Posts Tagged ‘Valletta’

imageThe Great Siege of Malta, 1565

My first trip to the island of Malta was a real eye-opener.  I’d been director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University for only a few months, and I had to get up to speed on the various projects on HMML’s plate.  So I flew to Valletta to visit the National Library, where HMML had assisted in photographing the archives of the Order of Malta.  Since I’d been to other islands already, I assumed that this one would be like all the rest, save for the library.  I was completely wrong about that.

Physically, Malta is not very big, and from its medieval capital of Medina you can see the whole thing spread out around  you.  And it’s crowded — really crowded.  There’s also a lot of stone there.  From stately buildings to the simplest homes, the tan-colored stone gives it the feel of the Middle East.  And the landscape is so strewn with stones that you quickly understand why the Maltese have to import most of their food.  In fact they import nearly everything, except for capers.  Those bushes grow everywhere, like weeds, and they’d take over if people didn’t chop them back.  The latter seems a shame, because I love capers.

For what Malta lacks in vegetation it more than compensates with its history.  In fact it wears the past on its sleeve, and everywhere you turn it tells a larger-than-life story.  Its neolithic temples are among the most ancient structures on the planet, and traces of a succession of foreign rulers show up all over the place.  The fact that outsiders like Romans, Arabs, French and English occupied the place continuously for 2,000 years means that Maltese self-government is a very recent experiment.

imageUndeniably it is the Order of Saint John that has left the greatest mark on the island.  Now known as the Order of Malta, it began in Jerusalem as a hospice serving sick and poor pilgrims, run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey.  From Pope Pascal II in 1113 Blessed Frá Gerard received a charter that brought formal recognition as a religous order, and in Jerusalem it served Christians, Muslims and Jews.  Later, after the Order’s expulsion from the Holy Land, the knights ended up on the island of Rhodes.  There they stayed until 1523, and in 1530 they settled on Malta, where they remained until Napoleon dislodged them in 1798.

As an influential and accomplished group in the Middle Ages, the Knights of Saint John earned both admirers and enemies, as did their peers in the Order of the Temple.  But they fared better than did the Templars and were never suppressed, though they came perilously close to extinction in the early 19th century.

imageAlong the way there were days when members must have wondered why they’d ever signed up for such a life. One such occasion was the siege of Rhodes in 1480, when the Ottoman Turks came close to dislodging them.  The Turks finally did succeed in 1523, but as a gesture of respect the sultan gave the knights honorable passage off the island and into exile.

The sultan’s successors came to regret that decision, and in 1565 the Turks sailed to Malta to rid the Mediterranean of the knights once and for all.  What followed was one of the nastiest sieges ever, and I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood has never made a movie about it.  It would be a blockbuster, with violence and bravery scarcely imaginable.  But the knights held out against huge odds, until on September 8 the Turks lifted the siege and sailed away.

The knights learned several things during that siege, and among them was the disadvantage of defending lower ground in an artillery duel.  The Turks had commanded the high ground, and after the siege the knights hastily moved their capital to those heights.  And they named the city after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, who had led them through the crisis.  Today Valletta’s stately government buildings are the visible record of the knights’ 268 years of residence in Malta.

imageOn September 8th the Order of Malta celebrates the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the siege.  Both Maltese citizens and members of the Order will gather in Valletta to mark the occasion and to celebrate what has happened since.  After all those centuries the Maltese at last rule themselves, and the knights and dames of Malta have rededicated themselves to their original charism of service to the sick and the poor.  The festivities in Malta will remind them of that latter commitment when they tour the vast 16th-century hospital in Valletta.

Meanwhile, at HMML the work of the Malta Study Center continues, as does its efforts in various archives in Malta and more recently at the Grand Magistry in Rome.  This week HMML marks the event with the opening of an exhibit of books and documents on the history of the Order of Malta, as well as a lecture on the siege by Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg of the University of Malta.

imageSince my first visit to Malta I’ve had the chance to lead several tours to the island, and to a person the place leaves each and every visitor in awe.  Each invariably has the same reaction as I did when I first looked down from the bastions of Villetta to an aircraft  carrier docked directly below.  And for knights and dames who visit Malta, there’s a sense of respect for what their predecessors in the Order sacrificed.  Thankfully we no longer serve on the battlefield or on the seas, because at our age and physical condition we wouldn’t last ten minutes.  But we can be grateful for what others did to keep the ideal of service alive.  Those who sacrificed their lives in 1565 ensured that later generations in the Order would continue their care of the sick and the poor.  Thankfully the siege did not mean the end of the history of the Order;  rather, it was the opening of several new chapters.

To all this I must append a footnote.  Some people find history boring and tedious, but at the end of my first trip to Malta I learned how important it is to remember the lessons of history.  As we drove our rental car onto the highway to return to the airport, the three of us were chatting away as we breezed down the road.  Suddenly one of our number pointed out one great legacy of the English occupation.  Had it been Minneapolis, driving on the right side of the road would have been just fine.  But this was Malta, and just as in England they drive on the left side of the road.  There we were, tooling merrily down the wrong side of a divided highway.  We all shreiked and sweat bullets, and I thought of Saint Benedict’s advice to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  That morning history was no longer an academic exercise.


+On August 28th the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks for vespers.  And as is the custom of many years, they broke into small groups afterwards in order to “meet a monk” and learn about our life in the monastery.

+On September 1st I presided at the burial service of Mary Foley, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Bob Foley.  The burial took place in the abbey cemetery.

+On September 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon through this link to The Lord’s Demands on Us.

+On September 5th I attended the opening game of the Saint John’s University football season.  We hosted the University of Dubuque, and happily our team won the game rather handily, 45-9.

image+Dr. Daniel Gullo, the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, kindly supplied five images from HMML’s current exhibit of books and documents illustrating the history of the Order of Malta.  The first is a book of Statutes of the Order, printed in 1556.  The second is a map of 1597, showing the harbor of Valletta, with the new city scarcely developed on the left of the map.  In the map of 1762 you see the fully-developed city, built on a modern grid pattern.  The fourth page opens the 1480 edition of Pierre D’Aubusson’s narrative of the siege of Rhodes; while the fifth image is taken from the Statutes, printed in 1588.  All are in the collection of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  In a separate gallery I have presented some of my favorite photos, illustrating the architecture of the Island of Malta.

Read Full Post »

imageBargains Made with God

The readings for last Thursday’s Mass were a preacher’s nightmare.  In the first, from the Book of Judges chapter 1, Jephthah vowed to sacrifice to God the first person he might see leaving his house, if God would grant him victory over the Ammonites.  Jephthah went on to win a decisive war, but he was shocked to see his daughter — his only child — emerge from the house to greet him on his return.  But a deal was a deal, and after a two-month reprieve, he offered her up to God, just as he had promised.  How inspiring, I thought to myself.  And how might a homilist handle this?

The gospel didn’t offer fare that was much better.  In a parable from the lips of Jesus, Matthew relates how a king sent his servants, and then his son, to invite the neighbors to a wedding feast for his son.  Some neighbors gave pretty lame excuses and beat the servants, while others killed the son.  Enraged, the king slaughtered all the neighbors and burned their cities.  Could such be the kingdom of heaven?  I’d always hoped for something a little more tranquil.

You can imagine my delight when I realized that these challenges would fall to Fr. Hilary, the celebrant for the day.  He is among the monastery’s most thoughtful and eloquent preachers, and I prepared myself for the definitive wisdom that would explain — or explain away — the conundrums in these two passages.  So you can imagine my reaction when he began his  homily with words similar to these:  “Today we rejoice that it is the feast of Saint Bernard, which gives the perfect excuse for not dealing with these two readings.”

imageWell, I could scarcely blame him, since Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is among my favotire monastic saints.  As Fr. Hilary went on to point out, Bernard was a golden-tongued preacher, and his written prose is surpassing in its beauty.  On account of that, monks have revered him through the centuries, and the Church honors him as a doctor of the Church.  But if Bernard was such a great light when it came to preaching, what did he do when these passages came up for Mass?  Humility prevented him from changing the subject to focus on his own sanctity, particularly since he had yet to be canonized.  So I wonder if he didn’t dodge the bullet by preaching instead about the goodness of God, or some other benign topic.

As for me, I was left disappointed, pondering the point of stories like these from the Bible.  The parable from the gospel I can sort of figure out in my own mind, but what can we do with a father who will slay his own daughter just to repay a debt to God?  What kind of God could demand such a payment?  And what kind of twisted logic could someone use to rationalize the killing of an only child, or of any innocent person, for that matter?

imageThere are no good answers to any of these questions, but there are ways to appreciate the larger scope of what God might be trying to tell us in the Book of Judges and in the Bible itself.  First off, the Bible presents the story of God’s people, and it’s definitely a story of growth and development.  So it is that there are practices sanctioned in the time of Moses that would not make the cut by the time Jesus was born.  These included the sacrifice of first-born sons and multiple wives; and I assume that a Jew living a thousand years after Jephthah would have found the sacrifice of his daughter to be an abomination.  So the Bible is the log both of individuals who grew in age and wisdom, and of a people that grew in age and wisdom.

The second lesson that I might draw from this story has to do with the endurance of our deal-making with God.  Of course we don’t offer to sacrifice children or spouses if only God will let us win the lottery, but we’ll instinctively promise anything if God will allow our favorite team to win.  The same with recovery from illness and reversal of ill-fortune.  In our heads we will bargain with God without ever considering the absurdity of it all.  God doesn’t do deals like that with people — or at least not since the earliest books of the Old Testament.

imageBut if God doesn’t negotiate with us, at least not on our terms, what are we to make of these two passages that could bring some measure of understanding?  Common to both readings is the killing of a child, and perhaps that helps to put into perspective the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  In one respect the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense at all.  But on the other hand it showed that God was no longer open to the business of doing deals to get us to behave a little better.  Rather, Jesus was freely given, and from his death and resurrection came life to us all — free of charge.  In one fell swoop God at least tried to remove from our troubled minds the temptation to save ourselves.  Salvation, like love, was and is freely given.  That, it seems to me, is the big take-away from the mystery of the cross and resurrection.  We do not save ourselves, because Jesus does that.  He lifts that burden from our shoulders, and hopefully we can all rise to new and better life because of it.

Accepting that will always remain one of the great challenges in our relationship with God.  I’m convinced that each new generation has to find this out for itself.  And each person has to go through this business of negotiation with God.  People will continue to give up candy or cigarettes or any of life’s other little pleasures, without realizing that God has no real interest in this sort of stuff.  As Jesus reminded his disciples and us, God remains unimpressed with our latest version of bullocks and whole burnt offerings.  God is pretty much satisfied with a pure heart.  And that seems to be it.  No bargaining necessary.


+This was a very quiet week for me, until on Friday the 21st I flew to Orange County, CA, to preside at a Mass of religious profession for Frá Jeffrey Littell, who made his final vows as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta.  Present to receive the vows was Frá Ludwig Hoffman, the Grand Commander, who had come from Rome for the occasion.  In attendance as well was Bishop Ed Clark, auxiliary of Los Angeles, who is also a chaplain the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The liturgy was as beautiful as it was unhurried.  At two hours it must have been a struggle to keep those cell  phones turned off.  The Mass of profession took place at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Costa Mesa, CA.  I was also privileged to preach at the Mass, and readers may access  the Sermon at the Rite of Final Profession through this link.

image+This weekend an additional wave of students arrived at Saint John’s University, further relegating to the past the peace and quiet of summer.   Classes will begin within a few days, and even now I still miss those first heady days of the new semester — but only a little.

+The first four photos in today’s post illustrate the Sacred Infirmary, which the Knights of Malta constructed in Valletta, their capital in Malta.  By the standards of the day, the hospital was huge, holding nearly 500 beds for men and a smaller number for women.  The photos dramatically illustrate the primary work of the Order of Malta throughout its history — service to the sick and the poor..

Read Full Post »

1.Entrance to MdinaCourtesy: Not a Bad Policy

Mdina is one of those towns people don’t visit often, if ever.  Perched in the middle of the island of Malta, on its highest point, it has a commanding view of both the island and the sea that isolates it from the rest of the world.  Through much of Malta’s history Mdina served as the capital as well as the main bastion for defense.  Even after the arrival of the Knights of Malta in 1530, it continued to be the seat of the archbishop.  From there both the archbishops as well as the Maltese natives cast wary eyes at the Knights, who ruled from their port city of Valletta.  Relations were not always good; and when spats arose, it fell to the Roman Inquisitor to mediate the peace.

Today Mdina is a sleepy town, but it remains an architectural jewel.  Around every corner is  a lovely palace or church, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in its narrow streets.

2.Red DoorLast May I visited Malta with several members of the Order of Malta, and Mdina was the surprise of the tour.  We should have budgeted more time for the town, and we left wanting more.  But we made the most of it, including a pause for lunch at a sidewalk cafe.  Lunch did double duty, since it opened out from a stately  sixteenth-century palace.

The service was prompt but unhurried, and when the bread and water had appeared on the table, the waiter made the rounds to take our order.  When he came to me he stopped, smiled, and politely observed: “You were in Lourdes last week, weren’t you.”

Taken aback, all I could sputter out was “well, yes.  As a matter of fact, I was.”

“I thought so,” he answered.  “I saw you at the Mass in the underground basilica.”

3.Cathedral AlleyThis may sound like no big deal, but there were 20,000+ of us at that Mass, including over 250 priests and bishops.  Since I hadn’t gone berserk or made a spectacle of myself that day, I wondered how in the world he could have noticed me in that vast crowd.

Then we put it all together.  As the clergy filed into the basilica, there was the equivalent of a  human traffic jam, and for five minutes we stood stock still while the ushers untangled the front end of the procession.  With nothing to do, I could have made catty remarks about the organizers.  Instead, I struck up a pleasant conversation with a woman from Washington, DC, who was seated on the aisle.  Our new friend, the waiter, was right behind her.  So of course he could remember me, if he so chose.

It was a remarkable coincidence to run into him a few days later, and a few hundred miles away.  And it made me extremely grateful that I had followed one of my working principles that Sunday in Lourdes:  “never throw snits in front of strangers.”  Those snits can come back to haunt you.

4.Street sceneMore than a few books and movies have featured people who were absolute jerks to others, only to discover later on that the person they had insulted was their future boss or mother-in-law.  Or he was the guy about to park  your brand new car.  Or the waiter who was about to balance hot soup over your lap.  We borrow a phrase from literature to describe such situations, and the term is “poetic justice.”  Thankfully, there was no need for poetic justice in Mdina that afternoon.

For those who travel a lot, and even for those who don’t, life has plenty of frustrations.  People can be quite pretentious in their demands, and others can be downright rude, whether on the highway or in a line or wherever.  The fact is, there are plenty of opportunities to explode in righteous indignation; and the trick is to keep your cool and not have others shrink back in horror at your conniption.  Nor do you want to set others off with your own obnoxious behavior.  After all, it’s entirely possible that their fuses could be even shorter than yours.

5.palaceAs a modern reader I think of courtly behavior as a feature of a bygone era when people had little else to do but be nice.  But as a  medieval historian, I learned better.  Courtly behavior doesn’t come  naturally to people.  It is a code of manners designed to keep little spats from escalating into big wars.  Sure, people still fought duels over the most trifling breaches of etiquette, but courtly manners at least limited some of the violence and channeled it elsewhere.  And if you could restrict anger and voilence to a few hard-core cranks, then most everyone else would be a lot better off.

Courtesy provides many benefits.  Foremost among them is the value of keeping everyone around you relatively happy and sweet-tempered.  There also is a more altruistic motive for being courteous.  We should not overlook the possibility that most people actually do deserve our respect.  Whether they are having bad or good days, they should get the benefit of the doubt.  Besides, one good word or act of courtesy might very well make the difference in their lives that day.

One friend who volunteers in a soup kitchen once confided that he doesn’t derive all that much joy from handing out food.  But what he loves to do is smile to each person who comes through the line.  The smile costs him absolutely nothing, but it may very well be the only smile those people will see that day.  It could mean the world to them.

6.SquareAs for the waiter in Mdina, we had a great lunch, served by his hands.  He showed us pictures of his wife and two kids, and we posed for new ones to add to the collection.  We are now fast friends, or at least we will be when we meet up again in Lourdes next year.

I’m also glad we decided to give him a generous tip.  Three days later, on our last day in Malta, we sat down for breakfast at our hotel in Valletta.  As luck would have it, our friend from Lourdes and Mdina was again our waiter.  Everyone greeted him like a long lost friend, and he responded in kind.

7.Street scapeAs for me, once again I was astounded by the coincidence.  Like God, this guy seemed to be everywhere.  Thank goodness I had been on my best behavior the first time around.  You just can’t be too careful these days.  It’s a very small world, populated by some very nice people.


+On July 13th I attended a reunion of members of a pilgrimage to Poland and Ukraine that I was part of last August.  The gathering took place at the home of Dr. Tom and Mary Ann Okner in Sunfish Lake, MN.

+On July 15th I attened the funeral of Jack Kolb, at Saint Joseph Church in West Saint Paul, MN.  Jack and his wife Rajah are fellow members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and I’ve been privileged to know them for many years.  The funeral liturgy was topped off with a wonderful offering of incense, taken from the Maronite Rite, in which Rajah was raised.

+On July 17th I visited the dentist to prepare a broken tooth for a crown.  The most notable feature of the procedure was that I fell asleep while they were working on me.  That is a far cry from the days when I shrank in terror from any visit to any dentist.

+On July 19th through the 21st I delivered a retreat to the deacon-candidates and their spouses from the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT.  David Flynn, a good friend and alumnus from Saint John’s University, is preparing for ordination as a permanent deacon in Bridgeport.  I am grateful to him and his colleagues for the invitation.

+The pictures in today’s blog all come from Mdina in Malta.  They don’t begin to cover all the wonderful nooks and crannies of the place, but they give a hint of the city’s charm.


Read Full Post »

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

The Tyranny of Things

In 1961 Dom Jean Leclercq penned what has since become a foundational text on monastic culture.  A monk of the Benedictine abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, his Love of Learning and the Desire for God delivered exactly what the title promised, and it did so in beautiful prose.  So loving was his study, that it crossed the threshold from scholarship, to become spiritual reading.  It has since become far more than just another book about the learned monk and nun of history.

photoBooks have been essential to monastic life, and there’s no denying that monks and nuns have had a great fondness for them through the centuries.  In the popular imagination they sat at their desks, first copying and then reading the books they’d crafted.  In the course of centuries they amassed the greatest libraries of their time, and small wonder that we gaze in awe at their work.  Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels still stir the imagination.  Likely, they always will.

The stereotype of the scholar-monk is useful, as far as it goes.  However, not everybody in a monastery was a scholar, and not a few of the non-scholars resented those who carved out time for books.  But before we canonize the academics as martyrs, it’s good to remind ourselves of the special challenges that they faced.  Chief among them, perhaps, was the temptation to private ownership.

photoSaint John Cassian wrote about “thoughts of things” — or better still, the “thoughts about the acquisition of things” — as one of the great distractions for everyone.  After food and sex, it ranked third on his ascending scale of “most frequent of daydreams.”  It should surprise no one that people in monasteries share the same sorts of thoughts as everyone else.  After all, despite what some may think, monks and nuns are people too.

And that brings me to the issue of books.  Given Saint Benedict’s caution about private ownership, you’d naturally assume that the library would eliminate the need for private books.  You’d be wrong.  For all sorts of very good reasons, monks have owned books, and they still do.  And I’m one of them.  But like anything else, too much of a good thing can come back to haunt you.  Just ask the monks who have lived in cells where the books became the monsters that took over their lives.

photoI speak from personal experience when it comes to owning too many books.  Through years of schooling and teaching, I amassed a respectable collection;  but the books finally began to assert themselves as master.  Then one day I awoke to the need to fight back.  I had lugged some of those books around for years, from one office and room to the next.  A few I had not touched since college.  Some were still boxed up from graduate school.  And each and every one of them had a countrpart in the library, three hundred yards away.  In a moment of insight, I realized I had no choice but to choose.  It was them or me, and one of us would have to cave in.  It was no longer a case of “love of learning.”  It had become a tyranny of things over my life.

I was reminded that others might share similar issues when I visited Malta recently, with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  The harbor at Valletta is a crossroads of the Mediterranean, and parked in one bay was the largest and grandest yacht any of us had ever seen.  Our guide pointed to it, and noted that the owner had two more, exact copies, parked elsewhere in the world.  Personally I would have opted for some variety if I had three yachts.  I would have made one a foot shorter, or color-coded them so I’d know where in the world I might be.   But maybe this guy had a thing about uniformity.  Regardless, I wondered whether it was the guy who owned the yachts, or whether the yachts had begun to own him.

photoMost of us won’t ever have the problem that comes from owning too many yachts, all of which are identical.  But we all have “thoughts of things” that run through our minds.  Some things are fun and frivilous; some are concessions to our place in a consumer society; and some are anxieties about our material future.  All are worth thinking about, but none are so important that we should allow them to take over our lives.

The tyranny of “things over people” has always been with us, but the struggle is especially intense for members of a consumer society.  When we define ourselves as economic units of consumption, then the amount we own is the measure of our greatness.  I gladly join with those who note we must consume things in order to live and thrive.  But when we value human beings in terms of what they own, or how much they buy, then we have gone into alien territory.  I would argue that you and I are far more important than the stuff we have stashed away in cupboards and garages and banks.  All those things have some value, but if they are what make us important, then life is not worth living.

photoFrom a Christian point of view, God did not give us life for the sole purpose of piling up more stuff.  Nor did God create us to think about acquisitions all day long.  Nor did God create us to be the servant of things.  Nor did God intend that we be consumed by anxieties about our material future.  All of that is easier said than done.  But God does not abandon us to wage our battle of interior wits alone.

As for me and my books, my battle is likely never to be finished.  It continues to be a work in progress, but in the last two years I’ve given an awful lot of them away.  And I’ve reclaimed for myself a major portion of my room.  But there have been surprises.  For one, I get to the library far more often than I used to.  I’ve since discovered that it has all sorts of wonderful books I’ve not met before.  And in a great irony, I’ve actually found more time for reading.  That suggests that I am actually using books as they should be, rather than they using me.

As for The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that’s one book I intend to keep.  It’s a reminder of what life in the monastery can be like.  I need to let that thought run through my mind a little more often than it has in the past.


+On May 18th I gave a retreat day to members of the Order of Malta, who gathered in Pasadena, CA, for the occasion.

+Following our pilgrimage to Lourdes, I and nine other members of the Order of Malta spent five days on the Island of Malta.  Located fifty miles south of Sicily and a hundred miles from Libya, it served as the home of the Order of Malta from 1530 to 1798, when Napoleon conquered the island.

It was the Emperor Charles V who gave Malta to the Knights, in return for an annual rent of one Maltese falcon.  In the course of time the Knights developed Malta into a giant fortress that protected its magnificant harbor.  So important was the British naval base there, that the Germans made it the target of their most intensive bombing campaign of World War II.

photoThe first thing to catch the eye are the massive fortifications and walls.  You’re tempted to think that there must be more stone blocks in Malta than any place on earth.  One of our party marvelled that there was any island left after they quarried all that stone.  The second thing one notes are the magnificent buildings that the knights left behind.  Included among them are what was the largest hospital in Europe in its day, the Grand Master’s Palace, and a great many buildings that serve as offices for the government of Malta today.

The pictures in today’s post come from the co-cathedral of Saint John, which was the main church of the knights.  It is now  a World Heritage site, and a glance at the floor tells why. Nearly every square inch is covered with the inlaid marble tombs of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s just breathtaking.

Read Full Post »