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Posts Tagged ‘Western Association of the Order of Malta’

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The Lord Can Help Us Repack

According to my appointment book, I’m supposed to fly to Lourdes this week.  Each year at this time members and volunteers in the Order of Malta converge on that southern French town, but this time around it is not to be.  The mere thought of bringing thousands of sick people to mingle with thousands of other pilgrims in a crowded town was simply too much to bear.  So for now the shrine is closed, and the disappointment is shared widely and keenly.

I too share in that sense of loss, but the cancellation has also triggered wonderful memories of pilgrimages past.  In particular, I’ve recalled the sermon I was privileged to deliver last year as members of the Western Association of Malta gathered for the sacrament of reconciliation.  I spoke that morning about memory and temptation and how they crop up for good and for ill in our daily routine.

9606BFE9-CCD1-4681-9D2C-D938D8F1511BI began with a reference to the ancient desert ascetics in Egypt, whose lives are replete with instances of spiritual endurance contests.  To untutored readers of our own time those stories can seem odd and even eccentric.  But we dismiss those tales at our peril.  The fact is, we are susceptible to the same temptations, though as always the devil fashions them to suit our particular weaknesses.

That morning I talked about baggage — both material and emotional.  As a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes I recall packing way more stuff than I needed.  The result was luggage bulging with things that became a burden to me.  That’s when I realized that we always need to pack with an eye to the point of it all.  Baggage is meant to serve us rather than the other way around.   So if it’s too much to haul around, then take less.

Then there is the baggage that we store  in the back of our minds.  The fact that we carry an inventory of hurts and slights and emotional ups and downs presents a special challenge.  We can tote those memories around for years, and sometimes they’re really hard to get rid of.  Saint Benedict alludes to this in his Rule, when he writes about nursing a grudge.  Left to run wild in our imagination, such memories can transform us into the sort of person we never hoped to become.

Not surprisingly, such memories surface in a place like Lourdes simply because it is a place of spiritual as well as physical healing.  That morning I urged people to take an inventory of the hurts that hobble them and to devise a strategy to leave behind as much of this mental baggage as was possible.  I recommended two things.

First was the sacrament of reconciliation, for which we had gathered.  I suggested that we leave our sins at the feet of the Lord and substitute for that burden the yoke of the Lord.  Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light.  So why not take him up on his offer?

E2DAAC34-F690-4001-9E52-D7DD9EC1A7D0Then I offered what is for me a playful yet quite deliberate approach to dealing with the hurts that bedevil us.  From experience I know that those memories can grip us, even in a place like Lourdes.  So my solution was practical.  As pilgrims enter the sacred precincts of Lourdes they cross a bridge over the River Gave.  It’s a fast-flowing current, and many a time it has overflowed its banks and done serious damage to the town and the shrine.  But like the waters of baptism it can effect tremendous change.  So that day I invited people to toss into the river their favorite grievances.  Then let the river carry them out to sea.  And they should keep doing it enough times until they can let go of that bit of emotional baggage completely.

I’ve reminded myself of this practice periodically, but it is especially useful now in a time of confinement and isolation.  That’s when the evil one stirs up the memories that cripple and burden us.  That’s when we need to recall the Lord’s promise to us all.  We don’t have to carry those awful burdens through life, because there is a strategy that brings healing.  As Saint Benedict suggests, we need to recognize the grudges and all the other stuff that stifles us, and then we need to deliberately excise those things from our minds.  Then we can take on the yoke of Christ, which really is easy and light.  It’s true, but we’ll never know until we let the Lord help to repack our bags.

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NOTES

+On April 20th I taught another class on monastic history  and tradition to our novice, Brother Felix.  This time I dealt with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in promoting the legacy of Saint Benedict.

+Among several things that did not happen during the past week was the blessing of the abbey organ.  It had been scheduled for April 26th, but we have moved that event  to the fall.  In at least one respect this delay turned out to be fortuitous, as Fr. Bob Koopmann confided to some of us last week.  When organ builder Martin Pasi returned to his workshop in Tacoma, WA, he discovered that he had left one pipe behind.  Until that pipe is installed the organ is not complete; but to my untrained ear it sounds pretty good already.  The organists in the abbey have been testing the organ since the Easter vigil, and it sounds spectacular without that one pipe.  But on the other hand, it’s not complete until that one pipe is there.  And so the organ becomes a metaphor for a community.

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Lent:  A Life-long Pilgrimage

I don’t suppose most people associate Lent with pilgrimage.  On the popular level the indulgence of Mardi Gras is the prelude to Lent.  Then, perhaps out of necessity, some set aside Ash Wednesday and sometimes a few extra days for heartfelt regret and recovery.  Then come the fasting and self-denial that are grist for a traditional Lenten observance.  Though much of this can be done from the comfort of a recliner, it’s best done actively, on our feet.  After all, spiritual exercises should have a physical expression about them as well.

Beyond that, there’s something to be said for linking our personal regimen for Lent with the itinerary of the ministry of Jesus.  For instance, on Ash Wednesday we can still vaguely make out the Nativity in our rear-view mirror.   That’s a reminder of the humanity that we share with Jesus, as are the passion and death of Jesus which end the Lenten season.  In between are the years that Jesus spent as a young man in Nazareth and as a teacher in Galilee.  Those were formative years for him, and in that interval he grew in age and wisdom.  But they were also the years when Jesus came to terms with the mission that his Father had bestowed on him.

7DA89B51-8E48-40F9-9CF3-14F0B07020D8Geography obviously played a key role in the life of Jesus.  He was born in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem.  But it was in the north, in the lower elevations of Nazareth and Galilee and the Jordan River Valley where Jesus came to terms with his relationship with his Father.  And from there he eventually went up to the high places of Jerusalem to fulfill his ministry.

The life of Jesus points to something fundamental for us all.  Like Jesus, we are not called to live a static existence.  Like Jesus, we should grow and mature.  Like Jesus, we should deepen our human relationships.  Like Jesus, we should become ever more aware of our talents, of our capacity to be generous and make sacrifices for the sake of others, and of our ability to be supportive of one another.  And we should do this for a very specific reason.  Jesus invites us to continued growth so that we might use our hands to do his work and open our hearts to share his love.  All that requires movement on our part.

Lent then is not a time to sit still.  Lent instead is a time to reflect on the pilgrimage of Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Galilee and finally to Jerusalem.  It’s a pilgrimage on which Jesus invites us to join with him.  And along the ascent from our own Galilee to our own Jerusalem Jesus promises to walk with us.  That certainly is a pilgrimage worth considering, especially since it lasts a lifetime.

74A6E597-36E2-4CC8-B982-AD3667B9F63ANOTES

+This was a momentous week for us in the monastery.  On Friday the 21st the new pipe organ accompanied our singing at evening prayer for the first time.  Then on Sunday the 23rd Fr. Bob played the organ at Mass, and Fr. Anthony played at vespers.  Not all of the new pipes have been tuned, but the additional 3,000 pipes show great promise.  Meanwhile, this Wednesday the electronic organ that has kept us company for many months will return to the organ studio from which we had rented it.  Despite its obvious differences from a pipe organ, that electronic organ had the capacity to produce some really interesting sounds.  For better and for worse all of our abbey organists resisted the temptation to produce music suitable for a hockey rink.  It might have been fun.

+On Saturday February 22nd I gave a presentation on the history and mission of the Order of Malta to provisional members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat day took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+In March of 2019 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, and the photos in today’s post derive from that experience.  At top is the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Below that is the basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a structure that blends the old and new.  The next photo shows the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, the city where Jesus lived during much of his ministry.  It was in the earlier version of this synagogue where Jesus taught and preached.  At bottom is the tomb of Jesus in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

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The Legacy of Saint John the Baptist

Normally I’m a great believer that each saint deserves a feast day, but one day per saint should be more than enough.  More than one is superfluous, and it could even stir up dormant egos.  After all, saints were once sinners, and who am I to say they aren’t ever tempted to look back whistfully on their golden years as sinners?

Still, I’m willing to grant exceptions.  Take Saint Benedict, for instance.  On July 11th we Benedictines will celebrate his feast.  But come March 21st we’ll celebrate it again, just in case we missed it the first time.  The same is true for John the Baptist, whom we celebrate on June 25th and again later this summer on August 29th.  Generally I’m happy with that arrangement because of the character of his message and the humility that he wore on his sleeve.  Most everyone could use a little more of the latter every now and again, at least I believe.

5691B404-9353-48C5-8D1E-6C20EF795EC8This last weekend, however, I came close to getting a surfeit of John the Baptist.  On Friday the 22nd I celebrated that feast with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, who had gathered in Oakland to invest new members.  Since officially it is The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, John the Baptist’s feast is an appropriate day on which to welcome new members.  It’s why the Association long ago settled on the Friday closest to that feast for this annual gathering.

Then on Sunday the 24th we monks celebrated the same feast of Saint John.  Ours is the Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, so we legitimately celebrate both of his feasts with spirit.  But to do it twice in one weekend and then again in August may test my limits.

John figures prominently in the Christian story because he stands firmly rooted in Jewish tradition and also reaches out to Jesus.  That’s clearly seen when he urges people to return to an authentic Jewish observance.  Then, in the same breath, he describes Jesus as “the lamb of God.”  Of Jesus John said:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  That to my mind is a remarkable expression of humility — but it needs a bit of clarification.

First, John the Baptist was no doormat, and he was fearless in his preaching.  But, despite the long shadow of Jesus, he knew that his life still mattered.  He had not come to play second fiddle to Jesus’ first violin.  Rather, his life had great value because he would shape the message that Jesus would carry even further.

61431057-3D50-4B77-AA6C-A5FB0F53EE55When John pointed to Jesus he didn’t yield up his sense of self-esteem, nor did he see himself destined to become a bit player as Jesus became the star.  In fact, the ministry of Jesus accented the dignity John had as the last of the prophets.

Every now and again we may be tempted to believe that becoming Christian means losing ourselves and so be swallowed up in Jesus.  In fact, Jesus did not come to smother us or make us into clones of some Christian ideal.  As Christians we check neither our personality nor our brains at the door of the church.  Rather, we take the spiritual vitality that Jesus offers to each of us and integrate it into lives in which we make the most of all that the Lord has given us.

So it is that as Christians we overlay onto our talents and qualities the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s what John the Baptist has in mind when he encourages us to let Jesus increase within us.  As Jesus increases, our individuality doesn’t fade away.  Rather, we flourish as the Lord brings out the best in us.

That, it seems to me, is a portion of the legacy of John the Baptist that we ought to celebrate regularly — not only twice a year, but even, on rare occasions,  twice in a weekend.

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NOTES

+On June 20th I made a short trip to the Bay Area, primarily to participate in the annual investiture ceremony for new members of the Order of Malta, which took place in Oakland on the 22nd.  Among the new members was Saint John’s alumnus and friend Steve Nelson, who lives in Scottsdale, AZ.

On the 20th I attended a reception, at which I blessed the new mobile clinic that will work out of the Malta free clinic that the Order operates in Oakland.  It’s big and bright and red, with the Malta logo on it.  If you see it tooling around the Bay Area, you can’t miss it.

+On June 23rd I attended alumni reunions at Saint John’s University.  We were blessed with lovely weather, which continued on into the next day.  In the course of the day I had lunch with the alumni who were celebrating their 60th anniversary since graduation, and dinner with those celebrating their 55th year.

4B625F49-2F03-4267-9461-594AB205A7A2+You never know when the opportunity to do a good deed will come along, and that was certainly the case on Saturday.  I was driving to the reunion luncheon, which was at the University president’s home, a mile from campus.  As I passed one home along the way, my eye caught a glimpse of what I thought was a bar-b-que grill going full blast in someone’s garage.  After a few seconds I asked myself who in the world would run an open flame in their garage.  And then the answer came:  “No one!”  So I backed up, turned up the drive to their home, only to discover a roaring fire in their garage.  So I laid on the horn until someone poked his head out the front door to ask what I wanted.  I casually noted that his garage was on fire.  As he glanced at the garage his irritation turned to horror.  His big tractor-mower was ablaze and threatening the entire structure.  He managed to pull it out of the garage, and I managed to get a dramatic photo, which I’ve included in this post.  Since my work was done, I turned around and drove off to lunch.

+The photo at top shows a 19th-century tower from the monastery, and if you look carefully at the arched glass window you will see the small perch where a statue of John the Baptist stood for decades.  Then the new wing to the monastery was built in 1954.  Instead of greeting visitors to the door of the monastery, however, John instead looked out over a roof.  So we brought him down to earth, and now he stands in the monastic garden, ruefully pointing up to the perch where he used to be.  The second photo is that terra cotta statue.  Below that is a copy of the tapestry of John the Baptist, which hangs in the cathedral in Los Angeles.  This copy hangs in our guest house, where it greets visitors.   For the feast we brought it to the sanctuary of the church.  At bottom are two photos of a small garden outside a side entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s.

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