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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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Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara

Letting Go

Like most everyone else, Pope Benedict’s impending retirement caught me flatfooted.  Of course as a historian I am aware that several popes have resigned;  but I never thought that such a thing would happen in my lifetime.  Shame on me!

I now realize how myopic my attitudes about the papal office had become.  The pope may be infallible when it comes to faith and morals, but no pope ever claimed to be divine.  Every pope knows he will someday meet his maker, just like the rest of us.  But they’ve also known that they can and do wear themselves out, and that no one is indispensable.  Most popes too have been under no illusion that there are more than enough candidates who are only too happy to step into their shoes.  Such paragons of self-sacrifice have always hovered near the papal throne.

Mission Church, interior

Mission Church, interior

While everyone professed to be flabbergasted by Pope Benedict’s decision, no one had a right to be surprised.  After all, the hints have been there for years.  Nor should anyone engage in the condescension that I have picked up between the lines of some of the commentary.  For one thing, medicine can prolong the lives of people well beyond the point of “useful” service.  Modern medicine can keep people alive for years while they are in a coma.  And modern medicine can become an end in itself.  Our ailments and their treatment can easily become the central focus of our lives, if we are not vigilant.

Was Pope Benedict possibly unaware of this?  Even granting him no benefit of the doubt, I suspect the implications of this dawned on him years ago.  In retrospect, his hints were frequent and obvious enough for anyone to pick up on.  But somehow the professional pope-watchers missed it all.  In fact, why should anyone be surprised that Pope Benedict paid attention to his own words on the subject?

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University

People are astonished at his readiness to walk away from power, and that’s another mistake.  We’ve too often thought of the papal office in terms of authority and the exercise of raw power, forgetting that the pope is a human being, just like the rest of us.  Should we be amazed that Pope Benedict thinks he’s getting up in years?  Why shouldn’t Pope Benedict be allowed to consider retirement?  At the age of eighty-five it’s probably a good idea to give it some thought; and it’s highly likely that he’s thought of it often.  After all, he’s spent many of his waking hours trying to find replacements for his fellow bishops, who all retire at seventy-five.

No, I suspect that Pope Benedict has been thinking about retirement from his first day on the papal throne.  For eight years he did the job out of a sense of duty; and he did it to the best of his ability.  But he also realized that someday duty would demand a different course of action.  That day came.

Pope Benedict deserves a lot of respect for his decision, but I’m not so sure he deserves it just because he’s done this at the age of eighty-five.  Rather, he better deserves our esteem because he’s examined the direction of his life at a critical juncture.  He weighed his life in a balance between ministry and his personal journey of faith.  So I give him credit for knowing when to turn in his two weeks’ notice; but I give him greater credit for knowing what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Ideas on how to spend retirement are already pouring in.  One writer suggested that Pope Benedict buy a condo in south Florida — preferably one with a nice pool and lanai.  No doubt that could be a great boost for Florida real estate; but the pope is no more likely to do that than he is to sit around in t-shirt and sweatpants, drinking beer and watching European football all afternoon.  No, that’s just not him.

photo (4)It should astonish no one that Pope Benedict has no plans to loll away his remaining years on sunny Mallorca like so many of his fellow Germans.  The reason?  He still has way too much to do.  I have no doubt that his job jar has been filled to overflowing for years; and he should know, because he’s been filling it himself.  He must be incredibly excited at the prospect of dipping his hand into that jar now and again.

If there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve learned from people like Pope Benedict, it’s this:  letting go does not mean giving up.  I have many friends who allege that they are retired, but they are far busier than I.  Walking away from a job did not frighten them, because there were so many interesting things that they’d put off for  years.  And now they are busier than ever and happier than ever.  And in so many ways they’ve enriched their community for it.  But why is it so much easier for some to let go of a job, when it is so threatening for others?

Santa Clara University:     Saint John's Bible Exhibit

Santa Clara University: Saint John’s Bible Exhibit

In his Rule Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to rotate work assignments so that no monk becomes proud or begins to think of himself as indispensable.  Of course not a few communities have suffered when a great cook passed the spatula on to a klutz, but you get the point.  What Saint Benedict meant to teach was something fundamental about the meaning of our lives.  While holding a particular job should be fulfilling, each one of us is far more important than any job we hold.  Each one of us has some terrific gifts and winning qualities, and perhaps we’ve used them well through much of our lives.  But if you’ve done one job well for forty or fifty years, what have you given up in the meantime?  What talents have remained dormant?  What have you failed to discover about your own life? Knowing when to let go is a matter of timing as well as an art.  But it’s a lot less scary if we recall that we’ve been given additional years to acomplish something really important.  I suspect that Pope Benedict can’t wait until 8 pm on February 28th.  He’ll go to bed a happy man, and on March 1st he’ll probably wake up early, because there’s so much he’s eager to get done.  Good for him!  And we should all be ready to do the same when the time is right for us.

photo (6)Notes

+The last week has been quite busy for me, and not entirely free from stress.  On February 9th I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, but the check-in did not  bode well.  As I watched the agent tag my bag, I pointed out that he was sending my bag to Puerto Vallarta.  I then asked my neighbor in line if he happened to be going to San Francisco, because his bag had just headed off in that direction, courtesy of my baggage tag attached to it.  He wasn’t; and it took two agents twenty minutes to scour the airport to retrieve and relabel his bag and mine.  Fun.

+On February 12th I delivered a talk at the Bannon Institute at Santa Clara University.  The Institute’s Winter Quarter theme is “Sacred Dialogue: Interpreting and Embodying Sacred Texts Across Traditions.”  My talk was entitled “Texts and Pen: The Legacy of Biblical Art and The Saint John’s Bible.

+On Feburary 15th I delivered the keynote address at a dinner at the cathedral in Los Angeles, celebrating the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s bull that recognized the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Order of Malta.)  Then on February 16th I spoke at a parallel event in San Francisco.

photo (7)+Our alumni of Saint John’s University continue to amaze me with their career choices.  This last week one member of the class of 2008, Joe Mailander, and his high school classmate, Justin Lansing, won a Grammy Award for the best song in the category of children’s music.  Known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin and Joe grew up in Denver.  Joe graduated from Saint John’s, and several friends from Saint John’s contributed to the background music.  They won the award for their album Can you Canoe, but all of their songs are a delight.  After you’ve watched this video, then listen to Brothers.  You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the music, the lyrics, and the lovely Minnesota scenery.

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Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John's Bible.

Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John’s Bible.

Coping with Ordinary Time

Yesterday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, was the last day of Christmas. That has to be a relief to everybody in the country, and especially to retailers, who had to be worn out by that tired old season. Now they, and we, can gear up for Valentine’s Day and this year’s early arrival of the Easter Bunny. But for those who specialize in being Christian, this is the moment in the liturgical calendar when we get down to the serious business of Ordinary Time.

To some Ordinary Time sounds a bit like time-out, or an interlude between far-more-important milestones. But I contend that Christmas is the real time-out. In a sense it is not real, because it serves as a bookend to something that is far more important in terms of daily life. It’s not Christmas that makes or breaks our character. No, it’s in Ordinary Time when we show who we really are and of what we are made. Now the party’s over and Santa’s no longer watching; and it’s time to get down to the business of life. And the baptism of Jesus says the very same thing for Jesus. It’s time to leave the nest and begin his ministry.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 014One of the first illuminations that Donald Jackson produced for The Saint John’s Bible was the Baptism of Jesus. In it John the Baptist, bathed in a purple wash, seems to be walking into the shadows and off the page. Jesus, by contrast, is a tiny gold figure in the center. He’s small, and yet the intensity of the gold-leaf suggests there is someone very important who is about to step out onto the stage. “He must increase, and I must decrease” are the words of John the Baptist, and the illumination conveys that pefectly.

But there’s something else going on. While somewhat stylized, John the Baptist looks every bit a human being. Jesus, by contrast, is abstract, devoid of facial features. If we believe that Jesus is like us in all things but sin, why does He look faintly reminiscent of a space alien? He certainly looks like no one I know.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 007One challenge that has faced every artist of the sacred is the problem of anthropomorphism. Most successful Christian artists — including Romanesque and Gothic ones — have chosen to distort the sacred figures in one way or another. In Byzantine art it is readily apparent, with the large vacant eyes and long narrow nose and small mouth. All convey one or another spiritual quality, suggesting that such a person has become the home of the Holy Spirit.

And if that was one aim of Donald Jackson, there is another that puts him at one with a long line of artists. He wanted to make Jesus look human, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he certainly was. But he did not want Jesus to look too much like any one of us. In short, as much as we in Minnesota might like to imagine Jesus and the Holy Family as Scandinavian, they probably didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. The more abstract portrait of Jesus suggests that He comes to us in many guises and in many ways; and He will continue to do so, whether we like it or not.

Baptistry tree

Baptistry tree

As much as it is a disappointment to realize that those lovely portraits of Jesus with chestnut brown hair and fair complexion may not be accurate, we need to move beyond them. In fact, for those of us who are of European stock, there is a great corpus of Christian art in which our relatives show up in disproportionate numbers. That’s all nice, but it’s not enough. Jesus shows no ethnic favoritism, nor regional bias. In Him ther is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.

In his illumination of the creation of Adam and Eve, Jackson carries this to its logical conclusion. There Adam and Eve appear as east-African, looking every bit the creatures who have been fashioned in the image of God. I remember quite vividly the day I showed that image to some sixth-graders at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Los Angeles. One student in particular was absolutely mesmerized by what he saw. And I’ve always guessed that for the first time in his very young life he saw himself in the Bible.

Refectory window

Refectory window

The lesson here for us all is obvious. First, we must accept that there are people other than us and our relatives in the Bible — people other than Scandinavian, that is. But second, we too are in the Bible, along with everybody else. Whether Scandinavian or Peruvian or Egyptian or Thai, all of us are created in God’s image. All of us have a place in the biblical family. All of us are called by God, even if we think God ought to be just a little more discriminating about who He calls.

That, then, is part of the task of Ordinary Time. At the party which is Christmas, it’s pretty easy to let the bells and whistles distract us. Now, in Ordinary Time, it’s the long interlude in which we sleuth out the presence of Christ. And oddly enough, if we open our eyes, we’ll find Him all over the place, and especially in people whom we’ve scarcely considered.

Refectory: reader's stand

Refectory: reader’s stand

Various Notes

+On January 9th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Legatus of Phoenix chapter meeting. Happily, there were several members in attendance who had visited the Bible exhibit when it was at the Phoenix Art Museum. One had seen the exhibit seven times, which I found gratifying.

+For table reading in the monastic refectory we have begun a new book, this one by Dom Patrick Barry, OSB, the former abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in England. A Cloister in the World details the origins of the Manquehue apostolic movement — a lay Benedictine group in Chile. Since I’ve only heard the reading for one evening, I’m not in a position to comment on the text, other than to say that Benedictine life has an appeal far beyond the professed monks and nuns.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 016+Today all the Christmas decorations in the monastery come down. Ornaments go into storage, and the trees and greens go into the compost pile. Perhaps in a few years they will come back into the monastery in the form of a new generation of Christmas trees.

+On January 13th the students of Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin the winter term. “Let all guests be received as Christ” is the admonition of Saint Benedict in his Rule, and we strive to treat our students in the same way.

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The Christmas Swallows

Stella Maris Chapel, Saint John’s Abbey

There are two times a year when people flock to church in droves:  at Christmas and at Easter.  It’s an amazing phenomenon, as predictable as the swallows’ return to San Juan Capistrano.  But unlike their feathered counterparts, the Christmas and Easter swallows don’t always return to a universal welcome.  The fact of the matter is, those overcrowded pews at Christmas are the incarnation of the parable of the prodigal son.

For reliable church-goers, who tend to think of the parish church as “theirs”, this sudden influx is a mixed blessing.  Not a few of the regulars are delighted fathers — thrilled to see all these prodigals back.  And they hope against hope that this is the year when they will stay rather than wander off again.

But there are also the older brothers from the parable, those who begrudge the warm welcome given to the absentees.  For the elder brothers in our midst this is a matter of justice, and justice should not always mean a sweet smile and a pat on the back.  They are under no illusion that these swallows are here because of a change of heart.  When Christmas is come and gone, so will be these prodigals, until Easter of course.

While I enjoy throwing stones at sinners as much as the next guy, I have to confess that I find myself on both sides of this issue.  Like the other monks, I am delighted to see the Abbey church filled to overflowing at Christmas.  But at the same time I wonder what these people do during the rest of the year.  That’s when I need to recall that Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son with me in mind — and perhaps He meant it for you as well.

In that parable Jesus stresses two things we all need to practice, on a regular basis.  First, he encourages Christians to be hospitable when it comes to sharing their faith.  This can be a challenge to do gracefully, especially in a culture which tends to privatize religious observance.  But we should not fool ourselves by saying that this authentic hospitality used to be so easy, because it never really was.  And that’s because of the judgementalism to which we and the older brother are prone.  We may feel justified in dismissing the tepid observance of the Christmas swallows.  But when we’re done trashing them, we reflexively turn on those who come as often as we.  They too are unworthy, if the truth be known.  Suddenly you  see where this goes, because hypocrisy has raised its ugly head.

One of the familiar figures of Advent is John the Baptist.  He preached in the desert, and he practiced a water baptism for the repentance of sin.  What’s curious is that he did not preach in the temple precincts, and it was not because they were short on sinners there.  Rather, he preached to those estranged from the temple, and he urged them to return and  be reconciled.  He wanted his converts to become observant Jews and to resume their places in the worshipping commmunity of Israel.

In a few days the Christmas swallows will return to the Abbey church and to churches around the country.  Those of us who are regulars will be tempted to wonder why they’ve come, but our sole business is to welcome them.  The rest we leave to God.

But let’s indulge in speculation for just a moment anyway.  Perhaps they’ve returned because the embers of faith still glow, deep within their hearts.  Perhaps they’ve returned because they still search for God, just as we do.  But perhaps they also come because they know our Christmas would be incomplete without them.  Maybe we need them as much as they need us.  It just may be that when prodigal sons and elder brothers and welcoming parents share crowded pews at Christmas, then our chances of seeing Christ go up enormously.

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, Paris

The calendar

On December 9th I made a brief foray into southern California, where I spoke at a convocation at Pepperdine University.  Its library recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and I lectured on several illuminations from the Bible.

On December 5th the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Science at a ceremony in Washington, DC.  HMML was one of ten institutions to receive the award, given annually for innovative approaches to public service, community outreach, and for the advancement of global cultural understanding.  Present to receive the award were Executive Director Fr. Columba Stewart and Dr. Getatchew Haile, cataloguer of the Ethiopian collections at HMML.

Many of us were saddened to learn of the passing of Cardinal John Foley on December 11.  For twenty-five years he narrated for American viewers the annual Christmas Mass from Saint Peter’s, and tens of millions knew his mellow voice.  In recent years he did great work as the Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Abbot John, Fr. Bob Koopmann and I are members of the Order, and all of us had had the chance to hear Cardinal Foley speak on several occasions.

Monastic History: Readings

The royal tombs, Saint Denis

I recently completed William C. Jordan’s “A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century,” (Princeton University Press, 2009).  The focus of Professor Jordan’s tour de force centers on two contemporary and very similar abbots:  Richard de Ware of Westminster and Mathieu de Vendome of Saint Denis, outside of Paris.  Both were gifted monks, diplomats and royal administrators, and both led their respective monasteries at crucial times in their histories.  They knew each other and likely counted each other as friends; but while Richard visited Saint Denis in the course of his travels, Mathieu seems never to have repaid the courtesy.  Beyond that, neither monk came from noble families.  Yet they both became prominent as advisors to their respective kings.

In twinning the abbeys of Saint Denis and Westminster, Jordan obviously evokes Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, but the 13th-century drama is of a different piece altogether.  Both abbeys had to defend themselves against rapacious barons who costantly infringed on their lands and rights.  Both had impressive building complexes at the edge of the two capitals.  Both were pantheons for the royal families.  But there were also a few differences.  While Saint Denis was financially more secure, Westminster always seemed to struggle with debt.  And while Westminster secured itself as the locus for royal coronations, Saint Denis never managed to pry that privilege away from the cathedral at Reims.

The royal tombs, Saint Denis

Time has better served Westminster Abbey, and hordes of tourists visit there every year.  Saint Denis, meanwhile, has had a more precarious existence.  At the time of the French Revolution Parisian mobs vandalized the royal tombs, and the government dispersed the monastic community.  To complicate matters, the suburban neighborhood in which the abbey sits is not exactly genteel today, and your average American tourist simply never goes there.  And that is a shame, because the abbey church, begun by the revered Abbot Suger in the 12th century, was the first Gothic-style church in Europe.

Readers looking for a book on monastic spirituality will be disappointed, since Jordan’s research moves in another direction.  In fact, the first half of the book is a narrative drawn from the very extensive archives of both abbeys.  While the pages may be tedious for some, they actually serve as a reminder of significant social change in medieval Europe.  Both France and England may seem lawyer-ridden and highly litigous, but it is a huge improvement over the days when most disputes were settled with knives and hatchets and swords.   The latter era provides lurid grist for Hollywood, but the age of legal disputes allowed for more tranquil daily life for everybody.

The second half of the book yields many interesting insights into the lives of Abbots Richard and Mathieu, and for the novice reader in medieval history it is much easier reading.  While Jordan pitches his book for the amateur and professional historian, the text can be daunting for those approaching the subject for the first time.  Still, for those interested in a glimpse into two great monasteries with gifted and long-lived abbots, Jordan’s story is a challenging and yet rewarding read.

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Wisdom in Our Midst

When it comes to Christmas, our thoughts don’t turn immediately to the elderly. After all, it’s the season of Santa Claus and gifts for children. I hope we all have happy childhood memories of the season, but we scarcely exhaust the potential of Christmas if we reduce it solely to a festival of youth.

For too long our culture has had a fixation on youth. On bad and good days we wistfully long for our youth. In unguarded moments we let ourselves slip back into youthful (read: immature) behavior. We’ve developed major industries around staying youthful. And if the truth be told, many of us are a bit uncomfortable around the sick and elderly who are not our relatives.

You likely have your own theory to explain this latter phenomenon. From my own perspective as a historian, I think we’ve paid a heavy price for being the first society in history in which the generations haven’t lived together. Though they may have fleeting visits with grandparents, the young have not learned from them how to socialize across generational lines. And the elderly have not stayed truly young by being with their grandchildren on a daily basis. In short, there has been nothing of the shared wisdom that once bound the young and the old together, in mutual love and respect.

One of the remarkable illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible is Donald Jackson’s depiction of the Mirror of Wisdom. The Bible speaks of wisdom in feminine terms, and it describes wisdom as a great prize — perhaps the greatest. And so when it came time to personify wisdom, Donald Jackson reached for the picture of an elderly woman which had graced his studio wall for years. It was the haunting portrait of an aged middle-eastern woman, and the timeless nature of her face had grabbed his imagination years before. She would be the personification of the truly wise woman.

Saint Francis House, Saint John’s University

We don’t normally use older faces to promote products in America. For us the ideal woman is young, athletic, and serenely beautiful. That image sells cars, vacation spots, and luxury goods in a way that a wrinkled and bent figure will not. But for the woman of wisdom, the weathered face is the epitome of beauty. Her wrinkles are her jewelry, earned from a life-time of service and care for others. They are the product of decades of love given to family and friends and guests. Those wrinkles are what have bound people together in family.

One of the distinguishing features of monastic life is the intermingling of the generations within the community. Like the newborn, the novices are gradually introduced into the community. But over time the goal is that each takes his place as an equal. At the same time, there comes the moment when the senior has to accept help from others in the infirmary. But from beginning to end of life in the monastery, monks must see Christ in the face of each member in the community, no matter their age. Seniors cannot lord it over the juniors, and juniors cannot dismiss the seniors as useless. Rather, Saint Benedict writes that the seniors must strive to love the juniors, and the juniors must respect the seniors. And in a novel twist for the sixth century, Benedict encourages the abbot to seek advice from all, including the young. Sometimes even the young have wisdom.

This lesson for life is important as we enter the Christmas season, and balance as always is the key. Programs that insure that every child has a toy at Christmas are worthy of our generosity. But that’s not enough. If a child can feel left out at Christmas, there is no doubt that many of the elderly do so as well. As often as not they need only a token of a gift, because what they have to offer is far richer. They have a life-time of accumulated wisdom, and the chance to share a bit of it at Christmas is the best gift of all.

My Calendar: The New Mexico History Museum

In early November I had the opportunity to be in Santa Fe, NM, for activities surrounding the opening of a new exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible.  “Illuminating the Word” opened on October 21st at the New Mexico History Museum, and the show will continue through Aprill 7th, 2012.  The exhibit features folios from the volumes of Wisdom and Prophets, and it is one of the best-designed shows of the Bible that I have seen.

Drawing on the traditions of New Mexico, the curators created a round sacred space in the center of the gallery, and surrounding it is a tall wall pierced by two doors at opposite ends of the gallery.  The two doorways in turn frame the cases that contian “The Mirror of Wisdom” and Ezekiel’s “Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones.”  As they face each other across the  sacred space, it creates an environment that is really quite moving.  Should you find yourself in New Mexico this winter, by all means go and see this.

On November 5th we hosted a reception for friends and alumni of Saint John’s, and on the 7th I gave a short talk and introduction to Donald Jackson, who then spoke to a large gathering of Friends of the Museum.   The Museum has put together an impressive series of events to complement the exhibit, and I was privileged to be there when a long-time friend, Dr. Carol Neal of Colorado College, spoke on praying the Psalms through the centuriies.  Later in the month the Benedictine monks of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu gave a concert of sacred song to Friends of the Museum.

I had never been to New Mexico before, and for those who have yet to see it, it is a major treat.  I was struck deeply by the cultural traditions, as well as by the physical beauty of the landscape and the venerable architecture.  I was also taken aback by the altitude, which left me breathless.  All told, Santa Fe is one of the unique treasures of the United States.  When you go there you step into another world.

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A Monk’s Chronicle: 7 November MMXI — An Unpaid Bill


Nobody likes getting overdue bills. At best they are an annoyance; and I can scarcely imagine the impact they have on those who are mired hopelessly in debt. But imagine the surprise on Matthew Parker’s face when he opened the long-unpaid bill for the execution of Thomas Cranmer, his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury. None of Cranmer’s successors would pay up, and with good reason. If you could take the profit out of executing archbishops, your own chances of survival increased. So Parker too refused to settle when he sat on the throne in Canterbury.

Today the original billing for Cranmer’s execution rests in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. It’s bound in a volume of sixteenth-century letters and documents, and I had the opportunity to study it several years ago. It startled me as no bland invoice could ever do. In a neat and meticulous hand, the accountant had listed the cost of Cranmer’s last days in custody. The meals were itemized, and included simple fare like bread, pears and walnuts. But it was the sterile format of the bill that was so arresting. There, in neat columns, were the entries: “Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch….Firewood” — for burning Thomas Cranmer.

Then, as now, executing people for religious reasons was reprehensible. Nothing can justify it. But what I found particularly poignant was the attempt to reduce Cranmer’s very life to a series of numbers on a page. It failed.

Last week the human population on our planet passed the seven billion mark. It’s easy to get lost in that number, and it’s a challenge to think of people whom we don’t know as anything but a cypher in a ledger. It’s also easy to reduce huge numbers to huge problems. And when decisions have to be made, who gets attention, and who gets neglected?

The Bible recounts another dilemma involving numbers with the story of Lot. Lot bargained with God over the destruction of a city, hoping that if he could find ten just men, then God might spare the rest of the population. You have to give Lot credit for the nerve to negotiate with the Almighty. But you also have to give him credit for his insight. When you look at big numbers you can forget the goodness within any individual — even if there are only ten of them.

Saint Benedict places a great deal of responsibility on the abbot, and he has to be concerned for the health and well-being of the entire community, no matter how big or small it may be. But he is also responsibile for each and every individual in that community as well. He can neglect no one, because each monk is brought to the community by God.

In massive cities and countries it’s very tempting to ignore people — even our neighbors. It’s simpler to reduce them to numbers, or file them away into general categories of race or religion or class. When we reduce people to mobs, we miss the creative genius of God. He made each of us in His image, and each is a gift to the human community.


Monastery notes

As the picture at the top of this post indicates, autumn color has now had its last hurrah in Collegeville. While still relatively young, the red oaks that line the road to the abbey church hint at the glorious canopy that will one day cover the road when the trees reach their maturity.

On Sunday, November 13th, The Saint John’s Boys Choir, The Collegeville Consort, and the Saint John’s Abbey Schola will present a concert of sacred music with readings and images from The Saint John’s Bible. The concert will also include the world premiere of the “Mass of Saint John the Baptist,” composed for three choirs and the monastic community of Saint John’s. It will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and the recent completion of The Saint John’s Bible. The concert begins at 3 pm, and will take place in the Great Hall.

The poster that announces the concert features “Life in Community,” an illumination from The Saint John’s Bible by English artist Aidan Hart. It is worth noting that the monks so appreciated Hart’s work that we have commissioned him to create several icons for use both in the abbey church and in the guesthouse.

On November 6th, as part of the “Sunday at the Abbey” series of lectures, we hosted Sister Mary Reuter, OSB, past prioress of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Saint Joseph, MN. She spoke on the topic “Running with Expanding Heart: Meeting God in Everyday Life.”

On November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls, the monks made our annual pilgrimage to the Abbey cemetery, accompanied by friends who have loved ones resting in the expanded cemetery. Below is the cross that presides over the monks’ section of the cemetery. Needless to say, the picture was taken in greener times.

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A Monk’s Chronicle: 17 October MMXI — On Top of the Ladder of Perfection

One of the more arresting illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible is of the Ten Commandments.  Imagined and executed by Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco, it is literally a page filled with letters.  In the center are the Commandments, arrayed in big black block letters.  Above them, the lettering shifts to gold as God speaks to his people.  And on the lower third of the page is a cacophony of letters that make no sense at all.

At first glance the page yields little for us to take away, but a short reflection forces out its nugget of wisdom.  Clearly, the stark lettering communicates the non-negotiable nature of the commandments.  The bold black states unequivocally that the commandments are exactly that.  They are not guidelines or points for further discussion.  They are not suggestions or a collection of good ideas.  They mean what they say — no more and no less.

Ingmire was at first reluctant to take this commission, but ultimately his hesitation produced a stirring affirmation of the true aim of the commandments.  They are stepping-stones on the path to God, and when your eye travels up the page, the golden words assure us of God’s loving care for us.  This experience of God is what the commandments are all about, and following them leads naturally to the experience of God.  Conversely, if you cannot follow them, then you invariably fall into the chaos of the lower portion of the page.  In such chaos nothing in life makes sense.

But Ingmire’s lettering harbors an important warning, and it points to the dangers of religious hypocrisy.  The commandments may lead naturally to the experience of God, but they do not lead inevitably to the experience of God.  The latter is true because of the all-too-human tendency to turn something good into a club to use over the heads of others.

In the hands of zealots, the commandments easily become hoops through which others must jump.  They become the new golden calves or stone idols to which others must pay lip service in order to prove themselves worthy.  They become the yardsticks for measuring others.  In the minds of Pharisees, both ancient and modern, the commandments are reshaped into the same old false gods.  When this occurs, the yoke meant to be easy once again becomes a huge burden.

Paradoxically, what makes the commandments so susceptible to manipulation is their inherent subjectivism.  At first blush they are laws, and short ones at that.  But following them requires at least a little bit of nuanced thought.  Can you really ever honor your father or mother enough?  How much is enough, and how much is not enough?  And how, exactly, do you keep the Lord’s day holy?  And when it comes to human beauty, where exactly is that line that separates appreciation from covetousness?

My favorite conundrum involves this command: “Thou shalt not kill.”  That seems clear enough, and at the end of the day you’ve either killed someone or you haven’t.  But before you award yourself a gold star for compliance, consider this.  If you didn’t kill anyone today, was it due to your devotion to the commandment, or was it the result of sloth?  Have you not killed anyone today simply because you didn’t have the time or the energy, or you were too lazy?  Commandment-following is never as easy as it looks; and for those who want to be judges, the possibilities are endless.

Saint Benedict recognized that monks too can tip-toe into hypocrisy, and there are references to this temptation throughout his Rule.  In the case of wine, for example, it is perilously easy for some monks to condemn as godless those who imbibe.  Benedict confronts this head-on in chapter 40.  “We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.” (Sirach 19:2)  Let no one be surprised, then, that even in the sixth century monks disagreed among themselves.

Prayer also can provide occasion for hypocrisy, and monks after all are professionals when it comes to praying.  With eagle eyes we can spot the brother who sings off-key or who is off-pace or who slouches in his choir stall.  And that is hardly the end of it.  Benedict urges monks not to tarry in church when community prayer is over, lest this turn into a contest to see who is holier than whom.  There is a point at which monks — or anyone for that matter — can transform prayer into something diabolic.

What are we to conclude from all of this?  I would suggest that religious life is more art than science.  It is more about the search for God and the love of God, and less about religious account books and judging one’s neighbor.  We also have to admit that there is a certain satisfaction in concluding that I am better than my neighbor — on virtually any scale of measurement.  But ultimately that is a fruitless exercise.  It’s lonely at the top of the ladder of perfection.  If you’ve ever been there, you know how tough it can be with no one else to talk to.

[I am grateful to the staff of HMML at Saint John’s University, for providing the images of Thomas Ingmire’s Ten Commandments, from The Saint John’s Bible.  Used by permission, copyright 2002, Order of Saint Benedict.]

Monastery notes

On Sunday October 23rd the monks of Saint John’s will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the consecration of their own Abbey and University church.  At 3 pm the choir of men and boys from Westminster Cathedral (RC) in London will sing in concert in the church.  It will be a stunning experience, and the public is invited to hear one of the great choirs of the world.

My calendar

On October 19th Donald Jackson, artistic director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Fr. Bob Koopmann, OSB, will appear on The Today Show in New York.  In an interview with Barbara Walters, many years ago, Donald first spoke of his dream to create a great Bible.  Now he’s back to report its completion.  This is one of the rare times when I will ever encourage poeple to watch television!

Later that day we will meet for a small presentation ceremony at The Morgan Library & Museum.  Through the generosity of a St. Paul donor, The Morgan will receive a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Until now the Vatican Library has been the only institution with such a set.

On October 20-23 I will be in Danville, CA, to give retreat conferences to Members in Obedience of the Order of Malta.

Throughout monastic history the dedication of an abbey church has always been a big deal.  The drawing above depicts the design of the third church at the Abbey of Cluny, and no less a person than Pope Urban II travelled to Burgundy to preside at the consecration.  Until the construction of the new Saint Peter’s in Rome in the sixteenth century, it was the largest church in western Europe.  In fact, it is reported that the nave planned for Saint Peter’s was extended by fifty feet in order to make it longer than Cluny.  After the French Revolution the monastic complex at Cluny became the equivalent of Builder’s Square, as people looted and picked over its stones to build homes and walls.  Today only one transcept still stands.

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