Posts Tagged ‘Trappists’


A Career in Hypocrisy?

”When I grow up, I want to be an accomplished and respected hypocrite.”

I’ve not checked with many five-year-olds, but among the few with whom I’ve discussed career plans, becoming a hypocrite is an aspiration that I’ve yet to hear.  I’m tempted to conclude that no one at age five wants to grow up to become a hypocrite, and perhaps at that age they’re just too innocent to imagine it.  Yet, it happens anyway.

Hypocrites begin life meaning well enough.  Like others they have good insights.  They have the best of intentions.  But along the way something happens.  Perhaps it’s the weight of responsibility or the lure of power and influence.  Whatever it is that makes us jaded or cynical, like a thief in the night hypocrisy reaches out to snatch us.  Once in its grasp, it’s really hard to pry ourselves free.

2FE87E19-B1C5-44D1-8A5D-A975FF65B501In chapter one of his gospel Saint Mark doesn’t use the word hypocrite to define who Jesus is not, but clearly hypocrisy was the one thing that distinguished him from the scribes.  Jesus spoke with authority, and not like the scribes.  And when he did teach, he didn’t rely on the power of office.  Instead he taught as one who seemed to know God intimately.  He practiced what he preached, and not for love of gain.  Not surprisingly then, his words packed a punch that stopped people in their tracks.

The drift into hypocrisy can happen to any and all of us, at any time of life.  It can happen as we’re standing in a pulpit.  It can happen as we exercise even the smallest shred of responsibility.  It can happen in a monastery, in an office or in a home.  And it happens when we believe that power of any sort makes us better than others.

Saint Benedict in his Rule warned monks not to be kingdom-builders.  It’s good advice for monks, but it’s also good advice for anyone, because kingdom-building is a temptation for most of us.  And it’s certainly not the exclusive preserve of the high-born and powerful.  But it’s insidious, because for so many it’s the first step down the path to hypocrisy.

Jesus came to serve rather than to be served, and that may be the best antidote to hypocrisy that’s available to us.  Certainly Saint Benedict echos that suggestion; and if it’s good enough for monks, then there’s wisdom there for everyone.

As for me, I’ve not been five years old for some time now, but I still aspire to achieve an age when hypocrisy is beyond my reach.  That’s perhaps why Benedict’s wisdom is still a valuable commodity for me.  For the foreseeable future I will still need all the wisdom I can get.


+On January 9-11 I attended the annual workshop that we schedule in the monastery.

+On January 10th I preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a variation of what I preached that day.

+On Sunday the 14th I again presided at the Abbey Mass.  Someday I will harvest from those comments and you’ll see them reappear in this blog.  But not this time around!

+During the past week several trees were taken down in the monastic garden, due to age and disease.  The garden was planted in the 1920’s, and just about now the rows of spruce trees that form the perimeter have reached their life expectancy.  The ones that have not died or been toppled in storms are in their final years, and we are in the process of replanting the entire lot of them.

+On January 14th Brother Joe Schneeweiss left for Rome, where he will become the director of the library at the Collegio di Sant Anselmo.  Sant Anselmo is the international college of the Benedictines, and the abbot primate lives there.  Joe will be on loan to them for several years.

950E2D35-A5E5-4F82-A4C4-88F296D97CFC+This last week Brother Benedict Vuong Tran, O.Cist., arrived at Saint John’s to begin four years of seminary studies.  Brother Benedict is from an abbey in Vietnam, and he joins three other Cistercians from that country who are studying with us.  The Cistercians are an 11th-century off-shoot of the Benedictines.  The Trappists, in turn, are a 17th-century reform movement of the Cistercians.  We’re all relatives in following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

+On 14 January my guardian angel worked overtime.  That afternoon I drove to Minneapolis to catch an early morning flight the next day, and like everyone else I scoffed at the four inches of snow that we were getting.  Along the way I passed twelve accidents and narrowly missed a multi-car pile-up as it was unfolding right before me.  It was a harrowing experience.

+On a cold winter’s day it is always a comfort to recall warmer places, and the photos in today’s post are ones I took at the medieval abbey of San Miniato in Florence.  It has wonderful mosaics and beautiful architectural lines, and my favorite element is the stunning pulpit that sits on the wall that divides the choir from the nave.  San Miniato occupies a lovely perch overlooking the city of Florence.


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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.


+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.


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