or New York or Philadelphia, but all the same there was an element of this that touched both the historian and the working professional in me.  Certainly the enthusiastic crowds amazed me, but what moved me most was a very quiet interlude in the middle of the papal visit to Washington.  Shortly after the appearance on the balcony of the Capitol, Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner stopped briefly in the latter’s office.  Waiting there was a small group that included Abbot John, Dr. Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and Amy Rauenhorst Goldman, the president of the GHR Foundation.  In a gesture made possible through the generosity of the GHR Foundation, Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress accepted an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, given to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

IMG_0965Volume one, The Pentateuch, was open, and Pope Francis studied the illumination of the Days of Creation.  Perhaps that was chosen with an eye to the pope’s concern for creation.  Abbot John broke the silence and asked the pope to bless the Bible, and Pope Francis then placed his hand on the illumination for a moment of quiet prayer.  Then, as quickly as it had all begun, it was over.  The pope was off to the next appointment.

Though I was a thousand miles away, I certainly appreciated every bit of the moment.  Twenty years ago we commissioned the making of The Saint John’s Bible to mark the day when the monks first came to central Minnesota.  1856 was not the best of years for monks or Catholics to set foot in the United States; but neither a tepid welcome on these shores nor the wilderness deterred them.  As for the monks, they persevered.  They worked and they prayed; and 150 years later The Saint John’s Bible commemorates their determination to seek God in the wilderness.

IMG_0967We had always hoped that this Bible might stir the spiritual imagination of people around the world.  Now, from its new home at the Library of Congress, we hope this set of the Apostles Edition will pique the curiosity of an entirely new audience.  And in one respect it is a little extension of Saint John’s and the bell tower that greets all visitors to the campus.  Symbolically the pedestal of the tower holds up the book of the gospels, and The Saint John’s Bible carries that theme even further afield.

So whatever else may come from this quiet moment in the heart of Washington, there’s this delicious thought to mull over.  When the first five monks arrived on the shore of Lake Sagatagan, they must have wondered what life would bring in such a difficult place.  Could they make a home here?  Would it last?  Would it make any sort of difference to people?  But one question would have brought chuckles, had someone thought to ask.  “When will the abbot be meeting the pope in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?”  Who would have thought?

IMG_8963Notes

+On September 24 the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible was presented to Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress, in the presence of Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner.  The generosity of the GHR Foundation made this presentation possible, and in the room for the occasion were members of the Rauenhorst family from Minnesota.  To be honest, this moment was something of a miracle in itself.  Weeks ago it looked like it was going to happen.  But various issues intervened, and as the day approached it seemed less likely.  On the morning of the 24th I was resigned to the fact that it was not going to happen.  But whether it was divine intervention or something else, it did.

+Earlier in the day our president, Michael Hemesath, along with Bishop Kettler of Saint Cloud and President Mary Hinton of the College of Saint Benedict, sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives to hear the pope speak.  This was courtesy of Representative Tom Emmer, our congressman.

IMG_1170+On the evening of 24 September I attended the annual Junior Achievement awards dinner in Minneapolis, at which Saint John’s alumnus Prince Wallace and his wife Sandra were inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.  The evening was a delight, and my only regret was that some of my colleagues who should have been there were detained by stuff in Washington that day.

+As if we did not have enough going on this week, on 26 September ESPN Sports Center on the Road broadcast its Game Day program live from the football stadium at Saint John’s University.  This meant that we had to muster a crowd of several thousand for the opening of the program at 6:00 am.  For many of our students it was the first time they had ever been up at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.  As for the monks, we listened to their cheers from the stadium as we prayed morning prayer.  Later in the day a huge throng of 17,000 attended the football game, and in the crowd was our congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer.

+The pictures of the presentation of the Apostles Edition in today’s post come courtesy of the GHR Foundation and Mark Rauenhorst.

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imagePerseverance Until Death

On November 27, 1995, I sat down to lunch with Donald Jackson, whose day job at the time was scribe to the Queen of England.  He and I had just spoken at The Newberry Library in Chicago, and we were dining at a restaurant called The Italian Village — which still exists, I believe.

Normally lunch should not count as a big deal, and there’s no reason anyone should remember a particular lunch nearly twenty years later.  To my credit, I can’t recall what I ate that day, save that it was probably Italian.  But I do recall the substance of our conversation.  That day Donald Jackson proposed what eventually would become The Saint John’s Bible.

That lunch no longer matters that much, save for the fact that last week I put a little bit of closure on a venture that began at that meal.  That day, when I told Donald that we at Saint John’s might be interested in his proposal, in my heart of hearts I thought I was crazy for saying it.  But crazy or not, I said it, and I now realize that the Holy Spirit may have made me say it.  And crazy or not, we did go ahead to create The Saint John’s Bible, and the rest is nearly history.

imageEven before we began, we knew we’d need help from all sorts of people — especially from the donors who would make it possible.  Since no one had done this in five hundred years, we had to guess at the cost, and we thought it might take seven years.  On both we were wildly conservative in our estimates, but thank goodness we didn’t know any of that at the time.  We also had no idea whether enough people would step forward to make this possible.  But to recognize them, we decided to create The Book of Honor, and it would list all those donors and their dedications.

Like everything else, creating even The Book of Honor became a bigger deal than we had ever imagined.  Recently, however, calligrapher Diane von Arx, working in collaboration with Donald Jackson, has completed it.  It’s turned out beautifully, and eventually it will go on display alongside the Bible, as testimony to how God uses us mere mortals to transmit the Word of God from generation to generation.  This time around, however, God has reverted to the use of human hands to make the Bible, rather than relying on machines; and the Bible is all the better for it.

Last Thursday I made my mark on The Book of Honor.  For that volume I had composed an introduction that gives a synopsis of the Bible’s creation, and in it I noted those who made interventions that were decisive in bringing it to completion.  Diane had then transcribed it onto vellum, in elegant lettering and illumination; and all that it lacked was my signature.

imageThat morning was as close as I’ll ever come to living out the stereotype of the medieval monk.  I’ve never used a quill pen; and I’ve never written on vellum.  But on that day I had ten minutes to develop the expertise, and in less than ten seconds it was all over.  There was my signature, resting on the vellum.  It wasn’t as elegant as Diane’s script; but I knew from experience that it was still a vast improvement over all those medieval charters on which illiterate nobles and bishops had inscribed their “X.”  At least I knew how to spell my own name, and I’d written it legibly.  And with luck it will still be there when someone reads it a thousand years from  now.  It’s likely my only contribution to civilization, and it chills my spine to think about it.

But the ease of a signature allows one to forget how long and how much work this took.  It also erases the memories of just how important perseverance was for its success.  In his Rule Saint Benedict suggests that monastic life requires “perseverance in the monastery until death.”  At first blush that sounds pretty depressing, like a life sentence in a prison.  But it’s actually a reminder of the importance of hanging in there for the long haul on anything that’s important.  It’s a reminder that most things worth doing are never easy.  Things worth doing well generally take a lot longer than we bargained for.  And that’s as true in monastic life as it is in marriage and friendship.  Perseverance through thick and thin is what brings anything of value to completion — including a Bible that was only supposed to take seven years.

imageOf course perseverance and the long view run counter to the working principles of our era.  The financial markets, for example, lose patience with any company that fails to make a huge profit in its first quarter of business.  Sadly, the same is often true in human relationships, when people are unwilling to give each other the time and space to grow.  And how many of us shrink back from challenges that take extended work and perseverance?  I know that’s why I quit piano lessons after one year.  I reasoned that if I couldn’t play the best of Beethoven after twelve whole months, then what was the point of all that practice?

Here’s what I’ve learned in the interval between November 27th, 1995, and last Thursday.  First, I have no future as a professional scribe.  I can write a fairly neat note card and sign my name adequately enough, but anything beyond that I leave to professionals like Diane.  They do elegant work that my own right hand will never equal.

imageI’ve also become adept at weighing the pro’s and con’s of new projects.  I’ve learned the power of arguments like “we’ve never done that before,” which doesn’t justify any course of action, one way or the other.  It’s just an observation, and that’s all.  I’ve also learned that ten reasons against doing something can be very compelling, but that one very good reason for doing something can scatter the other ten like so many bowling pins.

Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of perseverance.  All things of value take time.  They take energy.  And they often take a huge investment of our character and determination.  These are among the key ingredients to accomplishing anything of value in life.  And so, once again, Saint Benedict is not wide of the mark in his advice to monks, and to others as well.  It does indeed take perseverance until death to get the greatest of things done.

imageNotes

+On August 6th I signed my name in The Book of Honor, the companion volume to The Saint John’s Bible.  That morning I discovered that writing with a quill pen on vellum is not all that hard.  It just sounds hard because few people write that way any more.  The hard part is making the quill pen, which Diane von Arx graciously did for me.  Otherwise, we’d still be sitting there.

+Last week was very quiet at Saint John’s in terms of meetings and the presence of groups.  However, I was delighted to welcome one of my former students and his family, who currently live in Luxembourg.  The next day I welcomed an alumnus from San Jose, CA.

+To Greg Anderson I owe the picture of my hand, signing the page of vellum.  The two photos further down the page show freshmen registration, which has taken place on Friday’s through the second half of the summer.  The initial gathering of students and parents takes place in front of the Humphrey Auditorium, where the statue of Saint Benedict plays host.

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