Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Becket’


Lord, Where Would We Go?

Pilgrimage is a religious exercise with deep roots in human history.  For millennia people have left home and set out on the quest for inner peace, self-awareness, repentance, a change of scenery, and as often as not a bit of fun.  But motivating it all is a simple question that eventually nags at everyone.  Looking around at their lives, people sooner or later ask this:  “Is this all there is?”

Recently I viewed a program that featured British commentator Simon Reeve as he retraced the medieval pilgrimage route to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.  I found it fascinating, and not just for the trails and inns and churches that have survived in the five hundred years since Henry VIII ordered the shrine destroyed.  Himself a non-believer, Reeve puzzled over why people would still do this.  When science and technology explain so much, why would people go to such great lengths in hope of a glimpse of the sacred?

BF8AFC3D-E78A-42DB-ADD1-6D56FFDF50C1Reeve put his questions to pilgrims whom he met along the way to Canterbury, and I think the best nugget of insight came from a Carmelite friar whose community serves pilgrims and retreatants.  He framed his answer carefully, beginning with one bit of context.  Undeniably many people today refuse to be pinned down.  They keep all options open.  They shrink from commitments.  And so, in a world which doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going, pilgrimage is the conscious decision to set a course for one’s life to some destination, and only God knows where it will lead.

People on pilgrimage, then, tend to be contrarians.  They set their sights on a goal — in this case a place — and they don’t give up until they’ve reached it.  Of course they have no idea how the journey will tease out in its details, but they commit time and energy to a journey that might turn out to be life-changing, or not.

That, it seems to me, provides insight into Peter’s response to Jesus in the gospel passage from John 6.  When the going got too tough, many of the disciples took off.  Peter stayed, and when Jesus asked him “why?”, his answer was simple.  “Lord, where would we go?”

296B5A4F-EDD4-467C-80F3-3D911EB3A0F8Peter’s response was not an expression of bewilderment, because it was an act of faith.  He knew there were other options, but he chose to throw in his lot with Jesus.  And he did so fully aware that the pilgrimage with the Lord offered no guarantees, save for the fact that the journey would be interesting and the destination rewarding.

Not to choose is to choose, and so it is that lifelong fence-sitters have in fact made a choice.  They have chosen the path of minimal risk, but that minimal risk brings with it minimal reward.  And that’s the implication in what Jesus asks of Peter.  “Are you willing to put yourself on the line for at least something?  For anything?”

The Lord puts the same question to us, and if we elect to walk with him our lives will be anything but dull and meaningless.  The route of our journey may include detours and potholes, but we’ll at least have a direction.  We will not be aimless wanderers, afraid to leave our comfort zones.

That’s the potential reward for throwing in our lot with the Lord.  For that journey the Lord gives us his Spirit, who provides us the wisdom to live day by day and hour by hour. With that wisdom comes the awareness that the Lord won’t always give us what we ask for, but he will always give us more than we ever imagined.  For me that’s worth the walk.


+On August 23rd the incoming freshmen of Saint John’s University joined us for evening prayer in the abbey church.  Before we began, Abbot John welcomed them to Saint John’s and invited them to join us for prayer whenever the Spirit moves them — and not just during final exams.  After prayer the students met in small groups for discussions led by several of the monks.

+On August 25th I said Mass for a group of some forty alumni and spouses at the home of Len and Kay Mrachek, in Edina, MN.

+On August 26th I attended Mass presided over by Saint John’s School of Theology alumnus Fr. Alex Juguilon OSC, who was ordained this spring.  Gathered for the Mass was a large contingent from the Twin Cities Philippine community, and virtuallly all the music was in Tagalog — a tongue entirely foreign to me.  Held at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale, MN, I confess that I had to look it up on the map to find out where in the world it is.  It is a suburb of St. Paul, as I found out.  And I should have known better.

+The new school year has brought several monks and priests who will live with us in the monastery while studying at Saint John’s.  Among them are five Cistercian monks from Vietnam, along with one Benedictine from Vietnam.  To make matters interesting, our Brother Simon-Hoa now must share his monastic name with one of the visitors and his surname with another.  We’ll get used to it.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the Quandrangle courtyard, save for the butterfly.  The butterfly was draining nectar from a flower in the monastic garden, and it was a long wait before the wings fluttered open for this shot.


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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?



+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.


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