Posts Tagged ‘Westminster Cathedral’

IMG_1830The Stones Do Speak

My first visit to the medieval abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire had an element of the forbidden about it.  It was cold;  heavy mist blanketed the landscape;  and here and there patches of green grass poked through the snow.  What made it an especially delicious moment, however, was the fact that the place was closed.  It was December 26th — Boxing Day — the holiday on which the English gentry used to bestow gifts on their servants.

Given that there was no one to collect the £1 entry fee, Brother Dietrich and I did what any monks who had come 4,000 miles would do.  We climbed over the fence and made ourselves at home.  For over an hour we had the vast ruin to ourselves.  Then an English family drove up and climbed over the fence.  By then we were more than glad to share the haunting beauty of the place, and so we all exchanged greetings, in lieu of gifts.

IMG_1844For years I’ve wanted to return, and last week I finally had the chance.  Happily, the times have been kind to the abbey, and today a small visitors’ center and cafe welcome guests.  Even better, there are restrooms.  Unfortunately the admission fee has shot up to £8, but it’s definitely worth the price to see one of the most impressive monastic ruins in all of England.

Cistercian monks from Burgundy founded Rievaulx in 1132, and its most famous monk, Aelred, presided as abbot from 1147 until his death in 1167.  By his time nearly 600 monks and lay-brothers called it home, but by the 1530s it had shrunk to a more realistic twenty-five monks and no lay-brothers.

IMG_1846As the site guide today states quite emphatically, it was a spiritually sound if not large community when Henry VIII booted everyone off of the property in 1538.  He commandeered  the lead roof for himself, to be turned into bullets and cannons, I presume;  and the rest he awarded to a shrewd neighbor.  The latter in turn promptly stripped it of every scrap that could be carted off and sold.  Today not a lot remains except for the pillars of the church and the foundation stones, but what is still there is due largely to the preservation efforts of people like William Wordsworth and his fellows in the Romantic movement.  Fortunately, an inspired owner rescued and landscaped what still stood, and today visitors savor the gardens that frame the buildings.

What goes through the mind of a 21st-century monk as he meditates on a once-thriving community?  For one thing, I can’t help but be impressed by the dynamism of the monks who built such a fantastic place and for 400  years worked and prayed daily in it.  Like many others I also ponder the many misdeeds of Henry VIII, whose life began with such promise and ended in such personal disappointment.  Then there’s the practical side of me that calculates what it might cost had such a complex survived intact.  To maintain such a pile today would be an insurmountable financial burden — one that no monastic community could possibly manage on its own.

IMG_1856Beyond that, I appreciate the enduring attraction of a site that draws even more visitors now than it did in Abbot Aelred’s day.  Therein is an obvious irony.  The enterprising individual who wrecked the place and sold the stones in the local market would be surprised to learn that he’s only remembered for his act of vandalism.   Whatever he did with the proceeds of the sale matters little today, while the stunning ruins he left behind preach a message far more powerful than his commercial ventures.  The walls proclaim that for hundreds of years men gathered in that place to seek God.  They led sometimes challenging and yet beautiful lives.  Those walls also invite thoughtful visitors to consider the direction of their own lives.  To what purpose or mission have we visitors committed ourselves?  Ironically, the stones ask these questions on behalf of generations of monks, and they do so eloquently.

In sum, I’m grateful for the witness of these monks.  If today their home stands ruined, there’s consolation in that as well.  They lived for God and not for the walls.  Wonderfully, the walls remind us of that too.

In the end we have to wonder who it is who is more creative in life.  Are they the ones who build up or the ones who tear down?  Are they those who live solely for themselves or those who try their best to serve their neighbor and the generations yet to come?  It may be a stretch to imagine that the monks of Rievaulx meant to speak to us in the 21st century, and yet their message  has lost little of its urgency though the centuries.  Theirs is a witness well worth pondering.


+For most of last week I was in England, to be present as Donald Jackson, the scribe for The Saint John’s Bible, received a papal knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Cardinal Vincent Nichols presided at the ceremony, which took place at Westminster Cathedral in London on June 15th.  Present for the occasion were nearly 170 guests and friends of Donald Jackson and Saint John’s.  Among the latter were a group of twenty-five alumni who had flown from Minnesota, as well as a small group of friends of the Bible who had come from New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Sydney.   Also in attendance was Bishop Nicholas Holtam, the Anglican bishop of Salisbury, who is a long-time friend of Saint John’s, and Abbot Geoffrey of the Benedictine abbey of Douai, located near London.  On the previous evening we held a reception at the Church of Saint Martin in-the-Fields, at which Donald Jackson gave a lecture on his experience in creating the Bible.  Saint Martin happens to own a set of the Heritage Edition, which is on permanent display in the educational center.

IMG_1873+During the two days preceding these events Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and I led a group of 25 on visits to Greenwich, downriver from the center of London, and to Hampton Court.  The latter has always been one of my favorite places in the world, because it is two palaces in one.  The Tudor portion dates to the time of Henry VIII, while the other half is the creation of Sir Christopher Wren.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the abbey of Rievaulx, which I visited on June 16th. In that area of Yorkshire there were three monumental Cistercian abbeys whose ruins survive today.  Fountains Abbey, which I visited many years ago, arguably is just as impressive as Rievaulx;  and Bylands is equally large in scope.

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IMG_0038The Stirrings of the Spirit

This fall marks twenty years since we at Saint John’s began discussion about The Saint John’s Bible.  At first it didn’t seem like such a promising idea, and while I liked the concept, I expected that little would come of it.  For starters, it was both ambitious and a little outlandish.  And so, with not a little skepticism, I finally presented the idea to the powers that were, and to my utter amazement we decided to commission the scribe, Donald Jackson, to do it.

A lot has happened in the course of nearly twenty years.  The Bible has been made.  It continues to go on exhibition across the country.  The Apostles and Heritage Editions rest in libraries and museums and universities from Rome to Sydney and points in between.  And by every measure it’s been both an artistic achievement and a spiritual inspiration.  In short, it’s accomplished most everything for which we hoped, and then some.

IMG_9895This Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral in London Cardinal Vincent Nichols will confer on Donald Jackson the papal honor of Knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Such honors come to those who make a singular contribution to the life of the Church, and this has certainly been the case with Mr. Jackson.  He created something that had not been undertaken in nearly 500 years; and if this work was not inspired in the sense that the scriptures were inspired, I dare say that the Holy Spirit stirred within his imagination all the same. For that stirring of the Spirit we mortals are indebted to artists, composers, musicians and the like.  After all, they have had the courage to welcome the Spirit, whether gladly or reluctantly.

In any such project there is a great deal that gets learned, and we absorbed a great deal from making The Saint John’s Bible.  First we discovered some of the reasons why no major institution has bothered to do this in nearly 500 years.  We’ve also found that the very idea struck many as ridiculous or wasteful or irrelevant to modern life.  But balancing all his was the appreciation of how art can inspire and move people.

IMG_9906I’d like to think that the broader strokes are what we’ve come to appreciate most.  First of all, economics have been and continue to be an important factor in deciding whether to do something.  This is rightly so, but economics can never be the sole determinant about what is important in life.  Some activities will never make money, and chief among them are art and music.  The same holds true for good conversation, friendship, love and prayer.  Few if any of these things yield a financial return on the investment of time and energy or even money, but they all give joy and meaning to life.

I’ve taken great solace in the habit of Pope Benedict XVI, who  for years has played Mozart at the piano before retiring for the evening.  In his tenure as pope he had to be one of the busiest guys on the planet.  Yet, evening after evening, he set aside time for this one item.  Wouldn’t it have been better to play a CD or get in an extra thirty minutes at the desk?  Perhaps; but he thought not.

In the course of public exhibitions of The Saint John’s Bible I’ve seen people pore over the folios, giving every indication that they were somehow communing with these texts.  To those who studied, the pages mattered in some religious or even emotional way.  That explains why some people have smiled, and on a few occasions a few have even shed tears.  For a variety of reasons people have taken something with them after poring over verses and images.  That little bit of inspiration that Mr. Jackson and his team have shared with others justifies the entire enterprise.

That should serve as encouragement to any people who give of themselves to others.  We never know what, if any, impact our generosity of time or energy or spirit will have on others.  But of one thing we have to wonder.  If we don’t do the giving, then how can we be sure that the Spirit will stir?


IMG_0059+In my last post I noted that I had attended the recent dinner in honor of the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, hosted by members of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.  I  neglected to note that, because of the crowd, I was unable to meet him.  You can imagine my surprise last week as I sat at breakfast in the abbey refectory.  I happened to glance up from my shredded wheat, and there was Archbishop Hebda, preparing a bowl of cereal for himself.  The previous evening he had come to Saint John’s to meet a priest-friend who was staying in the guesthouse.  The next morning the archbishop joined the monks for prayer and breakfast in the refectory, and I finally got to meet him, over a bowl of cereal.

IMG_9927+On June 10th I arrived in London to attend the investiture of Donald Jackson as a member of the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Among other reasons, this was a good weekend to be in London, since there were three days of festivities to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.  On Saturday there was the trooping of the colors, but another activity went on for three days.  In her honor the horse guards took their steeds out of their stalls, and for the duration they trotted around the city pooping all over everything while adoring crowds applauded.  It’s a local thing and not quite my cup of tea.  But it makes them all happy, as long as they don’t step in it.

+Save for the papal letter that confers the Order of Pope Gregory the Great, the photos in today’s post show Westminster Cathedral in London.  Begun in the 19th century, the interior of the cathedral remains unfinished, and someday mosaics will fill in the darker recesses of the cathedral.  Included is a mosaic of Pope Gregory the Great and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, whom the pope sent to evangelize the Angles and Saxons in 590.

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IMG_9894Forty Days — Are They Enough?

To begin Lent with the gospel story from Luke 4 that recounts the story of Jesus fasting in the desert seems at first glance to be entirely appropriate.  In one swipe the forty days that Jesus spent there recall the forty years that the Hebrews wandered in the desert.  By extension both of those narratives are symbolic of the lifelong pilgrimage that all of us make.  Sometimes we know where we’re going, and sometimes not.  But like the Hebrews and Jesus, we need time to figure ourselves out, and we are never the same people by the end of the journey.  We are purified and wiser people.

The appearance of the devil in the mix, however, is jarring.  He’s brazen and almost overconfident in offering three temptations to Jesus, but he thinks he knows his target well.  He too knew that Jesus was growing in age and wisdom.  He also knew that Jesus had not yet come to terms with the Father’s will for him.  Over that issue Jesus will later sweat bullets when he prayed that the cup might pass from him.

IMG_9950What Jesus demonstrates in his response to the devil is his own growing awareness that he had not come to do magic feats that would bedazzle people into believing.  He would not force people into unquestioned loyalty, because belief is a free act of faith.  He had not come to  overwhelm people with his power; rather he came to whisper into their souls and to show himself in the faces of their neighbors.

At the conclusion of this passage Saint Luke notes that the devil left Jesus, “for a while.”  In fact, he disappears into some of the possessed people that Jesus will encounter.  But he planned a comeback, and he reserved his finest effort for when he revisited Jesus in the Garden.  There he tried to persuade Jesus that it didn’t have to end this way.  In fact, everything could be so different.

Two things strike me about this passage.  First of all, never for a minute does Jesus try to muscle his way into our lives.  Jesus never commandeers our free will.  He loves us, and as a loving messiah he never drags us kicking and screaming to salvation.  Rather he teases us with little signs and small epiphanies.  These remind us that there is another dimension to our lives that can be easy to miss.  But even if we miss it, it’s still there.

IMG_9949The second point is this.  While I’ve not asked our colleagues in the animal world, it strikes me that we human beings may be the only creatures who search for meaning and a mission.  Every now and again we question why we are here, and to the extent we can formulate any sort of answer that touches on eternity, we’ve begun to have a glimpse into the divine.

Lent is a reminder that life is a journey and a voyage of discovery.  We reach back to the Hebrews in the desert and recall the point of their wanderings.  They were not out there for forty years because all the men were too proud to ask directions.  They were there because that’s how long it took for them to come to terms with their mission as God’s chosen people.

IMG_9933The sojourn of Jesus in the desert wasn’t quite as dramatic as all that, but when his forty days were up he was ready to begin his public ministry.  And his ministry was not a matter of dragooning his apostles and us into following him.   Rather, it was a matter of invitation, as he asked people to open their eyes and ears to what was going on around them.

That’s the point of our forty-day journey of Lent.  If along the way questions turn up that trouble us or things that stir our doubts, it’s good to realize that that’s the point of the journey.  Out of doubt comes faith.  Out of questions come insights.  Out of struggle comes wisdom.  That’s maybe why some of us need forty days to figure out some of this.  And if you happen to need a few more days to discover the plan that Jesus has for your life, I’m sure he’ll give you an extension.


+On February 10th I again taught a class in monastic history to our novice.

+On February 11th I attended a meeting in San Jose, CA, to help in the planning of the vigil and investiture services of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, which will take place in June.  The vigil will be at the Mission Santa Clara, which is on the campus of Santa Clara University.  The investiture will be at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral.  Later that evening I had dinner with an alumnus of Saint John’s who has been on the faculty  of Bellarmine Jesuit High School in San Jose, for fifty years.  (Not a typo.)

IMG_9912+Last week Fr. Geoffrey and Abbot John began a trip to Cuba, with a group of friends of the Abbey.  Escorting that trip is an alumna of our Prep School who is now a specialist in Latin American history.  She teaches at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and has become a noted expert on Cuba and its culture.

+From childhood I grew to enjoy the stations of the cross and in recent years have grown fascinated with the artistic expressions of this devotion.  The stations were meant to be a mental pilgrimage, aimed specifically at those who could not go to Jerusalem.  In today’s post I have pictures from a set at Westminster Cathedral in London, and they were made by the noted sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill.  It is among my favorite sets.

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imageA Thanksgiving Reflection

Several years ago I had the occasion to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  It just so happened that Cardinal O’Connor was the celebrant, and I’d never heard him speak before.  By then he had earned a reputation for being gruff and straightforward, and so I was curious to know what might be his next target for some sharp words.

For the life of me I no longer recall the theme of his sermon.  I’m sure he had one, but it’s not what anyone talked about afterward.  What we did remember was the baby who screamed and cried as soon as the cardinal had climbed into the pulpit to preach.  The crying was awful.  Actually, it was worse than awful.  The cries that echoed through the vast expanse of the cathedral were excruciating.  They plucked at everyone’s nerves, and we all sat there paralyzed, wondering when someone would finally do something about it.  And most of all, we wondered what the cardinal would do about it.

imageCardinal O’Connor tried his best to ignore the screaming, but he finally had to throw in the towel.  In mid-sentence he just stopped, looked up from his notes, and glared out across the congregation.  I held my breath, half-expecting him to lash out at the ushers to demand that they do something.  But to our stunned surprise, the cardinal surrendered to the obvious.  “I’m sure by now everyone’s listening to that baby more than to me,” he said.  “But isn’t that child what this is really all about?  And I have to tell you in all honesty, I’ve heard worse comments about my sermons before this.  So let’s just be grateful for the presence of this innocent life in our midst, even if it’s not what we came here to hear.”

His words cut through the tension, and they brought down the house.  Laughter and applause filled the church, and that’s all that I can remember from our hour of worship together that Sunday morning.

imageOn Thanksgiving Day it’s quite natural for us to consider all the things for which we should be grateful.  All the same, I think there is often the temptation to focus on the material and to thank God for a life in which everything seems to be going our way.  We have enough to eat; we have adequate housing; we have people in our lives for whom we care and who care about us.  We are safe; we are educated; and our lives seem reasonably predictable.  In short, we feel content because of a life that is blessedly bourgeois, and for that lack of danger and challenge we give thanks.

That attitude comes awfully close to turning Thanksgiving into a feast that is all about us.  In the tradition of lifting ourselves up by the bootstraps, in the first breath we can thank God for the talents God has give us, and in the next breath pat ourselves on the back for the way we’ve used them so well.  God may have blessed us to start with, but we’ve relied on our own initiative to take it from there.

We can also run the risk of reducing Thanksgiving and our very lives to a material interpretation  We are what we have, and we have because we’ve worked hard and earned it all by ourselves.  But before we congratulate ourselves for our own initiative, it’s important to take a proper inventory of all of our blessings.

For starters, none of us willed ourselves into being.  Our parents gave us life, and they nurtured us.  We live in houses that other people built.  Most of us eat food that other people grew; we wear clothes that other people made; we studied in schools that other people started; and we work in companies that other people got going.

imageBut that’s just the material side of things, and our list of debts to others can never end there.  More than anything else we ought to be grateful that people expect significant things from us.  We should be thankful that people challenge us and ask the best of us.  We should not be stunned that people would expect to see the face of Christ in us.  In short, we should be most thankful that people ask us to keep growing, even though there are plenty of times when we’d rather stop and count our blessings and be done with it.

On Thanksgiving Day there’s lots to be thankful for; but perhaps most of all we should be grateful that people keep reminding us of all that’s left for us to do.  There’s much growth that remains ahead of us.  There’s growth that will stretch and challenge us.

Saint Benedict reminds us that wisdom comes to us from a variety of sources, and sometimes even from the youngest and least-expected people in our midst.  Many years ago, in the middle of a sermon, Cardinal O’Connor had to come to terms with that, and he used the youngest person in the crowd as an occasion to give thanks for the strange ways in which God appears in our lives.  It strikes me that the greatest gift we have from God is the gift of brothers and sisters who nudge us out of complacency; who push us to further growth; who remind us every now and again that God creates us all to be gifts to one another.  There are no greater gifts to be thankful for.


+On Monday November 16 I spoke to about a hundred members of the staff and faculty of Saint John’s University in a talk on “Building Community — One Person at a Time.”  It was sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at Saint John’s.

+Last week I flew to London for a meeting, and fortunately I had some time afterward to visit a few favorite spots.  Among them was Westminster Cathedral, where I attended Mass on Sunday.  The cathedral’s choir of men and boys is over the top great, and it has dozens of cd’s to its credit.  Westminster is also the resting place of Cardinal Basil Hume, the abbot of Ampleforth who later because archbishop.  He was in every respect an extraordinary man.

Westminster Cathedral is a rather odd building, with a nod to the Byzantine and a touch of the modern.  It was built at the turn of the century, and it remains half-completed.  If you want to see a cross-section of what a classical Roman building was like, this is the place to go.  The lower half of the church is faced with colorful marble, while the upper portion is the original red brick.  Among my favorite elements in the building are the Stations of the Cross, done by the revered calligrapher and designer Eric Gill.

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