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Posts Tagged ‘V & A Museum London’

 

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Wisdom Finds Delight in Us

Every now and again a passage from Scripture can surprise us with a meaning it did not intend.  Take for instance Proverbs 8.  It offers a sublime reflection on Wisdom, which from the beginning of time has hovered over creation.  Then, all of a sudden, it inserts what seems to be a rather snide reference to some people I know:

”When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains or springs of water;  before the waters were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth;  while as yet the earth and fields were not made, nor the first clods of the world.”

My cynical side wants to argue that here God was being honest with this little aside;  but my sensible side argues that it may be time for an updated English translation.  Either way, though, Wisdom’s real thoughts are best reflected in the verse that concludes this passage:  “And I found delight in the human race.”  That I find truly amazing, because sometimes I don’t see that at all.

B3597EA0-AAE4-404D-BF0B-3FFA3036A53BIn the liturgy on most Sundays of the year we recite the Nicene Creed, and in it Christians profess their belief that God saw the world and saw that it was good.  That includes not only the few masterpieces among us but also the clods and idiots and all those other deeply flawed people whom we know.  Of course by the time that we total up the complete list it pretty much includes us all.  Coming to terms with that reality is one of the ongoing challenges of life — at least for me.

Giving other people the benefit of the doubt, forgiving them, and owning up to our own faults are what make life so challenging.  They’re also what make life potentially so creative.  On any given day we all endure a tug-of-war between our better selves and the temptation to view others as Satan would have us view them.  From his perspective people are pretty much nasty, brutish, and a bunch of clods.  But of course that is not really the case.  Each of us, as a creation of God, carries some spark of divine life that drives us forward.  Certainly there are moments when we tend to come off as clods, but that’s not who we really are.

Sooner or later we all confront the temptation to write off our neighbors as hopeless causes.  But of course they are not.  Nor are we.  So whenever that inclination starts to well up within us, it’s worthwhile to recall God’s own delight in us.  If God sees in us what we can’t quite see, then perhaps it’s time we look again.

38005A36-26B0-49FE-8465-1A417DE4C3B9NOTES

+On June 10th I flew to Phoenix for a meeting and a series of visits with friends of Saint John’s.  Back in March, when I scheduled this, a trip to Phoenix sounded like a terrific idea.  Once I landed I had only one regret.  Save for Tuesday, when the temperature plunged down to a balmy 108, it reached 111 every other day.  It was not what I had hoped for, and in retrospect I should have gone sooner.

+On June 16th I received welcome news from Fr. Petrus Nowack, the librarian of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  For some time we have been in communication regarding the gifting of a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, made possible by Mrs. Hella Hueg, a friend of Saint John’s and native of Heidelberg.  Shortly before her passing she expressed the desire that her set be sent to an institution in Germany, and she welcomed the thought that it would go to Maria Laach.  We at Saint John’s have had a long relationship with the monks of Maria Laach, though we do not go back to the 11th century as they do.

+The translation of the passage from Proverbs that I’ve quoted in today’s post is from The New American Bible, which Catholics in the United States currently use in the liturgy.  It has its shortcomings, and recently the American bishops decided to abandon the current translation in favor of something more congenial.  They illustrated their decision with several passages from that translation in which the English has evolved to mean something other than what was originally intended.  Among them was one passage that recalled the Israelite conquest of a particular Canaanite town, after which “they paraded around with their booty.”  Seniors hear one thing and their grandchildren hear another when that passage is read.

+Wisdom is associated with the Holy Spirt;  and given that Sunday was the feast of the Trinity I searched for photos that might illustrate the Trinity.  At top is a piece of stained glass (ca. 1520) from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne, and now housed at the V & A in London.  Below that is a glass panel of the Trinity (early 16th century), now housed at the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The next photo shows The Saint John’s Bible and its case made at Saint John’s, positioned in the library of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  At bottom is a wooden Trinity, early 16th century, also housed at the Schuntzen Museum.

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img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.

img_0102_2Notes

+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

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