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Posts Tagged ‘University of Notre Dame’

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Think Small.  Achieve Big.

I recently ran across an article that encouraged people to “think small.”  By no means did the author urge people to slack off at work or scale back on their ambitions.  Rather, his recipe for success was simple and counterintuitive.  If people want to accomplish great things, then they should begin with the little things that over time will lead to bigger things, and more.

Common lore suggests that impressive results require grand masterstrokes.  However, in all too many cases those masterstrokes end up gathering dust on the shelf.  Who hasn’t been dazzled by brilliantly articulated but largely ignored mission statements?  Who hasn’t wondered why an organizational chart meant to turbocharge a company fell far short of goal?  The author argues that grand plans often leave people scratching their heads, wondering where to start.  By contrast, people can make a contribution through concrete steps that appear at first blush to be inconsequential.  However, done over time, with discipline and attention to detail, those modest steps have the potential to transform an organization.

A84FE2EA-D1E7-4327-827B-3AD15C9791C2If that’s true for organizations, it’s particularly true for individuals.  All of us have made grand resolutions that we’ve failed to accomplish, while we’ve also made simple resolves that we’ve been able to put into action.  There’s a world of difference between a new year’s resolution to “achieve good health in the new year” and one that prescribes “exercise for thirty minutes, three times a week.”  The latter may sound a bit modest, but it has a better chance of getting done.  Furthermore, done with discipline and dedication, it might even result in the better health that was the higher aspiration.

There’s little doubt that Jesus asks idealistic things of us, but all the same we’re lucky that he tended to emphasize the measurable, if not always the achievable.  For that reason he stressed the importance of little things, as he suggests in the parable of the mustard seed.  That seed may be tiny to start with, but it contains within it the germ of something really significant.  When tended and watered and nourished, the seed grows into something all out of proportion to its original size.  So it can be with us.

I find the parable of the mustard seed useful in a couple of ways.  First, that seed is symbolic of each bit of potential still latent within us.  All of us have a variety of talents, and some we have developed and some not.  Yet all of them have the potential to accomplish something of value, and we should never forget the undeveloped potential within us.  There’s still lots for us to do in life.

27F20C59-69FE-424F-B098-EE93287FE826Second, you and I are the mustard seed that Jesus speaks about.  Now and again we’re all tempted to discount our worth as persons and our ability to make much of a difference in life.  But God doesn’t see us that way, and Jesus came to remind us of the possibilities within each of us.  We are created in the image of God;  we matter;  and God invites each of us to live to the full the life we’ve been given.

There can be moments when the two great commandments can seem much like the mission statements that are far beyond our reach.  Who of us can possibly love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves?  I suspect that Jesus appreciated the challenge of such pie in the sky expectations, and so he encourages us to think about the small things that can turn us ever so slightly in the direction of the bigger aspirations.  And so, if we can’t quite seem to love our neighbors as ourselves, then treating them as if they were Christ for thirty minutes, three times a week, is a good start. It’s measurable;  it’s achievable;  and it might even lead to bigger things.

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NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet for me, and I spent the entire week without leaving Saint John’s.  However, on June 14th I did host two people for a tour of the Bible Gallery and a luncheon.  The day came courtesy of a bid the two had made at a silent auction at the annual gala for Vocal Essence, the choral group led by Dr. Philip Brunelle.  Philip had asked me to make this offer, which I gladly did.  It was a delightful experience, though I didn’t have the nerve to ask what they had paid for the winning bid.

+This was a blessed week for two alumni of Saint John’s University.  Fr. Bill Lies, CSC, was elected the provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and as such oversees the 500 members, whose work includes the sponsorship of the University of Notre Dame.  Fr. Bill is an ‘84 graduate of Saint John’s, and he majored in English with minors in French and philosophy.  He later received his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  For the last several years he has been on the faculty of Notre Dame.

EAF9573D-C50A-43B6-8D83-0EE3DBB5AA2FFr. Gregory Mohrman, OSB, is an ‘86 alumnus of our School of Theology and Seminary, and he has been elected to serve as abbot of Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, MO.  At Saint John’s Abbot Gregory lived with us in the monastery for four years, and during that time he became a beloved and respected colleague before returning to his community.

+There are quiet moments in the summer at Saint John’s, but this was not the week for them.  Through most of the week we hosted nearly 500 high school students who attended the annual American Legion Boys State.  They were great guests, and they used virtually every class and seminar room on campus.  At the end of the week the annual camp for the National Catholic Youth Choir began, and on Sunday the choir sang at the Abbey Mass.

+Until recently the plantings on campus had not yet reached the point when they seemed ready for photography.  But in today’s post I present the first of many summertime photos from the Abbey gardens.  Of particular note are the ladyslippers, which are the state flower of Minnesota and rather uncommon.

+The article to which I make reference in today’s post was a short online essay by Bob Cohen, principal at the wealth management firm of Tamar Fink in Minneapolis.

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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.

IMG_0021_2Notes

+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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