Posts Tagged ‘The Washington Post’

imageEpiphany: It’s in the Stars

When the new year hits, most people I know craft resolutions that promise to reshape their destiny.  I’ve done it as well, despite knowing that by mid-January those life-changing resolves will be but a distant memory.

This year I decided to turn to astrology instead.  For one thing, if the movements of the stars and planets determine everything, then how can my own feeble actions thwart such forces?  This may very well explain why all new year’s resolutions ultimately fail.  So this year I’ve decided to give the stars a chance.  If they ordain it all, then who am I to go against the flow?

I surveyed the qualifications of several astrologers, and I immediately drew one shocking conclusion.  If the zodiac rules everything, then we should expect that all astrologers should be on the same page.  But they’re not.  In fact, they’re all over the zodiacal charts, and you are left to choose which predictions best determine the future you most want.

In that spirit, I narrowed my guides to two:  Susan Miller from The Washington Post, and an unnamed writer from The Onion.  The Post is an obvious choice, since it can be fairly accurate, when it chooses to be so.  I selected The Onion in  the spirit of modern journalism.  If you’re reporting a story, it’s always important to present an opposing view, no matter how off-the-wall the source may be.  The Onion itself is that opposing version of reality.  Its editors do it better than anyone; and best of all, they’re honest about their intentions.

imageMiller offered a year-ahead overview, which I thought could be a huge help to me as I step into 2014.  Her analysis for Virgo, my sign, was really encouraging.  “You’ll have the ability to make new friends in the first half of 2014.”  But then my paranoia asserted itself, and I wondered whether all those friendships might dissolve come July.

Equally fuzzy was her crystal-clear advice on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.  “Getting involved with social media will also benefit you now in ways you have not imagined.”  Since I write a blog, which I guess counts as social media, that sounded pretty good.  But then I began to wonder about those promised “benefits.”  Might they be wonderful, or might they be horrible?  Both have happened to people on Twitter, and we know some of the horror stories.  So I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what benefits come my way.

I finally realized what an exact science astrology is when I read this bit:  “The full moon weekend of July 12-13 may be divine or just the opposite — all will hinge on how things have been going all along.”  Needless to say, this was music to my ears.  I had been hoping to hear that.

imageAs of today, The Onion hasn’t offered any forecast for 2014, and so I settled for its prognosis for Virgo for the week of December 10th.  Its assessment was short and sweet and a real help to me.  “Nobody understands the excruciating pain you’re going through.  [So true.]  Although having to listen to you drone on and on about it is torture of a whole different kind.”  That last bit of insight was especially helpful.  If my friends can only think of their own pain while I share my tale of personal woes, then what good are they to me?  Thanks to The Onion I’m entering 2014 and expecting a lot less of people.  And as a bonus, this may help to explain why I might have no friends after July, as Miller seems to hint.

This sort of speculation may seem a bit irreverent, coming as it does from a monk.  Still, the astral sciences do figure in the gospels, and they are at the heart of Saint Matthew’s narrative of the Epiphany.  Whether one interprets magi to mean astrologers, fortune-tellers, or wise men, they nevertheless followed a star.  And when they discussed their mission with King Herod, he too wanted to know where that star was leading them.  All the while, Matthew writes as if following stars was the most natural thing in the world.  There’s no hint of judgment in his tone, despite the total absence of any record that Jesus, Mary or Joseph ever consulted palm readers or divined the skies.

imageAnalysts of ancient Roman culture have written about the grip that fate seemed to hold over the human imagination.  From the human perspective, unnamed forces controlled and guided life, and not unnaturally this engendered huge anxiety.  To what fate were people headed?  What would be their ultimate destiny?

By contrast, Jesus wasted no time on such despair and resignation.  That mechanical view of human existence was entirely alien to him, as it was to most of Jewish thought.  No, creation was intensely personal, and everyone had the possibility to live good and decent lives.  Better still, you had a responsibility to live such lives.  If not by choice, how could one possibly enter into loving relationships with God and neighbor?

It’s that religious conviction that causes me to enjoy astrology as benign entertainment, but nothing more.  When push comes to shove, I can blame the stars or anything else when things go right or wrong in my life.  But sooner or later my own responsibility kicks in.  So it is that I cannot put my life in the hands of fate.  I have to make some decisions.  I have to give life my best shot.  I have to be the one who makes the most of the talents and opportunities that God plops in front of me.

imageRather ironically, near the end of her reading for Virgo, Susan Miller suggest this very thing.  Perhaps because she has no desire to be pinned down exactly, she offers a bit of advice that undercuts the determinism that astrology seems to prescribe for us.  “In terms of fun and love, you have such a happy outlook, but it will be up to you to push back from your computer to go out and take full advantage.”

There you have it, straight from the seer’s pen, and I will write Amen to that.  And I would encourage you to do the same.

So as soon as you finish reading this post — and not until you’ve read every scrap of it, of course — push back from your computer and seize life.  Greet 2014 with optimism and determination, and live each day to the fullest.  After all, it’s what Jesus would want you to do.  He came that all might have life, and to have it in abundance.  He’d be keenly disappointed if all we did was to sit around, bewailing our fate.   His news is good news, and it doesn’t come from the stars.  Rather, it’s all a gift from God.


+On December 30th I concelebrated at a funeral that took place at Saint Patrick’s Church in Edina, MN.  It was a large and wonderful event, and no doubt the deceased was delighted that the Christmas decorations were still in place.  Christmas was her favorite day.

+This week I had the opportunity to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  It’s a great museum, with many outstanding collections — including one of the best Asian collections in the country.  Their items from medieval Europe are not so many, but adjacent to this text are two that I found particularly lovely.  The first is a Nativity by Fra Angelico, painted on a poplar panel, ca. 1425-30.  The second is the central panel of a tryptic by Bernardo Daddi, painted ca. 1312.  Both are timely for the Christmas season.

image+On December 31st the monks gathered to celebrate the coming of the new year.  We are not nearly as ambitious as some revelers; and given that many monks retire early, we push the schedule ahead.  This  year, as in the past, several monks together prepared home-made pizzas, which arrived at 9 pm.  Meanwhile, monks enjoyed conversation, card and board games, and each other’s company.  Like many of my confreres, my body clock seems to be in tune with the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  So at 10 pm we declared it to be midnight and celebrated the new year.  Then I went to bed, assured that the die-hards would represent us when the new year came at midnight, Central Time.

+Not surprisingly, artists for thousands of years have incorporated the signs of the zodiac into their work.  The enclosed photos show a fresco on the ceiling outside of the former office of the abbot.   They were painted by Brother Clement, a monk of the Benedictine archabbey of Beuron in Germany.

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imageOnly One Thing at a Time, Please

An interesting person passed away recently, and I regret not meeting him or hearing him speak.  Clifford Nass was a scholar of multitasking, according to the obituary by Steve Chawkins that appeared in the November 9th issue of The Washington Post.  He died at the tender age of fifty-five, and no doubt his students at Stanford will miss him.  But the world will miss him even more, because we’ll never know his final verdict on the interaction between humans and computers.

When he first beheld students at Stanford doing three or four things at once, he was intrigued.  Could this be the future?  Could he adapt to it?  His subsequent research suggested that it could indeed be the wave of the future; but it could very well be a future we may not want.

The conclusions of his research were succinct and startling.  The apparently brilliant multitaskers at their computers “were terrible at various cognitive chores such as organizing information, switching between tasks and discerning significance.”  “We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society,” he concluded.

imageThat synopsis scarcely does justice to Nass’s work.  But if you’re hungry for more, read his book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop.  And it’s that title that stirred some soul-searching on my attitude toward technology and the brave new world of electronic “people.”

Last week I got into a big argument with a computer, and I lost.  I had gotten a nice personal letter from a computer at the health insurance company, asking that I give them a call to discuss a billing.  “How hard can that be?” I thought to myself.  Well, it turned out to be harder than I ever imagined.

For starters, the menu of options that the tech-voice gave me did not include “If we asked you to call us, please press ten now.”  No, it was more along the lines of that playful 911 recording that offered this range of choices:  “If you’d like to report a regicide, please press one.  If you’d like to report an embezzlement, press two.  If you’d like to report a case of blackmail, press three.”  But nothing about traffic accidents or “burglars in your house even as we speak.”

image It wasn’t long before I’d gone through a succession of ranked choices, and with each new set I got madder and madder.  Finally, I did what any sensible human should do in this situation.  I started shouting and yelling.  But all that did was to elicit a very pleasant (though I thought sarcastic) “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  That happened four times before it switched from a masculine to a feminine voice which asked what the issue might be.  But the voice was so nice that I began to be suspicious.  Might this be an artificial voice as well?  “I assure you, sir, I’m real; which is why I gave you my name.”  I guess I hadn’t caught that, maybe because I know several computers who have names.

Anyway, I told her about the letter asking me to call, and here I was.  To my feigned horror, as well as complete lack of surprise, this was her God’s-honest-truth reply: “I’m sorry, sir.  But our billing computer is down this morning.  Can you call back this afternoon?”  “Maybe.  Better yet, why don’t you call me  when everything gets up to snuff in the computer department.  Have a nice day, and I hope your computer gets well soon” were my sign-off words.

imageI don’t know what technology has done for you lately, but it’s done great things for me.  It’s given me instant access to information.  It’s kept me from being hopelessly lost while driving at night in a big city.  And it’s helped me find good deals on air fares.  It’s also made me irate, and left me feeling chained to the computer with two hundred emails that need a response asap.  And trying to juggle all that has left me crazy at times, just as Nass suggested it might do.  Should life be this way?

In more tranquil moments, I realize that life need not be this way.  One need not live a frenetic existence in which computer programs dictate your life.  In fact, we can and ought to take ownership of our lives, before we lose them.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks monks to do a lot of very different things, but he doesn’t ask us to do them all at the same time.  In fact, he creates neat compartments in the daily schedule in which things should be done.  For example, monks should spend a specific time in church, but when they’re done, they should get out and get on with the next task.  Nor does he suggest that we read the newspaper during dinner.  And work itself should be an exercise in concentration.  We know what happened when copyists in those medieval scriptoria let their minds wander when they wrote.  Mistakes happened, and sometimes they were big mistakes.

Contrary to multitasking wisdom, Saint Benedict’s formula for life leads neither to wasted time nor to lost opportunities.  In fact,  his recipe quite possibly leads to greater efficiency and a much higher quality of product.  Perhaps that’s why he marked off separate and distinct times for praying and eating and working and reading.  Given those doses of intense concentration, perhaps the mind can flourish far better than when we multitask.

imageAs for me, I now see more clearly some of the choices I have to make.  For one thing, it’s folly to keep having arguments with a computer.  All I do is lose control and yell.  That’s why I’ve decided that the next time I meet an obtuse computer, I’m going to be the one having the fun.  I may just ask what might be its favorite color.  I might ask how the weather is where it is.  And when the answer fails to satisfy me, I’ll respond that I don’t understand the answer.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll offer to connect it to my own computer.  Then there’ll be a true meeting of minds.  Or not.

I also now realize the foolishness of treating a computer as if it were an equal.  Nor should I put it on a pedestal as if it were some god.  I know from experience that the health company’s computer had clay feet, just as did the ancient Roman gods.  Had it had keener intelligence, it would have known already that the billing computer was down for the day.   Had it been more mature, it would have appreciated the irony of that.  Had it been human, it would have chuckled along with me.


+On November 11th I presided and preached at the Mass for the School of Theology at Saint John’s University.  Earlier that morning I was among a small group of monks who witnessed the oblation of a good friend who made promises as an oblate of Saint John’s Abbey.  While not members of the Abbey, oblates promise to incorporate the values of the Rule of Saint Benedict into their lives, and attend periodic retreats and other events at the Abbey.

+On November 14th I was in San Francisco, where President Michael Hemesath and I hosted an evening event for Friends and Alumni of Saint John’s University.

+On November 15th I participated in a memorial service for the brother of a close friend of mine.  The service took place in Sunnyvale, CA.

image+On November 16th I presided and preached at the Mass of Religious Profession for Fra Carl Noelke, KJ.  Sandwiched into the liturgy were two very lengthy and ancient rites that first dubbed Fra Carl a knight in the Order of Malta, and then witnessed his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  In addition to the pictures in this post, you can see other pictures in the sermon that I delivered that day: Speak, Lord.  Your Servant is Listening.

+Dr. Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, writes a blog that gives periodic — and brief — reflections on the value of a liberal arts education.  More specifically, he addresses the residential, liberal arts, Catholic and Benedictine character of Saint John’s.  In a recent post he considered the theme of career adaptability, and the importance of planning for a career, rather than just for the first job.  As an example, he cited Marine Captain Garrett Litfin, who graduated from Saint John’s in 2003.  When he left Saint John’s to take on his first job, Garrett definitely had not planned to pilot the helicopter that flies the president of the United States to and from the White House.  To read or receive Michael’s postings, visit Q136, which happens to be his office number at Saint John’s.

+The first six photos in today’s post are from the facades of buildings in Amsterdam.  There is huge variety there, with surprises at every turn.

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