Posts Tagged ‘The Saint John’s Bible’

imageLent and the Winter of Our Life

There’s no denying that we’ve had a rather bracing winter in Minnesota this year, complete with numbing temperatures and daunting snowfall.  Still, when we reached into the 40’s a few days ago I thought that the worst was sure to be over. The melt began, and spring seemed just around the corner.  But last Tuesday another nine inches plopped down on us, giving Collegeville the coveted title of “most snow in Minnesota for the day.”  We basked in the state-wide recognition, and then moved on.  Glory is a fleeting thing, and who knows what the morrow might bring.

Ever the optimist, I go against the grain in my conviction that it’s bound to get warmer, and even greener, eventually.  That puts me at odds with Garrison Keillor, who long ago theorized that “bad weather is punishment from God, and good weather is a sign that bad weather is on the way.”  I’ve never subscribed to such Calvinist determinism, though my dissenting views provided scant consolation when the nine inches piled on last Tuesday.

imageAs many of my confreres in the monastery would be quick to point out, I probably lost my right to complain about the winter long ago.  So let me be the first to concede that work has caused me to miss a lot of the less clement weather in Minnesota this year.  For better and for worse, duty has taken me to places where the climate is at best benign, though not always as nice as some might think.  Whatever other benefits such places may offer, in those paradises there often can be scant opportunity to develop one’s character.  In an Eden like San Diego there is no testing of the spirits; and not surprisingly, the lack of adversity leaves little room to grow in wisdom and self-discipline.

For that reason, and despite the opinions of a few, my travels during February and March have not been an unmitigated bed of roses.  Just a few days ago, for instance, I flew to Lynchburg, VA, and on the day of my arrival it had reached into the 70’s.  At last I could get out for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the landscape.  What joy, I thought.  The next day it snowed.  And then the day after that it snowed.  Mind you, these were the snows that Minnesotans might scoff at initially, but ones they would learn to respect pretty quickly.  These storms blended ice and snow, and they were the sort that break bones and send cars careening into trees and ditches.  There were no walks for me in Lynchburg, and that was a keen disappointment.

imageThen I went to Florida, which promised no snow whatsoever.  Finally, there would be the chance to get outside without dressing like Nanook of the North.  So on the morning after my arrival I woke, dressed for a walk, and marched out to greet the sunshine and 70-degree temperatures.  I had gone an eighth of a mile when it started to rain, heavily.  Perhaps Garrison was right after all.

Weather is certainly one of the realities that most of us have to contend with.  For better and for worse it shapes our outlook on life and very often determines the quality of our day.  On the negative side it can ruin a day, but on the flip side it gives us something to talk about.  That’s why I pity the poor people of San Diego.  They enjoy picture-perfect weather each day and every day, so what in the world do they have to talk about?

imageWeather is also a metaphor for life.  Throughout life there is a constant parade of challenges and joys, but how we deal with all that is the expression of our true character.  With grim determination and resolve we can turn all those challenges to our advantage.  Or we can cave in and give up and declare the battle of life a total loss.

Lent is the time of year when we ought to stand back and assess how we are addressing life and all its storms and gentle springs.  Have we become passive onlookers?  Do we live in a world in which we let ourselves be swept along by the currents?  Or have we taken charge, confident that we are headed for something truly interesting?

imageIf we take proper advantage of Lent, we come to realize that its forty days are symbolic of the ongoing struggle that we all have to face.  But the days of Lent also point to something ahead and beyond.  They point to Easter.  If the days of Lent are the days the Lord has made, then we should be glad and rejoice in them.  At the very least, we ought to be grateful for each and every one of them.  But we should also be glad to emerge from this winter of our lives all the  better for the struggle.  We should also be firm in the conviction that we are on the way to something really important.  Not only do the joys of Easter await us, but so does the joy of springtime.  And when those days finally come, it’ll be no time to be passive onlookers.


+From March 16th through the 18th I was in Lynchburg, VA, where I gave several retreat conferences at Saint Thomas More Church.  Despite the snow and ice, I received a very warm welcome from the pastor, Msgr. Michael McCarron; and I thoroughly savored the beautiful landscapes of a part of Virginia that I’d not seen before.   It was a delight to meet so many wonderful members of the parish, and I was honored by the presence of several oblates from the community of the Benedictine Sisters in Bristow, VA.

+On March 20th I was in Bonita Springs, FL, where I attended a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University.  The star of the evening was Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.

image+On March 21st Michael and I drove to Palm Beach, FL, where we attended the opening reception for an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Society of the Four Arts.  On the 22nd we hosted a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s, during which I gave tours of the exhibit.  The pictures in today’s post well illustrate the beauty of the complex, located in downtown Palm Beach.

+On March 21st the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict.  There are not many saints in the liturgical calendar who get two days, but clearly he deserves it.   We celebrate his memory yet another time on July 11th.

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imageMartin of Tours: Ripe for Recycling?

Is Saint Martin of Tours one of those saints whose time came and went and now is ripe for recycling?  At first blush, he seems to be a most unlikely candidate for imitation today, at least to me.  But then again, there might just be another round for him, and it’s worth taking a look at this question on his feast day, November 11th.

Born to pagan parents in Hungary in 316, he followed his father into a career in the Roman army.  As a youth he thought about Christianity; but only later, as a soldier, did he come forward for baptism.  He is famously depicted in art as the guy who cut his coat in half to share with a beggar.  Later still he resigned his commission in the army, became a monk in Gaul, and very soon was dragged from his monastery to become a bishop.  In the course of his ministry he worked many miracles, did lots of pastoral work, and converted whole villages of barbarians.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  But is that much of a role model for Christians in the 21st century?  The truth is, it really doesn’t  give us much to work with.

imageOur earliest source of information about Martin comes from his disciple, Sulpitius Severus, who wrote a short biography soon after the saint’s passing.  I’ve read that text many times, but I hadn’t looked at it since I left the classroom several years ago.  So as his feast approached, I thought it might not hurt to give it another shot.  Was it still the historical novelty I recalled?  Or was it something more?  What I discovered is that much of the story remains typical of saints’ lives of the era.  What I also found were themes that glow a little more brightly in the era of Pope Francis.

What strikes any reader are the many miracles that Sulpitius attributes to Martin.  Whether you believe that he did them all or not, however, is in some measure irrelevant.  Sulpitius Severus had a larger editorial purpose behind his selection of material.  First of all, his miracle narratives use language that deliberately evokes the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels.  Second, he interprets Martin’s life through a clear and  unmistakable  tone:  Martin cared about the poor and the suffering.  This is best seen in the sharing of his cloak with the suffering man on the side of the road.  Later, in a dream, Martin realized that the beggar was Christ.  That vision drove all of Martin’s work ever after.  For that reason the Church has revered him as a patron for those who serve the sick and the needy.

imageThere is another strand to Martin’s life that I used to dismiss rather patronizingly. For a long time I ascribed Martin’s ambivalence about becoming a bishop to false humility.  I saw a parallel to the ritual three-fold “I am not worthy” that medieval popes pronounced on their election to the throne of Saint Peter.  I’m still convinced that their lips may have said “Lord, I am not worthy,” but their eyes were searching the room for the chair.  “Get me to that chair before anyone asks for a recount.”  But now I realize that Martin’s hesitation was likely authentic, and I believe it was so for several reasons.

One legend has it that Martin was so adamant about remaining a monk that he hid in a pen of geese to avoid a mob of townspeople that was looking for him.  Unfortunately, the honking of the geese gave him away, and the mob dragged him off for consecration.  For that reason a goose often shows up in many depictions of Martin, who by then is wearing a mitre.

imageOf course one could still say that this was merely pro forma humility, since hiding with geese is the worst place you could choose to hide.  It was akin to advertising “I don’t want this job, but here I am if you’re looking.”  But it was Martin’s post-consecration behavior that convinces me that he didn’t want the job.  Once installed as bishop, he returned to his monastery for a life of prayer and pastoral wanderings.  In Sulpitius Severus’ biography, Martin never once appears at the cathedral to say Mass.  He never shows up even once at the chancery office to sign dispensations or make parish assignments or do long-range diocesan planning.  Instead, he went out to meet and to nourish his flock, and to add to their number.

This behavior did not go unnoticed by his fellow bishops.  By then the office of bishop in Gaul had begun to morph into a powerful job.  By the 4th century bishops managed significant wealth and wielded growing responsibility.  And a few were already successful at installing their sons and grandsons on the episcopal throne.  To them Martin was neither doing his job nor setting a good example.   What was worse, aristocratic sons were joining Martin’s monastery.  All this threatened the status quo, and the neighboring bishops gave Martin lots of grief.  They resented his simple way of life as well as his disinterest in the trappings of episcopal power.  In short, Martin threatened to undo everything they had worked so hard to put in place.  Martin threatened the aristocratic episcopacy and all their apple carts.

imageYou can certainly fault Martin for not putting in an occasional stint at his cathedral or at the chancery office.  But on the other hand, I have to believe that he fulfilled the hope of Pope Francis that a bishop “should smell like his sheep.”  Given Martin’s lifestyle, I suspect he smelled like his sheep, both allegorically and literally.  But whatever his faults, he never wanted the job, and he never asked for the job.  He genuinely cared about his sheep, and he drove himself on the idea that in each of them he would see the face of Christ.

Saint Martin went on to earn wide popularity across Europe.  And he earned it among the Benedictines as well.  Saint Benedict, for example, built an altar at Monte Cassino in honor of Saint Martin.  Not surprisingly, threads of Martin’s life weave through Benedict’s biography by Saint Gregory the Great.  Gregory was careful to point out that, like Martin, Benedict preached to the neighbors and went out to meet the barbarians — all the while living in a monastery.  No wonder monks drew their authorization for pastoral work from Saint Martin.

imageAcross Europe you still find pockets of devotion to Saint Martin.  But despite the decline in his popularity, I would argue that his usefulness for the Church is not over.  His day in the sun may yet return.  For one, his hesitation about honors in ministry is an example we might want to encourage in the Church today.  For another, his vision of Christ in the poor and the suffering is still the best reason for ministry that I can think of.  And thirdly, while we should be glad that our bishops show up at the cathedral a little more often than did Martin, it would also be nice to see them out in the field a little more.  Martin’s wanderings for the sake of Christ’s little ones is  something we may want to insert into pastoral  job descriptions.  It might not do any harm, and it might even do some good.


+On November 4th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA.

+On November 7-8th I participated in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 10th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and my sermon, I Believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, may be found in Presentations.

+On November 4th we received the sad news that Father Peter Kawamura, aged 64, died from a heart attack at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.

image+On November 9th, the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, Abbot John instituted Brothers Lew and Nick into the office of Acolyte, and Brothers Isaiah and Clement into the office of Reader, as part of their preparation for priesthood.  Brother Clement is a member of Saint Leo’s Abbey in Florida.

+The uppermost picture in today’s post illustrates Saint Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar.  It is at the cathedral in Utrecht, The Netherlands.  The statue of Saint Martin, with the goose at his feet, is from the Church of Saint Martin in Tannheim, Germany.  It was once a Benedictine abbey.  The remaining photos come from The Lateran Basilica in Rome.  They are appropriate not only for the recent feast day, but the year of consecration was 324, making the earliest parts of the church contemporary with Saint Martin.

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photoStaying Cool Under Fire

Only once in my life have I ever wanted to be a flight attendant.  The date escapes me, but the event is seared firmly in my memory.

It was an early morning flight from Minneapolis to New York, and the plane was packed to the gills.  With the last bag stowed and all of us wedged tightly into our seats, the only thing left was the hopelessly cheery invitation to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”  Who can remember when the last of those flights left the terminal?

Then it happened.  Just as the door was set to close, one last desperate passenger rushed on and bulldozed his way down the narrow aisle to 14D.  Then he became another person.  There, in 14D, sat someone else; and our new friend just lost it.  He proceeded to explode in rage at the poor soul who had the misfortune to be sitting in his seat.  Only it wasn’t his seat, because a quick check of tickets revealed that it was their seat.  But as everyone who flies knows, no airline would assign two people to the same seat, unless they could figure out a way to do it legally.

photoWhat followed was a river of blue language.  You could scarcely hear a peep from the rest of us, and all eyes were fixed on the volcano of rage standing in the aisle.  He was no happy camper, and this was not a good day to be working for Northwest Airlines.  Frankly, we all wished we were somewhere else.  Watching people go berserk on a plane is nobody’s idea of entertainment.

This is the sort of situation that every flight attendant must dread.  Had I been on duty that morning, I know I would have taken immediate sick leave and slipped out the back.  But to her credit, our flight attendant was no shirker.  She marched deliberately down the aisle, and as she approached, she became the target of a barrage of invective.  It was all her fault, of course, along with the incompetence of the airline, shouted our friend.  Those weren’t his exact words, of course.  But they were calculated to get everyone’s attention as he bared his righteous indignation for all to see.  As for the rest of us, we were a captive audience, and this was not going to be pretty.

photoOur angry friend shoved his boarding pass into the face of the attendant, almost daring her to buckle under and grovel for mercy.  He was in no mood to compromise; but she brought her own share of determination.  In fact, she was as cool as a cucumber, and in the finest “Minnesota nice” she asked “What seems to be the problem here?”  The tension was thick as she eyed his boarding pass, and we all dreaded the next move.  Then came her soothing words. “Yes, Mr. Smith.  14D is definitely your seat.  And I have some good news.  It says here that your flight is tomorrow.  So if you stick around the boarding area, you’ll have plenty of time to make your flight, and then some.”

photoLaughter filled the plane.  Then came the applause.  Our friend disappeared down the aisle, and our heroine returned to the galley.  That was the moment when I would have enjoyed trading places.

All of us learned an important lesson about anger that day.  Anger is not pretty.  Anger does not make us look more attractive, nor does it make us a lot of friends.  Anger won’t win an argument for us.  More often than not, anger brings no advantage,  because it is irrational.  Anger is the train of our emotions steaming out of the station, leaving behind our common sense, standing on the platform.

There are anger management courses, but I’ve never heard of an anger eradication course.  Anger then is a part of our lives,  and we can let it overwhelm us or we can learn to deal with it.  Saint John Cassian described it as a frequent intruder into our thoughts, and it strikes me as a good thing to ask a few questions whenever it shows up.  Why has it come calling on me?  And what does it intend to do with me?  In the end, it may even  be a good idea to ask anger politely to leave.  After all, do I want to turn myself over to anger, look stupid, and alienate the people around me?  On most days, that’s not a good plan.

photoSeldom does anger accomplish much of anything, but that morning it seemed to get a lot done for a change.  For one thing, the irate passenger got everything he demanded, and more.  He got the flight attendant to cave in and admit that 14D was his seat, and his alone.  And, he got a free day he had not counted on.  He had to be absolutely delighted with that outcome.

But it was the flight attendant who won my real admiration.  She had kept her cool under fire.  She had maintained decorum as she defused a nasty situation.  And to her credit, she did it all without gloating.  But I swear I saw a trace of a smile on her otherwise stoic face as she walked back to the galley.

photoI also learned something about myself.  I do not have the stuff of which good flight attendants are made.  Had it been me in her place, it would have ended quite differently.  I too would have demolished that passenger.  I too would have restored order in the cabin.  But then I would have stared out at one and all, and asked rhetorically: “All right, who’s next?”  Then I would have issued my own version of the usual invitation.  “And now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.  And I don’t want to hear another peep out of anybody.”

On second thought, I probably would leave off that last part.  Why go looking for trouble?


+On May 20-21 I took part in the annual retreat and meeting of the Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On May 22nd I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to the Friends of Saint Agnes Hospital, in Fresno, CA.

+On May 23rd I presided at the Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey.

+On May 24th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. George Wolf.  At 97 years of age, Fr. George was the oldest monk in our community, and for 62 years he served faithfully and energetically at our Priory in Nassau in the Bahama Islands.  Not so many weeks before his passing, he was still taking his daily walk, and in so many ways he was an inspiration to us all.  Unfortunately, he did not get the benefit of Yogi Berra’s famous dictum that “if you don’t go to their funeral, then they won’t go to yours.”  In his day he went to a lot of funerals, but few of his friends attended his.  Happily, most of his friends were already waiting for  him when he passed into the next life.

photo+Spring has finally come to Collegeville, and not a moment too soon.  While the leaves have not fully budded, many of the flowering trees have blossomed and a few flowers have bloomed.  It is also the time for monks to get back into the garden, as the picture at right illustrates.  Years ago individual monks were allowed to tend individual plots, and in the process we discovered why communism does not seem to work well when it comes to farming.  These smaller plots seem to produce so much more.

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photo (73)The Dictator and the Doubter

Travel has its surprises, and certainly one of the biggest for me happened on a trip to Albania three  years ago.  Our small group had come to Albania more as an afterthought than as a destination, and it did not fall short of our expectations.  Albania may have been a vibrant place once upon a time, but Communist dictator Enver Hoxha had taken care of that.  In his forty-year reign he had convinced his citizens that their country was the envy of the world, and he left the countryside dotted with pillboxes and airfields to defend against invaders coming from every direction.  He also left the country impoverished and dispirited.  But during his rule the isolated citizens knew no better, and the cult of his personality allowed for no other domestic or foreign gods.

Sewing a gathering of folios

Sewing a gathering of folios

When our guide announced a visit to the National Museum, we balked.  There we’d see an exhibit on “the most famous Albanian of all time,” she promised.  We expected the worst, and we steeled ourselves for a half-hour of mindless  propaganda.  You can imagine our shock when we entered the galleries, and there, staring down at us, was a portrait of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, “the most famous Albanian of all time.”  Our guide smiled.  Behind that smile was an unspoken joy and pride.  Plus, she had fooled us, royally.

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Mother Theresa came to mind on the second Sunday of Easter, when we read the gospel of the doubting Thomas.  It’s the story of the one apostle who remained unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus.  Unless he could touch the wounds of Jesus and see for himself, he would not believe.  Until then, he would remain a skeptic.

It seems a bit blasphemous to put Mother Theresa in the category of a serious doubter of the divine.  She who did so much to help the poorest of the poor — could she have ever doubted? Of course she did.  And she said as much in her diary.

Italian leather for binding

Italian leather for binding

When her diary appeared in print it caused a major sensation.  After all, if anyone was a true believer, it had to be Mother Theresa.  To question her faith seemed disrespectful, to say the least.  But in those pages, in her own words, she wrote of the years when God seemed to be not just distant, but entirely absent.  Could there possibly be a God in the midst of such grinding poverty and meaningless death?  If there was a God, where in the world might that God be?

This certainly has been the experience of many a saint, including John of the Cross, whose Dark Night of the Soul details his own suffering at the absence of God.  And it certainly was the experience of many Jews in the Holocaust, who wondered in their hearts why any God would allow a people to suffer so.  Mother Theresa was scarcely unique in her experience, and a truckload of biographies will attest to that.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us should find ourselves kindred spirits with her and with all the other notorious skeptics who have gone before us.

Religious doubt afflicts the best of believers, sooner or later.  And it does so because of a lively mind.  Who hasn’t thought about all the evil in the world and wanted to despair?  Who hasn’t felt lonely and wondered if there was no one out there who cared?  Who hasn’t felt just a bit worthless and insignificant as we gaze at the expanse of the universe?  Who hasn’t succumbed to the material allure of the world, in the belief that such things give us meaning?

photo (83)Saint Thomas Aquinas once included among the attributes of God the good, the true and the beautiful.  And it strikes me that once we know what to look for, then it is a little easier to push our doubts aside and forge ahead in faith.  Have you ever seen someone do a random bit of kindness that somehow renewed your faith in humanity?  Have you ever seen beauty and innocence in the eyes of a child?  Have you ever marveled at the structure of the universe?  Have you ever surprised yourself by the urge to love or help someone in need? If so, you’ve been privileged to glimpse the face of God in the faces of those around you.  What you’ve come to see, in them and in yourself, is nothing less than the presence of God.

It’s natural to doubt, because we have critical minds that God has given us to use.  But if doubt produces a life-time of fence-sitting, then we’ve made a poor choice indeed.  If we conclude that doubt equals disbelief in God, then our reasoning is a little off.  Doubt is healthy, but it doesn’t take us off the hook from responsibility for our lives.  If we opt for materialism or the quest for power or nihilism, so be it.  But from my vantage point those are choices that ultimately yield neither personal meaning nor much of a return.  As for me, as much as I may have my own personal doubts, I see the irresistible logic of throwing in my lot with the good, the true and the beautiful.  If they prove illusory, I’ve really lost nothing at all.  If they prove to be that glimpse into the eternal, then I could very well be the big winner, both now and in eternity.

photo (84)Meanwhile, I remain amused by the contrast between those two Albanian icons.  Together, in fact, they are almost allegorical in their meaning.  Enver Hoxha convinced everyone in Albania that they were wealthy and the envy of the world.  He was a skilled marketer, but at the end of the day the Albanians were not rich, as any naive child could point out.  Meanwhile, Mother Theresa collected the refuse of humanity off of the streets of Calcutta.  They were her riches, and in them she saw the face of God.  That’s not such a bad way of looking at creation, and I think I’ll keep struggling on in that view, despite my own occasional doubts.

Doubt is natural, because we are thoughtful and questioning  human beings.  Indecision, by contrast, is failure.  For better and for worse, I think that the good, the true and the beautiful are the better choices.  For me they are the poetry and the mathematics that make life worth living, and eternal life worth seeking — both now and hereafter.

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell


+On April 10th I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 11th we were surprised to receive nearly a foot of snow.  Actually, “crestfallen” and “disappointed” might better describe the reaction of most of us.  Once again I had to shovel out my car.  This time it was the heavy wet snow of early spring — the kind of snow that gives the omnipotent shoveler a heart attack.  If this were January, I would have taken pictures and posted them.  In April such snow tends to be both prettier and far less attractive at the same time.  I have chosen to spare you (and me) the agony of looking at it.

+On April 11th our beloved confrere Brother Gregory Eibensteiner died peacefully.  For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the carpenter shop.  And his great hobby was building the birdhouses that served as home for the purple martins.

Volumes ready for delivery

Volumes ready for delivery

+While in Arizona a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit Roswell Bindery, where the pictures in today’s post were taken.  It is there that the volumes of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible are being bound.  Second-generation owner Michael Roswell led the tour, and we were joined by Sherrie Schmidt, Director of Libraries at Arizona State University.  One set of the Heritage Edition now calls ASU home.

In many respects the process of binding a book has scarcely changed over the centuries.  But the Heritage Edition harks back to an earlier time of intensive labor and quality materials.  From the hand-sewn gatherings, to the Italian calf-skin that covers the quarter-inch maple boards, each volume is a real work of art.

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The National Arts Club, New York

The National Arts Club, New York

Rights and Responsibilities

It was a verdict worthy of King Solomon.  In its issue of March 6th The Irish Independent recounted an amazing courtroom exchange between Judge Alan Mitchell and the lawyer for a fifteen-year-old boy from Galway.  The crime?  The youth had missed 91 out of the last 114 days of school.  Both son and parents had ignored a previous summons, and the defense was as earnest as it was simple.  As for school, reported the attorney, the boy “had no wish to be there.”

Ceiling by Tiffany

Ceiling by Tiffany

While such an excuse might carry the day elsewhere, everyone in that courtroom was about to learn that it carried no wieght there.  “If every teenager could direct whether to go to school or not,” said the judge, “there would be anarchy in this country.”  And the judgement handed down?  The boy was directed to choose which of his parents would go to jail for twenty-one days, and which parent would get probation.

That story left me breathless, for two reasons.  First of all, for years one of my most reliable excuses has been a variation of the one the boy had used.  Of course it has taken more elegant forms, like “I’m tied up today,” or “I already have a commitment.”  But in my own mind there is no denying what a good friend “I don’t feel like it” has been to me through the years.  That said, I had always been sparing in my resort to that excuse.  Never for a minute did I have the courage of that kid.  Imagine using it 91 times in a row!  And on something as important as missing school!  I’m a piker by comparison.

lunchThe second thing that stunned me was the willingness of that judge to call a spade a spade. In an  era of no-fault car insurance and victimless crimes, we naturally assume the priority of personal freedom to do any and everything we want.  That far outweighs any responsibility we might have to one another.  This judge, by contrast, had the nerve to suggest that this boy’s life mattered.  He mattered to his classmates and to his parents;  and his actions would someday impact not only them but society at large.  What better way to teach that boy the importance of his actions than by letting him send one parent to jail.

stairsWhen we weigh rights and responsibilities, we tend to put the emphasis on the former, at the expense of the latter.  We are individuals with certain inalienable rights, as the Constitution affirms.  And so we are.  We expect, then, to be respected and left alone to pursue our private happiness.  But we also presume that someone should be there to help us when we fall, and to pick up the pieces when our lives fragment.  It’s the least that society owes us.

Ironically, such a self-absorbed universe discounts our own self-worth.  While we may assume that society owes us a great deal, it implies that we have little or nothing to give in return.  It even hints that we have nothing of intrinsic value to offer, so why should we show up?  Why should we even try to help others?  Horribly, if enough people started to believe this and act on it, the fabric of our community and our family would unravel.

stained glassThe fact of the matter is, most of us sell ourselves short in many ways.  We each have something — even if not a lot — to offer other people.  Our very presence, even if silent, makes some difference to others.  Our perspective on some things may be exactly what someone else needs to hear.  And the wonderful truth is this:  each and every person can make a difference in the life of someone.

You can fault the Irish judge for placing too much responsibility into the hands of a fifteen-year-old.  On the other hand, he made it clear that they boy’s actions can and will impact others, and not just the lives of his parents.  And just as his absence will diminish the lives of his classmates, so will his presence add something of value.  When is there a better time to learn this than at age fifteen?

In short, this judge paid this boy the supreme compliment.  In fact, he told the boy that his life matters.  His participation in the life of the community matters.  What he chooses to do, and what he chooses not to do, matters.  And the same is true for us.

(L-R) Mrs. Ellen Shafer, Fr. Eric, Ambassador Robert Shafer, Fra' John Dunlap

(L-R) Mrs. Ellen Shafer, Fr. Eric, Ambassador Robert Shafer, Fra’ John Dunlap


+From April 1-5 I was in New York City for a series of meetings, and on April 2nd Saint John’s University president Michael Hemesath and I visited with several alumni and friends of the University.  Among the highlights of that trip was the chance to have breakfast with Fr. Bob Koopmann, past president of Saint John’s, who is on sabbatical.  This semester he is living with the Dominican community at Saint Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue.  Before leaving New York at the end of May Fr. Bob will be giving a concert at Saint Vincent, open to the public.  Details will follow.

+On April 3rd I attended an awards ceremony at the offices of the Mission of the Order of Malta to the United Nations.  Hosted by Saint John’s alumnus Ambassador Robert Shafer, I was delighted to have the chance to visit with several friends of the Order, including Michael and Cecelia Grace, members of the Western Association.

(L-R) Fra' John Dunlap, Honoree, Mr. Michael Grace

(L-R) Fra’ John Dunlap, Honoree, Mr. Michael Grace

+On April 4th Saint John’s University alumnus John Thavis spoke at Saint John’s on his new book The Vatican Diaries.  As I wrote in an earlier post, the publication of his book could not have been better timed, and it was gratifying to see the windows of bookstores in New York featuring his tome.

+On April 5th I flew to Phoenix.  While there I will be fortunate to visit the bindery where the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible is  being completed.

+While in New York I got to visit the National Arts Club, one of my favorite spots in the city.  Built ca. 1840, it was rebuilt by Governor Samuel Tilden as his townhouse around 1870.  Today it fronts on Gramercy Park, with much of its original decoration and design intact.  The first pictures in this post are from that gracious home.

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Easter Vigil: blessing of the fire

Easter Vigil: blessing of the fire

What is a Crotalus?

1,400 years ago Saint Benedict wrote that the ways of the world should not necessarily be the ways of the monastery.  Of course he never meant to take that to the extreme, even if some monks on occasion have tried to do so.  Still, the Benedictine tradition has crafted a culture that is distinctive after all these centuries; and a whole range of rituals and symbols distinguish us markedly from our neighbors.  The use of the crotalus is one such instance.

Now the vast majority of people haven’t the faintest idea what a crotalus is or what it does.  What it is is a wooden clapper.  What it does is wake us up and call us to pray during the 48-hour interval between the Holy Thursday Eucharist and the Easter vigil.  During that span the bells of the church fall silent, marking the period of the passion of Christ.  Only at the Gloria of the vigil service at Easter do they peal out again in joy.  In the meantime, the crotalus does duty for the bells.

Lighting of the Easter candle

Lighting of the Easter candle

Once upon a time the majority of Catholic Churches used the crotalus during the Triduum, but by and large the crotalus has fallen out of general  use, except in monasteries.  And so, during this two-day window, the crotalus summons us to prayer with its distinctive wood-on-wood clapping sound.  There is no mistaking it, and for monks it is the once-a-year sort of sound that threads the years together.  But what gives it a special eloquence is its ability to pierce through the many sounds that pervade the monastery during these holy days.

The thought of noise in a monastery may come as a shock, since many assume that this must be a pretty quiet place — sort of like a tomb.  I’ll grant that there are silent places like that in the monastery, but they tend to be few and far between.  And they are quiet because, to borrow the words of Yogi Berra, “nobody goes there anymore.”  The hall outside my room tends to be one such place.  As fortune would have it, my room is at the end of a hall that is a dead end, or cul-de-sac, to put it more elegantly.  As a result, very little traffic goes by, and noise is at a minimum.  As for the rest of the monastery, sound is rarely absent.

For those who expect monks to keep absolute silence, it seems like we must be falling down  on the job, and I’m sorry to disappoint them.  But I need to remind them how difficult it is to eradicate sound, except in those hyper-expensive sound labs.  Meantime, like everyplace else, sound seeps into a monastery, because you can’t banish it entirely.

DSC00186In fact, the ubiquity of sound was the major point of Into the Great Silence, the movie that offered a tableau of life in a Carthusian monastery.  While one reviewer in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune panned it for its lack of a sound track, slightly more alert viewers saw it for what it was.  Far from banishing sound, the monks opened themselves to hearing sounds that the rest of us scarcely imagine.  They hear sounds that motors and air-ducts and muzak long ago crowded out or masked.  Their monastery is a world replete with sound;  but it is the sound of nature and their own breathing and footsteps.

Theirs is also a world in which a thousand voices rush in to take advantage of the silence.  Those who regularly meditate know the true work it takes to keep these voices at bay.  A novice at meditation assumes it’s easy to clear one’s mind of alien thoughts; but they are always surprised when dozens of long-lost neighbors show up and demand to be taken seriously.   People often refer to these intruders as “distractions,” but they are part of the baggage that we all carry around.  They are those little things that nag at the back of our mind until given leave to rush into our silence.  They force us to deal with them directly.  Ironically, that may very well be one good use of our quiet time.

DSC00208So what voices competed for my attention during this Triduum?  Well, there were certainly the usual holy day visitors.  One whispered that someone read the lesson rather poorly.  Another reminded me that a particular piece of music did not justify the time and effort it took to learn it.  Other voices reminded me of the onset of spring and the chance for a nap later in the day.

In addition to the imaginary voices, however, I heard other voices that were quite real and spoke far more eloquently.  For one thing, I listened one morning as two of my neighbors practiced the Exultet in ther rooms down the hall from me.  That Easter chant is a most challenging bit of music, and one neighbor would sing it at a convent liturgy later that evening.  The other would sing it at a parish in nearby New Munich , MN.  (Yes, there is such a place.)

Not a few times during Holy Week as I walked by the Abbey church, I heard the strains of choirs and soloists in rehearsal.  Each time I chuckled to myself.  If only the movie critic could be here now, he’d know that at least my monastery did come with a sound track.  Maybe we’d even get a decent review.

Fr. John Meoska and crotalus

Fr. John Meoska and crotalus

And this brings me back to the crotalus.  There’s no denying that the crotalus serves many useful purposes, one of which is quite secular.  For those hard-to-shop-for people who seem to have everything, the crotalus is the answer to a prayer.  I can almost guarantee that if you give a crotalus this Christmas, they likely won’t have one.  And if it deflates their ego that you found something they did not have, it could very well be the wake-up call they’ve been needing.

But in the context of Holy Week, the crotalus serves another useful purpose.  Just when spring seems hopelessly out of reach, and just when it seems like we’ve heard it all before,  it cuts through the white noise around us.  Both the crotalus and the Triduum remind us that, in the dead spots of life, there is resurrection and renewal.  And they serve to remind us of one thing that Jesus continues to say to each of us:  “Let those who have ears to hear, listen.”

Good Friday: veneration of the Cross

Good Friday: veneration of the Cross


+At the Easter Vigil Service Abbot John received into the Church and confirmed Sara McGill, Professor of Geology at California State University.  This year she is a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute.

+The ritual of making maple syrup began several days ago with the tapping of over 1,000 maple trees in the Abbey forest.  For better and for worse, the sap only flows when it freezes at night and climbs above freezing during the day.  Unfortunately, that second key ingredient has been missing this spring — meaning sap collectors and cookers have had very little to do.  However, warm teperatures on Holy Thursday finally coaxed the sap out of the roots, and the trees began to yield a steady flow.  To learn more about this rite of spring at Saint John’s, click here for a wonderful video.

+On March 25th The Morgan Library & Museum in New York announced that it will exhibit one volume from its Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  From May 7th through August 25th it will have on display the Prophets volume, along with Donald Jackson’s preliminary study for the illumination of the opening of the Gospel of John.  For The Morgan’s announcement, visit this page on its website.

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February 25, 2013 051The Vatican Diaries

I was not the first to dream that particular dream.  As a lowly graduate student, toiling away on my dissertation, I entertained the highest of hopes.  If I wrote well, mine would be among the few dissertations that got read.  No dust would bury it on a shelf with countless other unread tomes.

That was not to be, of course.  I did finish it, but along the way I picked up a few nuggets of wisdom.  The first came from reading a dissertation by a wunderkind of the medieval studies world.  I was shocked when I read it, because it was so awful.  “I can do better than that,” I thought to myself.  But it was a real eye-opener because of one simple fact.  The writer adhered to the old saw about dissertations:  “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

That was something that my own advisor had drilled into all of his doctoral students.  “If you’re destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life’s work.  And if you’re not destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life.”  Sustained by that thought, I finally got it done.

February 25, 2013 058Sad to say, the world was not waiting for my work on 13th-century Leonese history.  Medieval Spain was not on anybody’s radar screen, and no political turmoil since then has caused CNN to call me up for expert commentary.

I’ve grown to accept my place in academic oblivion; but every now and again envy raises its ugly head.  I gazed in awe when my colleague who wrote on Kossovo became the go-to guy during the Balkan Wars.  For a brief span, he showed up regularly on National Public Radio and some of the other networks.  What a lucky break — his day in the sun had finally come.  But when the war ended, so did his celebrity.  Today no one remembers Kossovo.  Nor can anyone remember Professor What’s-his-name, the expert on that obscure place.

More recently the networks have beaten a path to Norman, Oklahoma.  It’s not the logical place to find out about Syrian politics, but one professor at the University of Oklahoma has hit the jackpot.  He had studied the arcana of Syrian political divisions; and now he too enjoys the briefest of moments in the sun.

February 25, 2013 062I say all of this by way of introduction to John Thavis, a 1973 alumnus of Saint John’s University.  For thirty years John worked as the bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service.  Through all those years, he kept eyes and ears open, and he met some of the most interesting people on the planet.  On retirement he penned a volume on the inner workings of the Vatican, and months ago his publisher decided to release the book on February 20th.  And so, a few days after Pope Benedict announced his retirement, The Vatican Diaries hit the bookstores.  John had won the lottery.  Now the interviewer has become the interviewee.

John’s points are few and simple.  First, if you think the Vatican is a monolithic absolutist state, you are laughably wrong.  If you assume that all members of the curia speak from the same page, you have lots of homework to do.  Lastly, if you imagine that everyone in Rome is a rabid careerist, you’ll be surprised.  John maintains that an awful lot of people in the curia go about their business trying to build up and serve the people of God.  And they do it quietly, to the best of their ability.

February 25, 2013 028John does not expect the reader to take this on faith.  In great detail he recounts various episodes, being careful to weave into them his primary theses.  His chapter on the Lefebvrites and the Tridentine Mass is an excellent case in point.

To the outside world, Pope Benedict’s decree that re-authorized the use of the old rite of the Mass appeared to be a case of turning back the clock.  And it provoked howls of protest in certain quarters.  In context, however, he had something entirely different in mind.  In one fell swoop he broke the monopoly on the Tridentine Mass held by the ultra-conservative Lefebvrites.  If you could attend the rite in a church in communion with Rome, why would you go to a schismatic church?  Benedict shrewdly gambled that most old-rite enthusiasts did not especially care for the right-wing political and social baggage of the Lefebvrites.  On this he is likely correct.

February 25, 2013 075Meanwhile, Pope Benedict also guessed there would be no stampede back to the Tridentine rite by mainline Catholics.  And to put his own money where his mouth is, Benedict has let his actions speak in tandem with his words.  As Thavis notes, Benedict has had eight years as Pope to celebrate his own Tridentine-rite Mass.  He has yet to do it.  And he’ll never do it while he’s pope.

Throughout his book Thavis knits together a fascinating tableau of gifted and inept individuals who serve at the highest levels of the Church.  Some are unabashed careerists.  Some worry about the welfare of their individual departments, oblivious to the bigger picture.  And not a few get so wrapped up in local issues that they forget how the public forum might misread their words and actions.  In short, Thavis suggests that hasty generalizations about Vatican policies can easily miss the mark.  When it comes to the Vatican, there is always more than meets the eye, except when there is less.

February 25, 2013 006Of course there’s lots more to the Vatican than just politics.  To the world it can appear to be a well-oiled machine.  But from the inside there are elements of a Marx Brothers movie. To cite but one example, Thavis narrates the return flight of a papal trip to Africa.  As a storm delayed flights, the vintage 707 carrying the pope and his entourage of tired aides and journalists circled the Rome airport, with little prospect of landing.  Dangerously low on fuel, the pilot decided to fly to Naples.  No one in Naples was expecting the Pope at 1 am.  From the airport they went to the train station, where they boarded a two-car train back to Rome.  Meanwhile, one can only imagine what the homeless in the Naples rail station thought.  At 2 am they had just seen the Pope and a pack of tired reporters straggle through their station.  Who would ever believe a story like that?

Then there is the delightful chapter on Fr. Reginald Foster, the papal Latinist.  He remains the world’s greatest Latinist, and certainly was among the least pious employees at the Vatican.  While he loved his work of translating papal encyclicals, he’d tell anyone within earshot that “no one will ever read these things.”  His unauthorized tours of the Vatican offices became the stuff of legend, not least because he worked just down the hall from the Pope.  I can only guess what went through Garrison Keillor’s mind when Fr. Reginald pointed to a door down the hall — “The Pope works there.”  For that courtesy Reginald got honorable mention on A Prairie Home Companion.

February 25, 2013 032I don’t want to spoil The Vatican Diaries for you, because you should read it for yourself.  It’s engaging and entertaining; and it will upend your stereotypes about the Vatican.  It really is a trove of information, presented with not a little affection for the subject matter, and with no hint of an ax to grind.

So I applaud John Thavis for his career and for this new book.  And I congratulate him for his incredible timing.  How in the world John got the Pope to announce his retirement just days before the publication of The Vatican Diaries is beyond me.  Now if I could just prevail on John to get the new pope to move to Leon, or even Castile, I would owe him big.  Maybe then my own day in the sun might finally arrive.

February 25, 2013 015Notes:

+Last fall I had the opportunity to make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, at Saint Mary’s University College in Calgary, Alberta.  While there I participated in the making of a video on the Bible at Saint Mary’s, and only recently did I obtain the link to the video.  The president, one faculty member and I all speak on The Saint John’s Bible, and I thought perhaps you might enjoy seeing what I do with some of my time when I am away from the monastery.

+During the past week I was home at the abbey the entire time.  I filled my time by catching up on work in the office, by doing laundry, by ironing, and by reading The Vatican Diaries.  What a great week it was.  I also enjoyed the snow.  As the pictures hint, we are running out of places to put it.

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