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Posts Tagged ‘The Saint John’s Bible’

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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imageMusings on Spring Fever

Spring fever made its ugly appearance at Saint John’s last week, and it was especially virulent.  Many of us were totally unprepared for the idyllic weather, while the early spring flowers and a dusting of spruce pollen reminded those with allergies that winter’s truce was over. By week’s end I had lost all ambition to do anything.  Since I no longer work in the classroom, I at least had the option to run and hide for a day or two.  But it still left me deeply sympathetic to the plight of my colleagues and their students.  How do they manage to stay in the battle when the urge to do nothing is overwhelming?

In his Rule Saint Benedict makes not a single comment about the beauty of springtime.  I can’t imagine that he was oblivious to it, nor was spring absent from the Umbrian landscape where he lived.  The fact is, much of Italy is lovely all year long, but the spring blossoms still act as a wake-up call, even at Monte Cassino.  Even so, Benedict makes no mention of any of it, save for a passing reference to lengthening days.

Lest we give up on Benedict entirely, it’s important to remember that he does comment on the comings and goings of the seasons, via the liturgical calendar.  After the doldrums of Lent, there is an abrupt change of tone with the Easter season.  On Holy Saturday morning it’s all lamentations, but by evening he’s flipped on the switch and alleluias pervade the air.  Liturgically it’s the equivalent of waking up from a deep slumber, and you run the risk of a serious overdose of joy.

imageThere’s a certain irony that comes with Easter and spring fever, and it hasn’t been lost on me during the past week.  Through much of the school  year I scarcely glance at the University’s events calendar.  There’s always plenty going on, but as much as I would like to take part in some of it, who’s got the time?  Now, with a lighter personal schedule, I no longer have the energy or the ambition.  This may be what the Bible has in mind when it reads that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

But the irony does not stop here.  Just when many of us lose the drive to do much of anything, the entries on the events calendar multiply drastically.  All of a sudden, there’s way too much good stuff from which to choose, just at the point when you’d like to sit it all out.  From out of the wood-work comes an overabundance of senior oboe, organ and voice recitals.  There’s way too many honors thesis defenses.  And then there are spring sports, like baseball, and events like the Mom Prom, sponsored annually by the campus council of the Knights of Columbus.  What’s a person to choose from?

Thankfully, I did not cash it all in and give up on life this last weekend.  I’ll admit to skipping the Mom Prom, but I did sit still long enough to take in a concert in the Great Hall, delivered by a visiting high school choir from Bililngs, MT.  I also dragged myself to our new baseball park to see Saint John’s best Carleton in the first of a doubleheader.  Later I took a long hike, and en route I paid a call on our four new colonies of bees.  And I swept by the maple sugar shack, now quiet and closed for the season, after processing 350+ gallons of syrup this spring.

I also caught myself regretting the all-too-quick passage of time.image  What sparked that was a scan of the various senior thesis defenses coming up in the next few days.  Most titles were beyond my skill set, including “The Induced Heart Rate Response to Fish Kairomes in Daphnia Pulex.”  But in the case of the latter, it was the name of the author that caught my eye.  Four years ago I had interviewed this guy when he came as a high school senior to apply for a Trustee Scholarship.  Four years had passed and I’ve not seen him since;  but it’s nice to speculate that his experience at Saint John’s has turned out well.

Through the years I’ve reminded myself that if I don’t show up, I don’t get to play the game.  I’ve meant that to be an incentive to do my duty and make an appearance, even when I’d rather be somewhere else.  But it’s a reminder, too, that good things will still happen, whether I’m there or not.  So I may as well make the effort, and I might just reap the reward.

Spring fever is the seductive temptation to skip out on all sorts of things.  But it’s also insidious, because it frames life in either/or propositions.  Either I sit back and enjoy the beauties of spring, or I put my nose to the grindstone and make the most of every opportunity.  But Saint Benedict, ever the believer in moderation and balance, would likely pose the options differently.  “Why not just go ahead and do a little of both?”  I wish I had thought of that sooner.  But it’s never too late.

imageNotes

+On April 17th Abbot John, University President Michael Hemesath and calligrapher Donald Jackson presented the seventh volume of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to Pope Francis in Rome.  This completes the delivery of the set that has been contributed to the Vatican Library; and through the years we were privileged to present individual volumes to Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.

+On April 14th I gave a presentation to the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, at a meeting in New York City.

+On April 15th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN.

+On April 16th and 17th I taught classes in monastic history to the novices of the monastery.

+On April 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access Service to the Poor of the Church, via this link.

image

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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.

imageNotes

+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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imageJesus Will See You Now

Every now and again there’s a gospel passage that points strongly to the humanity of Jesus.  Of course chapter one of the gospel of Matthew is quite explicit about this, given that he traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham.  In other passages Jesus was thirsty, as he clearly said on the cross.  He was hungry, and so he ate with his disciples.  And he was tired; and so, during a raging storm, he slept in the back of the boat — much to the chagrin of his disciples.

But then in Mark 1: 29-39, the gospel for this last Sunday, Jesus had a distinctly modern problem.  In short, Jesus had too much on his plate, and he really needed a consultant on time management.

Consider that Jesus had just arrived at Simon Peter’s house and he’d scarcely settled in before they shoved Peter’s sick mother-in-law in front of him.  What was he supposed to do?  He was a guest after all, and he could hardly refuse to heal her.  Otherwise he would look ungrateful for their hospitality.

Later that evening the whole town must have appeared at the door, bringing the sick and the demon-possessed.  Who knows how late that went?  Then, before dawn, Jesus slipped out to pray, but he got no peace there either.  The disciples tracked him down and gave him the schedule for the day:  “Everyone’s looking for you.”  No rest for the wicked, nor for Jesus either.

imageTo his credit Jesus did the disciples one better.  He intended to preach in all the villages in Galilee, he said, because that’s what he’d come to do.  The disciples may have been delighted, but Jesus once again showed poor judgement when it came to time-management.  Who could handle all of that?

We’re used to the thought that Jesus emptied himself on the cross.  But in fact, the emptying began long before.  It began at the wedding feast of Cana, where he worked his first miracle.  From that day on, I’ve always assumed, nobody gave him a minute’s peace.  On the other hand, Jesus seemed to have thrown himself into this frenzy with complete abandon.

It’s a stretch for us to think of Jesus as pooped or even frustrated.  Yet there were such days, such as when he chased the money-changers from the temple.  Unless he was faking it, he really was a little miffed that day.  And there had to be other days like it.

imageI think it helps us all when we realize that Jesus had his tough days, precisely because we have them too.  These are the days when we can feel completely overwhelmed by responsibility.  We wonder where we’ll find the energy to do it all; and we realize we may have bitten off more than we can chew.  Jesus must have had such days as well.  But if he shared in our anxieties, we’d be well-advised to do as he did in such a situation.  He escaped for a moment and prayed.

One assumption that many of us make is that Jesus is too busy running the universe to pay attention to us.  At the very least, Jesus has way too much on his mind to tend to our puny problems.  And what could Jesus possibly do for us anyway?  And so we don’t pray, because what’s the point?  Besides, we’re way too busy to pray anyway.

But there’s a certain irony here, when we conclude that we are way too busy to pray.  At just such a moment Jesus, the consummate busy guy, reserves time to see us.  In fact, Jesus loves to barge into our lives to surprise us with words of strength and consolation.

So the next time we’re frantic with stuff to do, let’s pause for a moment to catch our collective breath.  And if by chance some voice whispers in our ears that Jesus will see us now, it may be a good idea to clear our calendar and go on in.

imageNotes

+On February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation, I presided at Mass at the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access my sermon through this link, Letting Go.

+On February 5th I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, held at The Chazen Museum on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Through March 15th the Museum has an exhibit of sixty original folios from The Saint John’s Bible, and it is well worth the extra effort to see it.  The Museum staff was very warm in receiving us, but the catering staff  was taken off guard by our arrival.  Unfortunately they had the wrong date on their calendar, and so on our arrival the warm food that we had expected was still in the freezer.  However, they did drag out some chips and pretzels and soda.  In true biblical fashion, one big bowl of chips fed forty-five.  The photos in today’s post all come from The Chazen.

+During the past week we hosted at Saint John’s Donald Jackson, the scribe of The Saint John’s Bible.

image+Since autumn we have been enjoying on the monastery table the squash that the monk-gardeners harvested from our garden.  They stored in the cellar 4,000 pounds of butternut, acorn, spaghetti, buttercup and Hubbard squash, and I am sorry to say that as of today we are down to our last 1,000 pounds.  The pickled squash has been the surprise treat for many of us.

+On February 7th we hosted a group of students from Saint John’s University, who joined us for a retreat day in the monastery.  Last fall fourteen students banded together for the year to live a Benedictine experience in their residence hall.  They meet regularly for evening prayer, and periodically Brother Aelred hosts them for discussions on spiritual topics.

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imageA Little Suffering for Justice

When I first saw A Man for All Seasons, I knew right away what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Like Thomas More, I wanted to be a lawyer.  I also wanted to be chancellor of the king of England.  And lastly, also like Thomas More, I had no particular desire to become a martyr.  Like him, I could see clearly that I was not the stuff of which martyrs are made.  Unlike him, however, I have been right about myself on that score.

As for my professional aspirations, I’ve struck out on two and am rounding the bases on the third.  I didn’t become a lawyer, and I think it’s too late now.  Nor did I become chancellor of England, which turned out to be a wildly impractical goal anyway.  But I think I’m still on target when it comes to avoiding martyrdom.  I’m still not the stuff of which martyrs are made, and I remain thoroughly convinced of that.

imageLike many, when I hear Jesus bless those who suffer for righteousness’ sake, I think immediately of martyrs like Thomas More and Thomas Becket.  I conjure up people like Mother Theresa, who worked her fingers to the bone so that a few wretched souls might have a moment of grace and love as they died.  And I think of the millions who have died under the boot of fascism or communism or all sorts of other oppressors.   I give thanks for their witness, of course; but to be frank, I also give thanks that God hasn’t called me to the same vocation.

There’s no denying that untold numbers still suffer for righteousness’ sake, all over the world.  But if the truth be told, most of us who look in the mirror don’t see people who walk in their shoes.  Most of us are blessed to live rather serene lives, hassled only by the normal challenges that people face.  But we’re only kidding ourselves if we count ourselves among the Christian martyrs of our day.

So what do we do with a Beatitude that blesses those who suffer for justice’s sake?  Is this Beatitude wasted on the likes of you and me?  I think not.

imageThe other day I read a comment from a frequent flyer who wrote that if you want to change the world, then smile at the flight attendant.  Up until then it had never dawned on me that I could contribute to peace in the world with such a simple act.  What good could that possibly accomplish?  Then I was persuaded otherwise.

Each workday thousands of flight attendants all over the world are forced — for professional reasons — to smile at all sorts of people.  Crabby people.  Cranky people.  People in a big hurry.  People absorbed in cell phones and iPads.  People who never even look back at them.  It would shock you to know how many people never bother to smile back at the person who is committed to saving their lives in the event of an emergency.

Then it struck me.  There certainly is suffering that comes to those who search for righteousness, as we see in the cases of the heroic.  But those people do not exhaust the opportunities for such witness.  Simply put, the world needs all the justice and righteousness it can get, and all of us need to contribute in any way we can, no matter how small the instance may be.  Most of us may never make the supreme sacrifice that Thomas More and others endured, but there are not a few simple inconveniences that are worth our trouble.  And they come in the cause of securing a tiny bit of justice for our corner of the planet.

imageThe opportunities are myriad, but common to most of of them is the thought that a little sacrifice on my part can go a long way in helping another.  It will not kill me, for instance, to thank someone who has done me a special kindness.  It will not impoverish me to give a decent tip to a service employee who did a good job for me.  It will  not ruin my day to acknowledge the good work someone has done, or to encourage young people who are doing the best they can.

In short, you don’t have to  undergo beheading to witness to the need for justice in the world.  We can all contribute through the little kindnesses we extend to one another.  They may be slight inconveniences for us, and they may demand just a bit of sacrifice.  But blessed will we be when we can make even a small difference in the lives of others.  On top of that, we may even make for a better day for Jesus.  Happy will he be when he sees that his words have not fallen on deaf ears.

 

imageNotes:

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed two candidates in the monastic habit, and so began their year of novitiate.  Brother Aidan Putnam is from Oakland, CA, while Brother Brad Rothrock is from Boston, MA.

+On July 9th I presided at the Abbey Mass.  The text of the sermon, We are the lost sheep of Israel, can be found in Presentations.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and at the liturgy we witnessed the renewal of vows by monks who first professed sixty, fifty and twenty-five years ago. It was a wonderfully festive day.

+In June a new exhibit of original folios from The Saint John’s Bible opened at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, CT.  The exhibit will be available through November 2nd, and the museum staff members have done a wonderful job of staging it.  Though I encourage you to visit in person, you can also take a virtual tour of the exhibit.  And if you don’t have time for that, you can drive by the big billboard on the Connecticut Turnpike that advertises the exhibit.  It is located between a sign advertising some local lawyers and another for a car dealership.  Two friends called me from the Turnpike to report the sighting, so I know it’s there.

image+Believe it or not, I still do quite a bit of reading in between other activities.  I have just finished reading Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, by Larry Haeg.  Larry is a long-time friend and an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and his book could make for a great Hollywood production — except that all the events in the narrative happen to be true.  For those who enjoy railroad and business history in the Gilded Age, this is a great read.  For those who like Wall Street chicanery, this book has plenty of it.

+The pictures in today’s post all come from the monastic garden, which was built by several of the monks in the late 1920’s.  The photos today focus on one corner of the garden, affectionately referred to as the Scary Mary Garden.  It takes its name from a statue of Mary Queen of Peace, by New York artist Doris Cesar.   While the statue portrays her as rather exhausted-looking, with the olive branch drooping, she still has a hint of determination in her face.  The quest for peace is never easy.

 

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imageSummer Time and Holy Leisure

Among the few serious complaints I have about monastic life, there’s this:  the schedule is horribly inefficient.  Consider that we drop what we’re doing, several times a day, to go and pray.  Consider that, depending on our jobs, we change into and out of our habits several times a day.  Consider that, during some of the most productive stretches of the day, we stop everything so that we can dine together, recreate together, and squeeze in spiritual reading and reflection.  What was Saint Benedict thinking when he organized this life?  How did he expect anyone to get anything done?

I’ve always cherished the strong work ethic that I inherited from my parents.  I’ve derived a lot of personal satisfaction from it, and because of it I’ve compiled a decent record of modest accomplishment.  Still, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of balance, even if it does eat into productive work time.  I’ve even accepted the possibility that there may be more to life than a full schedule — as much as I hate to admit it.

imageAs you might expect, of all the alternatives to work, it’s leisure that troubles me most.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I know too that I’m not the only one who is driven to cram activity into each and every moment of my day.   And I know I’m not unique in my suspicion that leisure is a personal indulgence, especially when there’s so much to be done.

You can imagine my unease, then, when I read this:  “The Benedictine vocation includes within its integrity an attraction to leisure….”  Who says so?   So writes Michael Casey, a Trappist from an abbey in the wilds of Australia.  He’s widely revered for his wisdom and insight into life, and not just monastic life.  Despite that, quite naturally my first impulse was to dismiss out of hand his comment on leisure.  After all, what else is there to do in the Australian wilderness anyway, other than to wait for the next sunrise?  But of course life there is much like life everywhere, and Casey is as busy as the rest of us.  So I have to give his words their due, even if I prefer to imagine monastic life as one long work period.

imageActually, Casey’s chapter on leisure in his book Strangers to the City makes a lot of sense, whether you’re a monk or not.  He argues, for starters, that leisure is not idleness.  Nor is it escapism.  Nor is it an indifference to the world around us.  Rather, leisure is a conversation with life.  Leisure involves climbing out of our self-enclosed existence so that we can listen to what people have to say, and be open to the lessons that life has to teach.  True leisure, in other words, is an activity in which we learn that we are not the measure of all things, nor are we the center of the universe.  Believe it or not, there are other people out there.

imageCasey goes on to note that leisure, in and of itself, is value-neutral.  But when we make time for leisure and use it well, it opens us up to growth.  Perhaps that’s why Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the invitation to Listen.  Listen thoughtfully to our brothers and sisters.  Listen to the sacred reading we do.  Listen and pay attention to God as God appears regularly in the people around us.  But the only way in which we can listen is to make room for leisure in our lives.  So it is that in the monastic tradition we speak of Holy Leisure, because it’s sacred and it’s transformative.

Given all that, it helps to explain why Saint Benedict breaks up our day so inefficiently. Left to my own devices, I’d keep my nose to the grindstone morning, noon and night — and I’d call it good.  But I’d likely live in oblivion to what’s going on around me.  I’d miss God present in the people and events around me.  At best, life would be white noise or muzak as I meandered on about my own business.  No wonder that Saint Benedict deliberately yanks us from this self-absorbed little world.

imageNow that we’ve reached Memorial Day, what are my summer resolutions?  For one thing, I’m going to listen intently to some music, for the sole purpose of hearing what the composer and musicians have to say.  I’m going to visit an art gallery or two, just to see how a few artists view life.  I’m going to make more time for reading, just to find out if there are people out there who see life differently than I.  I’m going to pay attention to my confreres and friends, if for no other reason than to savor the wisdom that God has imparted to them.

In short, I’ve decided that this summer I will try to experience life as more than one extended stretch of white noise.  And who knows?  If it works out, and I do hear something  useful, then I might very well engage in some holy leisure even after Labor Day lowers the curtain on summer.

imageNotes

+On May 19th-20th I took part in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  On the evening of the 19th the Trustees joined the monastic community for dinner in the abbey refectory.

+On May 19th, between sessions of the meetings of the Trustees, I rushed to the other side of campus to speak to a group of faculty and staff from Concordia University in Saint Paul.  They were at Saint John’s to participate in a day-long workshop on The Saint John’s Bible.

+On May 21st I attended the dedication of the new entry hall at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On May 22nd I spoke on “Leisure in the Monastic Tradition” to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s.  For two weeks the twenty-two members are on retreat before heading off to year-long assignments at Benedictine abbeys across the world.  All are 2014 graduates of Saint John’s University, and this is the largest such group of volunteers that we’ve ever sponsored.

image+This last week, and for a while to come, the monks have moved out of the refectory, while its ceiling is being repaired and a few of the frescoes are being retouched.  In the interim, we are taking our meals in the basement recreation room of the monastery.  It’s tight, but the confined space builds community!

+While I was in Paris recently I had the chance to visit several churches that were new to me, if not to the Parisians.  Among the most impressive was that of Saint Eustace.  Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it served the center of Paris, including Les Halles, for long the chief market of the city.  One is oblivious to the huge Metro station below; while the church itself is an island of tranquility.  Inside of the church is a wonderful sculpture that depicts the former market.

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