Saturday, September 30, 2006

Friday Night in the Big Town

It's Homecoming at St. John's this weekend and red is everywhere. Some 12,000-13,000 spectators are expected at this afternoon's football game and people are carefully guarding their parking spaces. The colors have peaked--all too quickly, it seems to me. One day we were at about 25% color and, the next thing you knew, voila--there was color everywhere. The quick onset of cool weather probably adds to this--something quite different than the slow descent into cooler temperatures at home in southern Illinois. But even that is subject to change. A rather odd jump in temperatures is predicted for the next few days, swelling us to eighty-degrees fahrenheit by Monday.

As the week came to an end, we hard-working sabbaticants decided to head for the Farrmers' Market which is open late Friday afternoon. The number and variety of vegetables has sharply declined (though the Yak meat and jerkey is still available!). Potatoes, mushrooms, and a few tomatoes are still available, but the honey and maple syrup vendors have replaced most of the greens that lined the tables just a few weeks ago. Fortunately, bakers do their work twelve months a year and the sourdough I love so much (not to mention those delectable croissants) continue to be hawked to the small throng that swells in front of that irresistable table lined with enough carbohydrates to sink a battle ship.

The highlight of the evening, however, was an evening of choral and instrumental music hosted by the various school music groups: the Abbey Schola, Brass Ensemble, Campus Singers, Chamber Choir, and Men's Chorus, along with the Amadeus Chamber Symphony. The biggest difference between a St. John's concert and a Greenville production is the minimalist approach taken to amplification. The only microphones I saw were several radio mikes in the center aisle in order to broadcast, I suppose, the concert. At Greenville, I am always concerned that someone is going to be injured or killed by a speaker avalanche or that blood will coming pouring out of our ears because of enough decibels to drown out a 747 jet. The exception, of course, is when Dr. Wilson and the A Capella Choir sing. Then I can truly relax and enjoy.

The evening was framed by two Ralph Vaughan Williams' sing-a-long numbers: "For All the Saints (all eight verses!) and "All People that on Earth do Dwell" (set to the familiar "Old Hundredth" tune). There was an unusual Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) concerto that featured Kim Kasling pulling out all the stops on the organ and several nice pieces by the Brass Ensemble (kudos to Dale White for his work with these young people). I found the most moving to be an elegy by Robert Washburn (1928- ) that allowed the strings to sing. It was filled with subtle passion and allowed the chamber orchestra to stretch their wings.

As usual, I kept my eye on the percussionists--both of them. They performed admirably. The young fellow on the timpani carefully tuning and retuning, while making sure that the drums did not continue to ring past their appropriate time. The short young woman carefully bringing the cymbals together to avoid the inevitable "whoosh" of suction power that prevents the sound from ascending. At one point they had to move up into the choir and then haul all of their equipment back down for the Missa de Angelis. Ah, how well I remember those days! Sometimes the tympani would even lose their pitch in the process of moving and one has to be careful to restore them to their appropriate tone--all in the space of just a few moments. There's nothing like tympani about a half-step off to produce a curdled look on the conductor's face (not that that ever happened to me).

It is clear that music is at the heart of the St. John's experience and that the choice of music is, once again, partly determined by the Benedictine spirit. I think it important to ground decisions about academic programs in the values of the community. I appreciate the breadth of music that is available at my institution--though I find that the quality varies from group to group (as one might expect). My biggest concern is that we produce musicians (people who can read music, with a sensitivity to appropriateness based on venue and context). It is quite interesting to me that students oftentimes want more "worship" in chapel, which I always understand in an historical context. But, for whatever reason, "worship" for a lot of them means "popular Christian music." How is it that so many evangelicals have allowed music, which was originally a liturgical tool, to overshadow the liturgy, particularly the centrality of Word and Sacrament, itself? If I have a "mission from God," it is to help all of us in our institution understand the value of worship for worship's sake: not just so that individuals can walk away with some kind of spiritual "buzz".

Friday, September 29, 2006

Michaelmas, or the Culmination of the Baseball Season

Today is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. As Steve Benner explains it in today's post from Oremus on the Book of Common Prayer : "On the Feast of Michael and all Angels, popularly called Michaelmas, we give thanks for the many ways in which God's loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God's creation far exceeds our knowledge of it."

This day, however, has been framed by the news this morning that the Twins have overtaken the Tigers, and are now locked in a tie headed into the last few games of the season, while the Cardinals have continued their fall from grace, perhaps headed towards duplicating the Phillies' swoon in the sixties. Oh, forgive me, they at least have a half-game lead over the surging Astros. As I listened to the sportscaster from Minneapolis last evening nearly fall over himself with excitement, I waited with baited breath for a word of commendation for my Toronto Blue Jays who had made this night possible (beating the Tigers). But no--it was all Twins, all the time.

Further, as the NY Times reminded me this morning, today is a day that will live in infamy for all New Yorkers. It is the day when, in 1957, the beloved Giants played their last game at the Polo Grounds, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-1. Their crushed fans watched in horror as they moved to San Francisco for the next season. I was only a wee lad, as they say, but already my baseball blood was boiling. I didn't know it then, but I was destined to grow up listening to America's Pastime on the radio, discovering, as they say, the true meaning of faith, hope, and love.

So, if the Cardinals have any sense at all, they will be calling on Michael and all the angels tonight as they face the Brewers. As the sea of red hopes and prays, they may need to look beyond St. Albert for their salvation. As A. Bartlett Giamatti says in his essay, "Green Fields of the Mind,":
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

So, tonight and for the rest of the weekend, Cardinal Nation, it is time to "call on all angels." Put not your trust in Pujols or Rolen or Encarnacion (besides, we all know that pitching is what wins games!). Look to the heavens and remember that it's only a game and hope-against-hope that something will stop this cataclysmic slide into oblivion. If not, these Cardinals are fated to be remembered in infamy, just like the Giants who played that last game on their glorious polo grounds. And remember, even if they somehow manage to pull it off, it really doesn't matter--because we all know that the American League is superior anyway.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Heritage Day: Community and the Common Good

Yesterday was labeled, "Heritage Day," a time to celebrate 150 years of Benedictine community at this place. The highlight of the day was the keynote address by Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics and founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, D. C. Wallis gets around the country a good bit these days, purportedly speaking at more than 200 events a year. Of particular interest to me is the fact that he graduated from Trinity International Divinity School, a seedbed of the Biblical inerrancy debate and the alma mater of two of my good friends, Randy Balmer and Karen Longman.

Wallis calls himself a man "untimely born," a 19th century evangelical living in the 21st century. He hearkens back to the great social crusades of that century, much like many other friends of mine--Howard Snyder, Donald Dayton, and Randall Balmer in his most recent book. As I know from the history of my own denomination, this was a time when evangelism, social action, and mission were a part of a seamless garment. A good example is the last book written by B. T. Roberts, the first bishop of the Free Methodist Church, on Ordaining Women (1892). His radical egalitarianism flows out of his passion for abolition and free pews--issues which had marked his early ministry in mid-century.

In his address yesterday Wallis appealed especially to the college-age crowd, pleading with them to choose hope over cynicism, vocation over careerism. "A new generation is waiting for a vision to run to," he proclaimed, "a vision that brings together a hunger for spirituality and a hunger for social justice." In essence, he wants to see a new movement emerge from this rebirth of hope. Hope, he said, is a choice that we make because of faith and faith is "believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change."

I think that Jim does have his finger on the pulse of the generation and that cynicism (with all of its realism) is a growing danger. Seeing public officials blantantly lie, then not take responsibility for it (whether it is Nixon and Watergate or George W. Bush and Iraq), has the capacity to make cynics of us all. As Wallis put it, "Whether you go to war or tell the truth about going to war is a religious value."

But casting off the cloak of cynicism will require young people who, first, recognize how captive they have become to the culture. As I watched Tim Robbins' production of Orwell's "1984" last weekend, it reminded me of how easy it is to parrot back what is being said to us--whether it smacks of truth or not. Immersing one's self in media all the time, being surrounded by advertising no matter where one goes, can have a numbing effect on life. I see this particularly in the way young people worship. While there is a genuine desire there, it is largely held captive by pop cultural forms and a disconcerting solipsistic navel-gazing quality. Without turning outward and recognizing our own "bentness," our longings will go unrequited.

The quest for vocation is one on which we are attempting to build at Greenville College, particularly through the "strengths-based" approach pioneered at UCLA. If these strengths can be seen as something given, as Wallis suggested, "for the common good" and not just something to bolster my own egocentric universe, then there can be a fundamentally open and outward movement that makes possible the understanding of how my heart's inner longing and the world's deep needs come together. And, just as Wallis encouraged this Benedictine community to look to the best of its heritage (he specifically identified the Catholic Worker Movement here), I believe that Wesleyanism, at its best, is grounded in a wonderful combination of discipline, piety and liturgy. But, reclaiming that in this era has been, and will continue to be, a difficult challenge.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday, as I was working hard in the morning on my lecture, the announcer on MPR suggested that if listeners wanted to enjoy the day they best get out soon as the weather was about to change. Ah, I thought, the joys of a sabbatical! So, after putting in a solid three hours at the task, I folded up the computer and headed to my apartment to outfit for a 3.5 mile hike on the Pine Knob trail. Outside of a few elementary school students near the start of the trail, I had it all to myself.

It was interesting to go from the bright sunlight (where I spotted a small snake sunning himself) to the shadows of the hardwood forest. There is a sound rather peculiar to early autumn that stirs the blood--of birches and beeches, dappled in a golden yellow, swaying and dancing in the breeze. The leaves almost seem to shimmer. As the clouds would skirt overhead, I noticed the darkness begin to descend--even in the middle of the afternoon. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered away as I would approach and the only sound would be the swaying of the trees, the gentle dropping of leaves, or the plop-plopping of acorns against the forest floor.

I don't have the stamina I once did to almost run up the trail. My biggest challenge was simply trusting the trail map before me. Several times, the trail almost seemed to disappear and I had to pay close attention to what was in front of and all around me. Numerous trees had fallen across the trail in spots and made it difficult to traverse. I saw it as a challenge of faith: could I actually put my faith in what I saw in front of me or would I wimp out and look for a paved road out? Finishing the trail was something of an achievement to someone who usually errs on the side of caution. After all, had I disappeared, who would have known?

At one point, I found myself singing. Given the warnings about global warming, I wondered to myself if my grandchildren and their progeny would be able to enjoy the blessings of woodland that we have so often take for granted. In choir just the day before, we had read from the psalm that speaks of the trees of the field "clapping their hands" (what a beautiful metaphor! [oh, sorry, I forget, the Bible is always to be taken literally]). I decided simply to say out loud, "Thank you, God, for all these trees!" Then, I sat down, opened up a flask of hot tea and read aloud in the cool of the forest.

Shortly after his death in 1862, Henry David Thoreau's "Autumnal Tints" were published--notes, suggest Schmidt and Felch, which "represent lovely expressions of the colors of leaves, of their changes, and of their fall into the woodlots, yards, rivers, and roadsides of Concord, Massachusetts":

"Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there. . . A great many, who have spent their lives in cities, and have never chanced to come into the country at this season, have never seen this, the flower, or rather the ripe fruit, of the year. . . Most appear to confound changed leaves with withered ones, as if they were to confound ripe apples with rotten ones. I think that the change to some higher color in a leaf is an evidence that it has arrived at a late and perfect maturity, answering to the maturity of fruits. It is generally the lowest and oldest leaves which change first. But as the perfect-winged and usually bright-colored insect is short-lived, so the leaves ripen to fall. . . October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year nears its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight,"
(Autumn: A Spiritual Biography, 186-187).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Arrival of Fall

Last weekend, according to the calendar, the autumnal equinox took place and we officially turned the corner from summer into (drum roll, please!) fall. Every year this time my heart leaps up. I know, I know--some of you are summer people and you are missing the squalor of those hot days when you strip down and soak up the rays. But, for some of us, the crisp, cool air signals the death of all those bothersome insects and the advent of that splash of color that makes you lift your eyes upwards, towards the heavens.

Here in Collegeville, autumn is beginning to arrive in all of its splendiforous array. There's not much red yet, but there are yellows everywhere you look. Right now, it's a rather odd pastel of colors--mostly muted, with an occasional renegade tree that sets itself off in brilliance from the others. On Sunday, I took a walk to the Collegeville Orchards where the smell of fresh apples and the giggles of children hiding in the pumpkin patch signalled that yes, autumn has not only arrived by the calendar, but we are beginning to acknowledge its presence in other ways as well.

My friend who teaches at Calvin College, Susan Felch, has edited four wonderful books with Gary Schmidt that feature readings relelevant to each of the seasons. The one on the fall season, entitled, Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, has five major themes--Change, Endings, Work, Harvest, and Thanksgiving. There are wonderful writers at work here: Anne Lamott, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Wendell Berry, Garret Keizer--even Bartlett Giamatti's ode to October baseball. Over the next few weeks I hope to include several snippets from some of my favorites.

Here are two paragraphs from Lauren Springer's "The Arrival of Fall," found in her book, The Undaunted Garden:

"Autumn is a time when warm color and rustling sounds resonate throughout the plant world. In the deciduous woodlands of the East and Midwest, winter spreads down the land from north to south, from highland to lowland, rolling a carpet of foliage color over the landscape before it. The land, so serenely green for all those months, suddenly looks like an infrared photograph. On the grasslands of the prairie and plains, the tired gray-green and buff of late summer take on richer amber, sienna and rust tones as the foliage and seedheads of the grasses ripen. Late-blooming wildflowers, predominantly deep golds and purples, attract sleepy butterflies and bees, while more energetic birds frenetically gorge themselves on seeds before the first snow cover blankets the land.
The sun arcs lower in the sky, softening and burnishing the light. All colors seem to emanate an inner warmth as if the heat of the summer were stored within them. The most mundane scenes--an empty concrete basketball court alive with whirling, wind-blown leaves, a chocolate-brown field spiked with tawny corn stubble--take on the qualities of gold-leaf, the light of a Venetian Renaissance painting."
--pp. 112-113

Monday, September 25, 2006

Feast Day of Lancelot Andrewes

Today commemorates the death of one of my favorite English preachers--Lancelot Andrewes. Along with John Donne, he represents that generation of gifted orators and biblical scholars who flourished in their youth under Queen Elizabeth and came to full flower under King James I. Andrewes was not only quite learned (he supervised the translation of a goodly chunk of the Old Testament for the Authorized Version of 1611), he was also extraordinarily pious. It is reported that when he died the Liturgy of the Hours that he had compiled (based on his own original research of the Patristic Fathers) was covered with his own "blubbered tears." This rare combination of piety and scholarship has always been something of a model I have at least aspired towards.

I thought of Andrewes this morning during the scripture lesson at Morning Prayer. We have been making our way, rather slowly, through Paul's Epistle to the Romans and are (finally) nearing the end. While I know that understanding Paul's argument in Romans has been crucial over the centuries to reform (Martin Luther and Karl Barth, to name a couple), when heard in this lectio continua (the book read in sections from beginning to end) format he can start to grate on one's ears. Now that he is in the paranesis ("ethical admonition") section, I am hearing his admonitions with fresh ears. For instance, today was, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This, as a closing comment, to his discussion about one's eating and drinking habits.

This suggests a rather holistic understanding of faith as something that permeates all of one's life. Again, Andrewes seems to fit such a bill. When others were either consigning faith to an intellectual concept or as something to which one simply "conformed," this great metaphysical preacher insisted that it should infuse all of one's being. I think he would have agreed with Olver Wendell Holmes, whose hymn we sang:
"Grant us thy truth to make us free, and kindling hearts that burn for thee;
Till all thy living altars claim one holy light, one heavenly flame."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Prayer Changes . . . ?

In his homily this morning, Fr. Earls told the story of a sign that was placed over the bridge near his home town which read, "Prayer Changes Things, Prayer Changes You." I was very pleased that the motto stretched beyond the first three words because I've always been somewhat bothered about folks who see prayer primarily as an instrument for attaining their own earthly wellbeing. This was exactly the point that Fr. Earls made from this morning's gospel lesson.

Jesus essentially remonstrates with the disciples because they ask wrongly--primarily for their own pleasures. Our human aspirations, the homilist maintained, are aimed at earthly rewards which stand at odds with the very essence of the good news of the gospel. This is supported, as well, by the epistle lesson in James where he claims that we not only ask wrongly but spend our prayers focused on our own passions. We look for lasting satisfaction in the things of this world; our prayers are directed at keeping our own happy earthly existence in focus.

Prayer, then, can oftentimes be seen as a kind of mantra we use (or implore the shaman to use) so that we can get what we want. But the nature of Christ's message is that we need to take our eyes off of ourselves and look around us. That is why he beckons a child forward. Now, even here, I think we can get the wrong idea. I've sometimes had students who say to me, "Doesn't Jesus say that we are to become like little children?"--assuming that this means that we are to have not only a simple but a naive faith that never asks questions. But, I have found that children are the most persistent at asking questions. "Why is the sky blue?" one may say.

So, prayer is not so much about us seeing God as the great "Santa Claus in the sky" who is simply waiting to shower us with good things (thus, the distortion of the so-called "health and wealth" gospel), but us coming into alignment with God's purposes for our lives. Granted, this can be both painful and mysterious. The problem of evil remains persistent. But, ultimately, prayer concerns whether I am willing to be changed--not insisting on God changing everything around me. So, in light of the emphasis on prayer changing us, one of the lines of the hymn we sang as the Eucharistic elements were being prepared today struck home:
"All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned;
Pride of status, race or schooling, dogmas that obscure Your plan;
In our common quest for justice, may we hallow life's brief span."

Friday, September 22, 2006

Rosh Hashanah, or Burying the Old and Starting Anew

This evening starts the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year. The traditional greeting (transliterated into English) is: "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem." This means something like, "may you be inscribed and sealed for a new year." Much of the focus is on putting behind us the old and starting afresh--thus the picture from yesterday's funeral of Fr. Bartholomew.

What if we were to choose to "bury" (St. Paul calls it "put to death") our old selves and start afresh?The rain this September has brought to mind just how much September has marked both beginnings and endings for me these days. Of course, as an academic, it marks the beginning of a new school year. It is wonderful to be able to "start over" every year, putting behind you the mistakes the last time you taught a class. New faces mean new possibilities. But it has also become, for me, a time to remember "endings." Not only do the temperatures start to drop and the leaves to turn colors and fall, but I remember my grandparents--three of whom died during this month (my paternal grandfather in 1951, maternal grandfather in 2004, and my maternal grandmother in 2005). Visiting the monastic cemetery yesterday reminded me of similar visits to Phelps, Missouri, and Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to remember those who have helped frame my past.

In Morning Prayer today, we began with that wonderful prayer of confession in Psalm 51: "Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness . . ." and then heard later from the apostle Paul that challenging ethical admonition: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God." These texts speak of recognizing the error of our ways, confessing them, and then setting before us the goal of moving on and allowing God to claim us wholly. Paul goes on in that 12th chapter of Romans to say, "Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering."

So, as the rain continues to fall and we move forward into this weekend when our Jewish friends choose to start over again, I join with them in choosing to remember and give thanks for the goodly heritage of the past, repent wholeheartedly today for the present, and lay hold of the hope of the future found only in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May you be written upon and sealed by God God's self for a new year--a new beginning.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Funeral Mass for Father Bartholomew

We buried the body of Fr. Bartholomew Sayles OSB in a driving autumn rain beneath a gun-grey sodden Minnesota sky. Born in New Orleans, he longed to be a Benedictine monk but faced discrimination as an African-American in a mostly white-European context. Described by this afternoon’s homilist as, “large, in every sense of the word,” he was also said to be, “happy—especially when it came to food!” Music was his world and he became both an organist and a composer and teacher of Gregorian chant. An educator by both calling and talent, he taught voice, music theory, and Gregorian chant as a music instructor while never missing an opportunity to hear the Metropolitan Opera whenever they came to Minneapolis.

I appreciated especially the description of him as a choir director, sweating profusely and pulling out a handkerchief from his sleeve (Pavarotti-like!) in order to mop his brow. While he had a simple faith, he was both jolly and strong—producing a tough and seasoned character.

So it was that, on this Feast of St. Matthew, we began his funeral mass with one of my absolute favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.” Can one find a better match of tune to text than this work of Vaughan Williams to William How’s 18th century poetry? Perhaps the greatest juxtaposition was the elderly priest consecrating the elements while Bruce Thornton on his clarinet honked out the mournful jazz tune, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” You could almost smell the “N’Orleans” Cajun cooking in the air!

Walking to the cemetery was a somber experience—thanks, especially, to the rain which poured from the sky. As we stood around the open grave, next to me stood a sight-impaired young woman with her seeing-eye dog, Charis, who began to whimper as a result of all the rain. Even the animals seemed to be crying on this afternoon.

I came away wondering what most people would consider a “good death” today. (Probably, no death at all.) Yet, death comes to all of us—rich and poor alike. Fr. Bartholomew lived a full life, dying at 88 years of age after having taught countless students, sung many a Psalm, and eaten much spicy food. He weathered racial discrimination in order to claim the vocation God had given to him. Both his life and his character stand as an example to us all and make me long to follow in his wake. May he rest in peace and may his legacy live long.

(Re-) Ordering our Life towards Death

Last evening began the Vigil of the Mass for the Dead. Father Bartholomew, one of the few African-American monks, will be remembered throughout the day and interred in the cemetery this afternoon. The service last night was very moving, beginning with the procession by the pallbearers lifting the simple wooden coffin through the large double doors leading into the narthex. As the body was brought in, it was sprinkled with water from the flowing font--Bartholomew receiving the church's baptism at his mortal end as he received it at the beginning of life. After prayer, we proceeded into the church, down the nave and up into the chancel--bowing to the altar and to one another as we ascended into the choir. The coffin was led by a large white paschal candle and once the body was laid in state at the altar, the coffin was opened for all to gaze upon the deceased mortal remains.

Benedictines take death very seriously, but they find ways to embrace it as part of life. One of the most interesting parts of last night's service (which continues today through Morning and Midday Prayers) is that members of the monastic community come forward at the end of the service to gaze upon their dead brother, to touch his body, and to pray for him and one another. This behavior stands in strong contrast to the larger culture's attempts to hide from death--to keep the deceased "covered up" and to discourage children from viewing the body. Several of the monks demonstrated great tenderness as they looked down upon their friend and it was clear that he would be missed.

It is said that Fr. Bartholomew loved rich spices. He even kept a prized spice rack and was famous for a gumbo he would stir up for his brother monks. On a chilly day, like we've been having lately, such a meal alongside some of the fresh bread from St. John's could stir back to life the most forlorn of souls. These kinds of remembrances help us to hold dear the loss of a loved one, providing a unique portrait of the peculiarities of the one who is no longer physically with us.

When he re-ordered the liturgy for the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552, Thomas Cranmer moved forward the Prayer of General Confession as a means of helping the congregation understand their need for reordering. At its best, liturgy assists us in coming into alignment with God in order that we might be made whole. (Unfortunately, many of us in the Evangelical tradition are much more concerned with getting God lined up with our perceptions and purposes. We even manipulate our services of worship so that we become the primary frame of reference--not the Creator of the Universe.) However, it is only in death that the ultimate "re-alignment" occurs and we are ushered back into the arms of a loving God. Our task, then, is to continue coming together as the people of God, so that our life is re-ordered towards Him and His purposes. That begins by remembering that there is a God, and we are not He.

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that be penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind, in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name,"--from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Some Thoughts on Pedagogy--Benedictine Style

One of the goals I have for this sabbatical is to reflect a bit on pedagogy in the classroom. Of late, I have felt a growing distance between myself and my students--not just a "generation gap," but a distinct difference in orientation towards the learning process. I have wondered if this is a matter of individual orientation (something that our emphasis on strength-based education hints at), a result of family values, or even a distinct difference in the way communities engage or don't engage the larger culture.

To some extent, I think all of these are true. But, being here, in a Benedictine community, it has become clear to me that the values and practices of different communities plays a huge role in the way we teach and communicate. As I've been reading in the opening five chapters or so of Benedict's rule, it is clear that the values that community holds for obedience, humility, silence, contemplation, and reflection are born out in the praxis of the classroom. I have been somewhat astounded at the respect afforded faculty here by their students, as well as a decorum in the class that tends towards quietness and reflection. Part of this has to do with the "shaping" of the Benedictine rule, itself. Students sit before the professor, carefully taking notes (interestingly, unlike Greenville, mostly by hand) and tend to only raise questions when the instructor asks for them (and even then, it is a somewhat rare phenomenon). At first, I thought this was simply something of a passivity. But now, I'm beginning to see that it has to do with the very values held dear by the community.

I think that the students I teach are formed most by the popular American culture all around them. Their facility with technology and their complete absorption in the consumerist mentality belie the commitments of even the most dedicated Christian. Their response in the classroom at times, can either partake of a passive nature (a learned behavior from sitting in front of electronic media, I think), or, if provoked, they can burst forth into a kind of consumerist or ideological tirade in which the word, "respect," is usually not a part of the vocabulary.

The question becomes: What values do we want to instill in our students and what practices will we use to inculcate said values? The challenge here is always to try and ride the fence regarding how far we go in embracing the culture. For instance, the use of technology in the classroom can be a tool for engaging some students. But to what extent does the very use of that technology instill certain behaviors and attitudes towards the world? My gravest concern on this score has to do with what we do in chapel. I am very concerned that if we simply give students what they think they want, we will simply reinforce those consumerist values. But, swimming upstream is hard. I don't think most would sit still very long for a "Benedictine approach."

So, I am left with the necessity of using a "song-and-dance" approach--at least as an initial hook. But, I want to commit to a shaping for the long haul that comes back around to central philosophical values we as a community at the college have chosen to embrace of instilling a life-long quest for learning, a respect for one another and the world God has given to us, and a passion for the things of the Spirit. At our best, these are some of the values I find at the heart of a good Greenville College liberal arts education.

In yesterday's Morning Prayer we sang a wonderful hymn set to a tune by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams (if you don't know him, be sure to ask my good friend, Jeff Wilson!). Perhaps it expresses in "spirit" language (after all, the Wesleyan message seems to always come back to a passion to be filled up with God's love) my greatest hope, in this respect:

"Come down, O Love Divine, seek thou, this soul of mine;
And visit with thy ardor glowing.
O, Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear;
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hail Gladdening Light!

This morning, for the first time, I really noticed the lit candles on either side of the altar as we prayed the Psalms from the choir. Because it was damp and somewhat dark outside, the large window on the north side of the church let in very little light almost making the flame appear to jump off the candles.

As we discussed the Liturgy of the Hours this morning, the place of the Lucernarium became much clearer in "light" of this morning's epiphany. Each evening (in Egeria's Jerusalem, it was about 4 p. m.) the lamps and candles would be lit, proclaiming Jesus the "light of the world" and echoing the good news of the Paschal vigil that "He is risen, indeed!" Robert Taft, the liturgical scholar, claims that this practice of greeting the evening lamp with prayer and praise, may have originated as a pagan rite and been “baptized” by the Christian community.

The reality is that it is hard for us to latch onto the power of this image because we are surrounded by electric lighting so much of the time. How do I explain to students who cannot conceive of a life without electricity and light just how dark it can really get? Like so many of the images and metaphors central to the Christian narrative we are so far removed from the blaze of a single candle that we look upon the lighting of said candles as "empty ceremonial."

As the lamps were lit and the procession began, the congregation broke forth into the liturgical hymn (Phos hilaron), "O Gracious Light":

O gracious light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praise, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

So, my hope is that as the days grow gradually shorter as we celebrate the coming of the autumnal equinox this week, that I will be able to somehow remember the ancient power of light and the promise it holds out for all those who gather round it. We need the illumination that only you can give, O Lord, to the darkness that threatens to engulf all the world. And so we greet you: "Hail, gladdening light!"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jesus' Call and the Cycles of Life

This is a photo shot while on a walk yesterday through a mixture of forest, grasslands, and marsh. We are getting close to my favorite time of year (late September/early October), when the whole earth changes colors--seemingly to shout out its glory to its Maker. There are just hints of reds and yellows in the trees here--we're only about 15-25% of the way towards "peak." In a matter of a few weeks, these purples and golds displayed by the wildflowers will have been superseded by the display put on by the maples, birches, aspens, and oaks.

During such a time, as nature begins to prepare itself for the long, cold winter ahead, there is a tendency for us to begin to look inward as well. In today's gospel lesson from St. Mark, Peter boldly proclaims that Jesus is Messiah, only to be called to a different understanding of the term than the one he brings. The Master's call to faithful living and dying to self seems extraordinarily countercultural to most of us (not to mention completely at odds with the great "Santa Claus in the sky" image perpetuated by much of American Evangelicals).

In the homily for today, Fr. Dale Launderville spoke of Jesus' call as one in which, "the rewards are delayed to the point of not materializing." He reminded us that it is grace alone that allows us to keep our commitment to faithfulness, whether that is a monastic or a marriage vow. He then asked an important question: What makes the cross bearable or even a sense of joy? What sets our calling apart from that of today's terrorist who acts as a suicide bomber? The distinction he made was an important one: the suicide bomber uses violence that is aimed at his/her enemies--giving up himself in order to wreak vengeance on another. Jesus, instead (taking on himself the Old Testament text from Isaiah today), allows the violence to be directed at himself for the purpose of bringing peace and reconciliation to the entire world, including his enemies.

The result, Fr. Dale suggested, is that we can now learn to live in a world of injustice without resorting to "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Learning to accept insults and injuries is an important part of our growing up and becoming an integral part of a reasonable, civilized life. And then he even went so far as to say that the anonymous fear of terrorists which has taken such a grip on American culture is actually less threatening than the very real devouring of one another that has us so gripped in materialistic excess. Our obsession with the accumulation of goods prevents us from living out Christ's call to discipleship.

I couldn't help but think back to that walk yesterday and the realization that there is a certain cycle to nature of life and death. In our culture, we do all we can to hide from and postpone death. Yet, if Jesus' calling is to the "way of the cross," aren't we being called to die (and as the evangelist Luke puts it, to do so "daily")? While this doesn't mean adopting a masochistic approach to the journey of faith, it does suggest recognizing the artificial barriers we construct for ourselves in an attempt to hold death at bay.

One of my goals for these few months here is to learn to accept what it means to be a year short of my fiftieth birthday and to recognize how my own role and calling have changed. It seems strange to think that I can't do what I once did, that there are no longer countless decades (the majority of my life) left to think about working full time. There is so much yet to be accomplished and there seems so little time in which to accomplish it. How does one find balance to the multiplicity of roles one must assume? I hope that I can simply find the grace, like those wildflowers, to accept my calling, to blaze forth color when called upon to do so, and then to find peace in the waning years of my life to fade into the background and allow the work I have done to be built upon by others.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Visiting St. Joseph's Farmers' Market

Yes, that's right folks--they sell yak meat in central Minnesota! Friday late afternoon I accompanied two of my colleagues: Mary, who teaches New Testament at the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, IN, and Carmel, who is a Roman Catholic Liturgical Theologian from Sydney, Australia, to St. Joe's own Farmers' Market.

As usual, I went straight to the baked goods. This morning with my freshly ground coffee I had a chocolate croissant (eat your hearts out!) and last night I bit into a wondrous loaf of sourdough wheat bread. You know, the kind that is nice and crunchy on the outside and soft and tender on the outside? (Okay, I know I sometimes start waxing somewhat erotic when it comes to describing bread.) But that wasn't all. Last week, I had bought some homemade snickerdoodles (after all, a guy's got to keep his sugar intake up, right!) and Luann Otto had sold me some of her scrumptious home-made strawberry-blueberry jam. But, this time I found (drum roll, please) a quart of melt-in-your mouth red raspberries from a farm couple's berry patch.

We were entertained by a band that knew about a dozen different songs about vegetables. I knew I was clearly in "Prairie Home Companion" land. In fact, Garrison Keillor is purported to have gotten his big start in radio here in Collegeville at the Minnesota Public Radio station. One of my colleagues told me that his three-hour morning program used to have everyone rolling in the aisles. Rumor has it that we may even be able to visit one of his own restaurants nearby for a meal yet this fall. Minnesota is turning out to be awfully nice this time of year . . . especially if, like me, you like home grown fruits and vegetables and home made breads and sweets.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Feast of the Triumph of the Cross

Today's Eucharistic service included the first profession of vows by Brothers Peter and Peregrine. The monks processed in from the narthex, through the nave, and up into the choir--following the uplifted cross and with censers wafting the sweet smell of incense. There was a curious juxtaposition with the familiar Protestant hymn, first penned by the Victorian, George Kitchin. "Lift high the cross," we sang, "the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name."

I was privileged to be in something of the catbird's seat on the east side of the choir within a few feet of Abbot John. His homily was deeply stirring. The free embrace of limits, he said, is not constraining but, instead, brings to us true freedom. Sounding like any good Evangelical preacher (outside of the fact that he had written out his sermon--oh, my!), he challenged his hearers to remember that the Scriptures call us to orient ourselves to the gospel. His tall stature and large hands reached out to the crowd in the choir and implored us to see what these two young men were doing as, ultimately, freeing.

I couldn't help thinking how "counter-cultural" this experience was for me, a good Protestant boy, and yet how compelling a gospel message and selfless act we were all witnessing. What has happened to those of us who consider ourselves Evangelicals that we are so anxious to conform to the culture (to be considered, in the words of Randall Balmer, "winners") that we forget that the challenge is to allow our lives to be shaped by the gospel, not to sell the gospel out in order to give people what they want to hear? It hit me for the first time that, just as my wife and I renew our marriage vows whenever we listen to another couple say those words we first uttered to one another almost three decades ago, the fully-professed monks were clearly remembering, on this occasion, their own vows on that day (for some) so long ago.

Abbot John also turned somewhat "Mannoian," launching his homily by suggesting that what we were all witnessing on this day was the greatest example of paradox the world has ever known. As the apostle Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 1, the worst instrument of Roman torture has become the most powerful sign of reconciliation. While it wasn't quite as sobering as watching monastics take their final vows, the memories of this day will long linger and challenge me to ask, "Have I made the cross the center of my existence?" Perhaps this is what Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, really hoped to accomplish when she had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre constructed in the fourth century (in whose honor we celebrate this day). What does it ultimately mean for us to live out our lives in the shadow of the cross of Christ?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chrysostom in the Morning

I was tired in choir at Morning Prayer today until the lector announced that there would be a reading from one of John Chrysostom's homilies. My ears immediately pricked up since Chrysostom is the patron saint of preaching and was featured mightily in my doctoral exam over the same. John is one of those great voices from the church who spoke out forcefully on behalf of the marginalized. Unfortunately, he had the audacity to do this in Constantinople. It was his deep misfortune to have been elevated to this lusted-after cathedral (at least by others) by the Emperor, necessitating leaving behind his beloved church home in Antioch where he had earned his reputation for preaching.

In today's reading, he proclaims: "Let the waves rise--they cannot sink the boat of Jesus," concluding, "Wherever God wants me to be, I am grateful." I aspire to be like John. Of course, I hope, in the end, that I am not banished and have to make my way over the snow-capped mountains! At the end of it all, though, he could say straight-faced: "What can the rays of the sun bestow on me that compares to your love?" Throwing off the comforts of this life, Chrysostom was always able to take the "long view" and emerged a beloved bishop of the people. His golden-tongued oratory would have meant nothing were it not for the strength of his character and his passionate advocacy for those with little or no voice.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

On Slowing Down

Try as I might, I continue to find it hard to slow down. Today, though I am supposed to be on a sabbatical, I found myself still running from here to there--concentrating on getting things done. Sometimes, like when one is writing a dissertation in the midst of teaching full-time, adherence to the Protestant work ethic can be a good thing. But, I wind up focusing so much on the task at hand that I can't really seem to live "in the moment." I sometimes watch my students (for many of whom this is their primary orientation to life) and wish that, for just one day, I could learn to relax and enjoy what that day has to offer.

Because I am without a car here, I am dependent on the weekly bus or the occasional lift into St. Cloud in order to get groceries. So, today, when Elisa called from the office and offered to take me along while she ran some errands, I closed up shop at the library (despite being on a good roll!) and went along for the ride. As it turned out, I had to spend close to two hours in a grocery store. Yes, that's right, folks--the guy who does grocery shopping like hunting deer (seeing how fast items can be collected and the store vacated) had to go around the store, slowly pushing a cart and pretending to look at items. It was a strange feeling. But, in the end, I probably did a better job of comparing prices and getting exactly what I needed than in times past. And, besides, I even got two pieces of fried chicken at the deli--a treat for one who is usually cooking for himself.

Even at Evening Prayer, I think I'm becoming known as the guy who is always racing to write things down. I don't want to miss a thought before it gets away from me. So, reaching into my pocket for a piece of paper, clicking on a pen, scratching out some notes--all of this can draw unwanted attention and the occasional "eye of judgement" from the monks in the opposite choir. "Who does that guy think he is," I can sometimes hear them thinking.

The year I went off to college (1975), the group, "Lovesong," disbanded and the lead singer, Chuck Girard, recorded his first solo album. There was a song on that LP I used to play over and over called, "Slow Down." Girard says that this song still draws more fan mail than any other he ever wrote. It is based on the text, "Be still and know that I am God." Chuck does something very interesting, musically, in this song. When he gets to the word, "slow," he intentionally holds it out until you almost think it's not going to end and the song continue on to the next word, "down." This is a great example of how form can reinforce content.

My hope is that the sheer intentionality and slow, sedate pace of Benedictine prayer will help me to S-L-O-W down. I still have my "to do" list which is probably much too long. There's a lecture to prepare, a seminar to get ready for, a couple of papers that will need to be sent off for presentation at conferences. But right now, I need to learn to take it slow, to learn to breathe, and to realize that God loves me. Whether I get everything done on that "to do" list or not!

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Strange Juxtaposition on 9/11

As I walked up the hill through the mist for this morning's prayers, I heard the distinct call of a military cadence. Following the sound, I found myself perched at the top of the Clemens football stadium looking down on a group of ROTC men and women rounding the track to the tune of a sing-song cadence. They were young and seemingly full of vigor, even at such an early hour.

As we made our way through Morning Prayer, Abbot John perched unusually on his throne, we paused to welcome into the community two new novices--Nicholas and Daniel. They stood before the Abbot and expressed their desire to join the community, despite the Abbot's warning that there would be no easy admittance. Given their new black habits, they carefully shed their suit coats and were assisted in putting on the scapula and hoods.

On this fifth anniversary of the horrific destruction and loss of life in New York, Washington, D. C., and Shanksville, PA, it was clear to me that youthful idealism is still alive. Some have chosen to respond through military service--placing their very bodies on the front lines for the "cause." But the two novices are no less engaged in responding to the fragmentation of life all around them. Many in our American culture would view what they are doing as a withdrawal from reality. But, they have chosen to engage in Benedict's call to "ora et labora" (prayer and work). As I read Benedict's rule this morning, in the Preface it is clear that the primary calling is to prayer. Why do we view this act as somehow withdrawing from the world and not actively engaging it?

I hope somehow that, despite all of the pain associated with this day, we can see it as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with those different from us and begin to pray for one another. While the way of military engagement has a long and noble tradition, the way of St. Benedict is no less historic and grounded in a sense of grappling with the realities of life. Making this clear to my students is at the heart of my own convictions about the arena of worship. As we come together around the throne of grace, what we do has implications for the present, as well as being rooted in the eschatalogical future. So, back to the work of prayer.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ignored Prophets in an Age of Health and Wealth

Today's Old Testament lesson was from Isaiah 35, meant to be read in parallel with the gospel lesson from Mark 7 (a deaf man miraculously cured by the application of Jesus' spittle). "Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees," the prophet exlaims. Only we almost didn't hear it at the Eucharistic service at the Abbey church, due to the reader getting mixed up and almost substituting a different reading! (I imagined Steve Martin in just such a predicament, suddenly stopping to yell out, "Well, excuse me!).

People don't like to listen to prophets for very long, says Kathleen Norris in her Cloister Walk. "We reject them because they make us look at the way things really are; they don't allow us to deny our pain." I am reminded of Fred Buechner's contention here that the prophets were "drunk on God," and we all know how comfortable we are in the presence of someone is thoroughly inebriated!

I am discovering that solitude is a necessary corollary of the call to be something of a mouthpiece for God. How many times do I feel like I'm spitting in the wind as I warn of the toxicity of our culture on the faith? In fact, the coming week's copy of TIME has a feature story on the so-called "health and wealth" gospel being proclaimed by such ministerial celebrities as Joel Osteen. I wonder how Osteen would cope in a monastery?

My goal is to learn to embrace the silence and, sometimes the darkness, that comes with being someone who is confined to the margins of both the church and the culture. Though it is a lonely existence, at times, it is a worthy vocation in an age obsessed with outward signs of success. My hope is that, as even the TIME article suggests, there may be at least a few in the upcoming youthful generation who rediscover Jesus' command to "come and die."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Remembering Grandpa Holcomb

Today is the second anniversary of my maternal grandfather's death. When he died, he had managed to make the ripe old age of 91. In my early years, he was perhaps the greatest influence on me--a man larger than life who could swing a hammer, butcher a hog, preach a sermon, and still have time for his grandson. A man who built with wood and words, I managed to somehow inherit the latter, but, unfortunately, not the former.

T. P. Holcomb was born in 1913, the year his own paternal grandfather died. He loved to relate to me the story of his own grandfather's Civil War exploits. Caught in the crossfire of cannon spitting out horrific shrapnel and cannon balls linked together by chains, he hunkered down under a log fearing for his life. Unfortunately when he raised up to fire, a musket ball took off the bottom of his chin and so he wore his red whiskers long ever after that to disguise his battle scars.

T. P. (called Price by many of his friends) gave to me both a love of stories and my middle name--Thomas. My own penchant for questioning everying, for walking around an issue from every aspect, has caused some to see me as sharing some of the same attributes that have sometimes, wrongly, been assigned to the apostle by that name. I prefer Frederick Buechner's take on doubt, though. He says that doubts are "the ants in the pants of faith." They are what keep us both honest and seeking.

So, today, I remember my grandfather whose faith was of a different sort than mine. Having grown up in the first third of the 20th century, he bore the wounds of the Fundamentalist/Liberal debates. Mine is a somewhat different faith--but a faith, nonetheless, still rooted in the "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" which grandpa laid hold of. Thanks, grandfather, for being true to your calling and passing on the faith "once delivered." May God give me grace to do the same to my heirs, students, and colleagues.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Learning to Embrace the Difficult and the Mysterious

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Cloud and I joined the students at the School of Theology for midday prayer in the Emmaus Chapel. The reading was from Luke 5:1-11, which features Peter in one of his more aggresive moods (isn't he always somewhat forward? He strikes me as a kind of Yankee tourist whom Europeans tend to abhor).

During the rather brief homily (entitled in the bulletin as simply "Reflection"), Christine Warloski simply said: "Being a disciple is hard, and it doesn't always make sense." What a refreshing statement, particularly in light of all of the spiritual pablum being peddled from the pulpits of numerous mega-churches these days. We Americans want it simple, direct, clear, and easy. But, instead, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was always quick to point out, following our Lord and Savior means learning to die to self.

A wonderful example of this can be seen in the Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord, whose birthday we celebrate today. Her positive response to the angel, despite the absolute preposterousness of his announcement, suggests a way of embracing a life filled with both difficulty and mystery. Christine reminded us that at the end of yesterday's gospel lesson, Jesus clearly says: "Do not be afraid." As I begin this sabbatical, I pray for the wisdom and grace to embrace the unknown and the difficult. I trust that the lessons learned here will sustain me in the years to come.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Finding a Sabbatical Rhythm

This is my new home for the next three-plus months. I have a nice two-bedroom apartment with a fireplace that sits in the middle of the living room. We even get chopped wood for the winter weather. One of the returning sabbaticants told me yesterday that by December of last year Lake Sagatagan had already frozen over enough that you could completely walk across. Rumor has it that the monks build handsome little ice houses from which to fish and pray.

My day usually begins between 5 and 5:30 a.m., depending on how energetic I feel as Minnesota Public Radio (broadcast from right here in Collegeville) brings me back to life. Since I get a lot of walking in here, I am not quite as particular as I am at home in Greenville in getting a half hour of walking in before 6 a.m. After breakfast, I usually head to prayer at the Abbey Church, which begins at 7 a.m. It is an uphill walk and usually takes me about 15 minutes. Mornings are usually spent at my carrel in the basement of the library reading and doing research. It is a very quiet space in which to work with lots of shelf space and a common area with coffee and tea. Two days a week, however, I audit a graduate course at the School of Theology on the Liturgy of the Hours. On Thursday afternoons, Midday Prayer and Lunch are held there, as well. Tuesday afternoons are given over to Seminar at the Ecumenical Institute but, otherwise, I try to read, write, or get some walking in most afternoons. Evening activities are usually slower, but I'm really looking forward to several special events, including a play, some concerts, and an occasional social.

The hardest part about the Sabbatical is being away from my wife and family. One learns to surrender familiarity, love, and companionship for a change of pace, solitude, and living more closely within the cycle of prayer. I haven't made it to Evening Prayer yet. They do it late here--7 p.m. By that time, I like to be back down at the apartment with my feet up and a good book in hand. I don't think I would be very good as a night owl. I once tried team teaching a course of an evening with my colleague, Dr. Hart, and, while I really enjoyed working with her, my energy level from about 7-8 p.m. on really begins to flag. I vastly prefer to wake to the darkness of the autumnal morning and watch the fiery veins of dawn begin to streak across the eastern horizon. Unfortunately, the Alcuin library here opens late (8 a.m.), so I usually have to go over to the Great Hall after Morning Prayer till they open up. You can buy fresh whole grain bread there made by the monks for $3. It is good and hearty.

If you have any questions about the sabbatical, why I'm here, what I hope to do, or how life is in general, send me an e-mail. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hiking to Stella Maris Chapel

Yesterday, I hiked three miles to an old stone chapel called "Stella Maris" which lies on the other side of Lake Sagatagan (one of six lakes on the St. John's property). Smelling the pine trees, watching the squirrels and chipmunks scurry for cover, and listening to the sounds of frogs in the marsh reminded me of the power of nature to bring healing. I find myself so task-oriented and driven by a work ethic that it is oftentimes difficult for me to simply be still and to clear my head. When I finally arrived at the chapel, I pulled out the water bottle and four squares of dark chocolate to celebrate having made it thus far. The view was glorious on a sunny day across to the beach and campus and I had the place all to myself.

As we celebrated Morning Prayer today at 7 a.m. in the large chapel, we began with a tune by Thomas Tallis (1567), a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I. Thomas Ken (1695) penned these words:
"Awake, be lifted up, O heart, and with the angels bear your part, who all night long unwearied sing high praise to the eternal king."
"Lord, we our vows to you renew; disperse our sins as morning dew; guard our first springs of thought and will, and with yourself our spirits fill."

Then, we launched into that beautiful hymn of praise (Psalm 65:9-12):
"Thou visitest the earth and waterest it, thou greatly enrichest it . . . thou waterest its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth . . . The pastures of the wilderness drip, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy."

There is a danger for folks like me that we can get so preoccupied with the tasks at hand that we miss the beauty of God all around us. I was struck this morning as we made our way through the liturgy just how patient the Benedictines are as they move from stanza to stanza, psalm to canticle. They move slowly, sedately, breathing in and out carefully. I want to rush through the prayers more often than not, so that I can get to whatever comes next. I was made conscious, once again, of my body and how the words need to come much more naturally--like breaths. So, I am trying my hardest not to worry about the lecture to come, the articles to be written, and the books to be yet checked out. This morning we will gather, the eight of us along with the Institute staff, for our Orientation. But, for this day, at least, I need to try and breathe and to become conscious of all God's good works around me. Seeing the sunshine and basking in the glories of God's nature will just have to be enough.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Sabbatical Begins

Yesterday I arrived mid-afternoon in Collegeville, MN, to spend the fall term as Scholar-in-Residence at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research located at St. John's University. Pictured here is the Abbey church where I intend to say Morning, and sometimes Evening, Prayers with the large group of Benedictine monastics.

The photo is taken from in front of the Alcuin library where I will spend much of my time doing research and writing on the Elizabethan Homilies of 1563 and their role in spiritual formation. I have committed to one major lecture, am working on two papers for presentation, an article, and a book proposal. Our group of eight sabbaticants meets once a week on Tuesday afternoons to share what we are discovering and writing. We are made up of four Roman Catholics and four Protestants of eclectic variety. Needless to say, I am the only Free Methodist.

Two scholarly interests have brought me here: liturgical reform and ecumenical dialogue. But, what attracted me most was the opportunity to engage in the regular rhythm of prayer with the monastic community. We began Morning Prayer at 7 a.m. today with these familiar words from Psalm 63: "O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, wearly land without water. So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory."

On the flight to Minneapolis yesterday, I was reading a piece by Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) entitled, "The Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine at Large," in which he asserts that there are three parts to our Invocation to God--Deprecation, Precation, and Intercession. As I begin this journey of prayer and study I begin with the need for deprecation--that the dross that weighs one down might be removed. There is a need for purgation, of sorts. Second, I lay hold of the second branch, Precation, and desire that God would renew and strengthen me. And I close by remembering those of you who are reading this from Greenville and in other places, praying that God would give you hope as you bear whatever cross weighs you down this day.