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Posts Tagged ‘Yale University’

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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img_0130Behold, He Speaks Our Language Too

I’ve always been in awe of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes.  The same goes for his invitation to consider the lilies of the field and to remember that we are worth more than sparrows.  Then it suddenly hit me.  Did Jesus always talk like that?  Did he speak in elegant turns of phrase when he was a kid at home with Joseph and Mary?  Did he always declaim like a Shakespearean actor when he was hanging out with the disciples?  Probably not.

I’m not sure why this issue popped into my head, but I know exactly when it did.  Last week, as I was preparing a homily on a text from the gospel of Luke, it all of a sudden hit me.  Some Pharisees had warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him, and Jesus for just a moment let down his guard and called Herod a fox — as in “go tell that fox….”  Thankfully Jesus regained his composure before saying anything salty, and that was that.  Why Luke decided to include this in his text I can’t be sure.  But I’m glad he did.

Whatever else may have been going through the mind of Jesus at the time, there seems to be here a hint of grudging respect for Herod.  Herod was nobody’s idea of a good guy, but Jesus did spot in him a singlemindedness of purpose.  Herod knew what he wanted, and he would stop at nothing to get it.  Herod was a suitable opponent in the eyes of Jesus, even if Herod would never win.

img_0129Jesus was just as singleminded, and that was Luke’s point.  He had come to do the will of his Father, and by now there was no going back.  It meant going up to Jerusalem, where he would get a mixed reception.  He would preach, he would be tested, and he would die.  By now Jesus had accepted the consequences of his mission, as his agony in the garden would later show.  He was committed, and nothing or no one would deter him — including a fox like Herod.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus showed a grudging respect for those who were knowledgeable in the ways of the world.  In one parable he spoke of an unethical steward who was not above forgiving those in debt to his master — in hopes of buying grace for himself.  He also cited those who rushed to the seats of honor at banquets.  That was sometimes unwise, but at least they too were willing to risk something (including embarrassment), because the rewards could justify it.  Common to all of these people was the grim determination to claw their way to the top, no matter the price.  That singleminded quest was something that Jesus could admire, even if the goals were unworthy.  So it was that he urged his disciples to be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves — which I’ve always thought to be a rather odd combination.

img_0131What in the world is Jesus thinking here?  It seems to me that what really irks Jesus are wishy-washy people who hesitate to risk anything at all.  The fence-sitters who take no chances go through life with few if any bruises, but they also have little or nothing to show for their minimal investment.  They live on the naive assumption that sitting on the sidelines is always the wisest course, never quite realizing that life is not a spectator sport.

Jesus wants more from anyone who would be his disciple.  Just as his Father asked of him the supreme sacrifice, so he asked his disciples to go to the ends of the earth.  He acted;  they acted;  and he expects us to act as well.  He suffered;  his disciples suffered;  and so his followers should realize that success doesn’t always come delivered on a silver platter.  The achievement of anything of consequence requires risk, but such is the reward of a life well-lived.

And why did Jesus let slip some pedestrian language every now and again?  I think Luke included it just to remind his readers that Jesus speaks our language too.  It’s nice to orate in high-minded phrases, but when push comes to shove, Jesus is more than ready to talk our talk.  He’s ready to be blunt;  he’s capable of using slang;  and he’s more than happy to chatter away in the language of our choosing.  That’s what he came to do.

img_0134Notes

+From 25 through 30 October I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  As has been the custom, the retreat took place at San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, CA, and I have included several photos of the site in today’s post.  It’s located high on a hill (or small mountain) with amazing views.  It is run by the Franciscans, who are always good hosts.  Coincidentally I discovered from our junior monk, Brother Aidan, that he had once lived and gone to high school in Danville.

This year we used as the focus for our discussions a book by Sherry A. Weddell, entitled Forming Intentional Disciples.  A friend of mine from Minneapolis had recommended it to me, and it turned out to be surprisingly stimulating for discussion.  It has the virtue of being written in clear and energetic language; and it’s not overly long, for those who worry about such things.

img_0133On Sunday the 30th our newest member in the Subpriory, Jon Rewinski, made his promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  Jon and his family now live in Los Angeles, but we first met ages ago when we were both students at Yale.  It’s been nice to renew on the west coast a friendship that began on the east coast.

+I and many others were naturally saddened by the recent earthquake in Umbria in Italy, and especially because it destroyed the basilica of the Abbey of Norcia.  The monastery is on the site where tradition says that Saint Benedict was born, and I have taken groups to visit there twice.  I also count one of the monks as a friend.  On the plus side, the monks had vacated the site after the earthquake in August had weakened the structure.  But this tremor finished off the 14th-century church, and now only the facade remains.  I’m not sure to where the monks will relocate, but at least they are all safe.

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IMG_3035The Parable of the Talents

We all come into this world with a basketful of talents.  No one develops them all.  A few develop many.  Many develop a few.  And a few manage to ignore theirs altogether.

In my mind that’s the gist of what Jesus had to say in the parable of the talents.  At the very least his words are a challenge to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.  On another level they serve as a reminder that we each have more resources than we can possibly use, and some remain fallow or go unnoticed.  But for virtually all of us the parable is a call to keep on growing, even in our years of decline.

That’s the conventional interpretation that I’ve always taken with this parable, but the first time I realized that it was capable of a good stretch was when I was in graduate school.  For three years I had the good fortune to be in residence at St. Thomas More Chapel, the Catholic Center at Yale;  and with that residence came a regular turn in the Sunday pulpit.  For the first year this was an unnerving experience, and the presence of my dissertation director in one of the front pews was intimidating, to say the least.  With him and a brain-trust of faculty mixed among the students, the pressure was intense, even if it was largely self-imposed.

IMG_3032Eventually I realized that they were there to learn something rather than to grade my performance.  That came as a relief, especially when it led to pleasant conversation after Mass.  That’s also when I began to realize that the comments they offered weren’t meant to question my competence as a preacher.  They merely sought to open a conversation that could benefit us all.

One Sunday this gospel about the talents came up, and I gave the conventional reflection.  Afterward a distinguished member of the law faculty thanked me for it, and then he shared what he had drawn from the parable years earlier.  Unlike me, he had not identified himself with the servants.  Instead, he found himself standing in God’s shoes.  His insight had come to him when a student had turned in a perfectly respectable essay exam, and he had given it a “C.”  Upset, the student asked what he’d done to deserve such a mediocre mark.  His reply was genial and succinct, and he echoed what the master had said in the parable.  “Your paper is fine, and in fact it reflects the ideas I presented class.  But that’s exactly the trouble.  All you did was give back to me what I had given to you.  You put nothing of  yourself in the paper, and you didn’t challenge me.  I learned nothing, except that you have a good memory.  That’s what this ‘C’ recognizes.”

IMG_3010From that I learned one fundamental truth about education.  It’s purpose is not to create clones of the teacher.  It’s goal is not to create disciples who can parrot everything they’ve heard.  Rather, real education occurs when knowledge touches the life of a person and growth takes place.  That synthesis takes work, and it may even take a long time.  But that’s what produces a thoughtful and wonderful human being.

All that has proven to be good grist for my own spiritual mill, and I reflect on it at the start of every school year.  It’s a nugget of wisdom that I share with any student who is willing to listen, but mainly it’s something I turn over in my own mind — for my own benefit.

IMG_3015Saint Benedict called the monastery a school of the Lord’s service.  That said, he never thought of the life of a monk as one long stint of rote memorization.  Rather, it’s a lifetime of conversation with God in which we listen and apply the insights to those many talents that we’ve stored away, as yet unused.

Like a teacher who hopes to learn at least something from a student, God expects us to mull over what he has to say, and God hopes we grow from the experience.  God is not particularly interested in creating 6+ billion clones of himself.  Rather, God expects each one of us to make the most of the basket of talents that comes our way.

That, it seems to me, is good advice for any student at the start of the school  year.  Even better, it’s inspiration for all of us who are enrolled in life-long learning in the school of the Lord’s service.

IMG_3026Notes

+Last week the students returned for the new school year at Saint John’s University.  For the freshmen it was a time of orientation, while for returning students there were picnics and all sorts of other social activities.  Gone is summer’s peace and quiet.  But in its place has come energy and enthusiasm.

+On August 26th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Martin Rath.  In his many years as a monk he served in several capacities, but notably was the post-master for the U.S. Post Office in Collegeville, MN.  At age 57 he was ordained, and then he served in parishes and chaplaincies.  He lived a long and full and happy life.

+On August 26th the incoming freshmen at Saint John’s joined us for evening prayer, after which they broke into small groups and spent time meeting with individual monks.

IMG_3058+On August 27th Frs. Ian, Nick Kleespie and Michael Peterson concelebrated Mass in Baldwin Park, at the edge of Lake Sagatagan.  Some 1,000 students attended.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate some of the student activities as they prepared for the new school year.   The last picture is of Baldwin Park, where 1,000 gathered for Mass on Saturday evening.  By Sunday evening, when I took this photo, only three people remained.

 

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