Monday, December 18, 2006

Saying Good-bye to St. John's

I'm into the final 24 hours now--cleaning the apartment, running last-minute errands, and packing my bags. By tomorrow night, I'll be back with my wife, whose patience and long-suffering have made this sabbatical possible. It's been a long semester and I am ready to go home, but I will also miss St. John's and the wonderful Benedictine hospitality which pervades its campus and permeates its walls.

We are singing the "O Antiphons" now--beginning with last night's Evening Prayer where we sang, "O, Sapientia." It was wonderful to begin that service with Charles Wesley's "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending"--though, as is quite common here, the tune was one with which I was unfamiliar. The dark settles on the church early now and seems to almost seep in through its doors. As Fr. Michael Patella suggested in yesterday's Third Sunday of Advent service, the human condition of sin is perhaps most acute during this time. The physical darkness reminds us all-too-well of our spiritual state and of our need of a Savior.

I am thankful for the turning of the wheel I've been able to experience here--from the last lingering notes of summer, through the beauty and splendor of a Minnesota autumn, to the iron-cold beginning blasts of winter. There is a beauty to all of these changes and to be somewhere where they are so pronounced has, perhaps, made me even more aware of God's good creation. And, just as nature changes, so now I am having to say good-bye to my many new friends here--particularly the seven other Resident Scholars. Each has taught me much about God, the Christian life, and the challenge of making sense of this world in which we live. So to Kathleen, Ann Marie, Carol, Mary, Carmel, Margaret and Pat, I offer my humble thanks for allowing me to join your company. May God give to each traveling mercies and a very Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Closing out the Semester

Last night we joined with the St. John's School of Theology to celebrate those who were finishing their Master's degrees at mid-year. Several of the graduates were older and came to their program with significant life experience. All spoke eloquently of how their faith had been strengthened by the time spent here and almost to a person related how they had been personally touched by the spirit of Benedictine spirituality.

One of my new-found friends for the semester was Fr. Allan Bouley, who taught the Liturgy of the Hours course. I sat in with eight compatriots to learn more about the history of the Office and how it was being implemented in a Roman context. Fr. Allan said that my background in the Protestant celebration was helpful--particularly in its Anglican form. I was energized by the eight young men in the class and their hopes and dreams for parish work, as well as by Fr. Allan's dry wit and wonderful candor, at times.

One of the real joys of the semester has been watching how another Christian community attempts to live out its charism through higher education. Perhaps the impact of the monastic community cannot be duplicated on our campus, but, hopefully, the Wesleyan spirituality that pervades our curriculum can come shining through. One worry I have is that much of the responsibility for carrying that load and creating that ethos is devolving on our department as fewer and fewer academic recruits come out of that context. Finding ways of keeping the spirit of the John LaDue's and Frank Thompson's of the world will continue to be important to us.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Ballad of Brother Taddy

Last week, Wilfrid, one of the monks, told us about a famous murder in the Abbey that took place in the late 1930's. My colleague, Ann Marie Stock, decided it would be a good subject for a poem so she got the ball rolling. By the end of the week, she and I had jointly composed our own, "Ballad of Brother Taddy." Fr. Killian has promised that it will make its true debut appearance in the St. John's community at the annual Christmas feast. So, here's your chance to get a preview:

Br. Taddy’s Missed Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas when all through the Abbey,
not a creature was stirring--especially not Taddy.

The priests were all nestled in choir so tight,
That their ears were all stifled from hearing the fight.

And pray they did, hymnals open so wide,
Little they knew of the action inside.

From church they did file to the Great Hall,
Brothers Bernard and Cletus, Pious and Paul.

The Abbot was upstairs as were the priests,
The brothers were downstairs preparing the feast

Garden green beans and peas, juicy pork hocks,
And kraut with St. Joe Meat Market brats.

Carrots and mutton and barley-hop stew,
Chicken, potatoes, sliced beet root, too.

While the monks up above consumed their repast,
Below the glass shattered from a forceful blast.

The novice did lower his gun for a shot,
Mistook Br. Taddy for a deer--he did not.

With cell doors half windowed in transparent glass,
He made his plans, forgetting the mass.

Affection once felt, now burned like shame.
So holding the rifle, he slowly took aim.

His love for another was quite unrequited,
As he looked down the muzzle, his love now was sighted.

Abbot Alcuin ‘pon learning of poor Taddy's fate,
Didst screw up his face while scratching his pate.

Now it was clear old Alcuin must act,
But his primary focus was to form a monk pact.

The civil authorities just must never know,
For to do so that night might strike a mortal blow.

To cover up lustful desire and killing,
Henceforth would be the Abbot’s heavenly billing.

He swallowed and gulped, then looked at them all,
And said “Time for vespers; get to the Great Hall.”

The monks sang the Psalter--one choir to the other,
But meanwhile they noticed their one missing brother.

The novices squirmed as they wondered aloud,
Where, oh where, was their confrere in shroud?

In the cold of the Abbey the monks shivered to know,
Where on the campus Br. Taddy did go?

By that time their dear brother was cold, lifeless, and dead,
While his cold-blooded killer did tremble with dread.

And since that event from so long ago,
Both monks and visitors seek to know

Just how and when did the deed fade away,
And how does it shape St. John’s Christmas Day?

Second Sunday of Advent

I always find preaching on this Sunday something of a challenge since the lectionary texts always center around the person of John the Baptist. After awhile one begins to wonder, "What hasn't been said about this odd prophetic ascetic from the wild places?" Fr. Robert Pierson, the homilist at St. John's yesterday, chose to focus our attention on one of the primal images in the New Testament--the "way." Growing up as a kid, he said, the Interstate Highway system was something of a marvel--cutting traveling times in half and allowing one to get to one's destination much more quickly.

But the road is also treated metaphorically throughout scripture as means of describing our journey with God. "Prepare the way. . . make straight his paths," the herald cries out. Fr. Pierson pointed out that we tend to get easily distracted along the way, sometimes even peeling off the highway and getting lost. This tendency is reflected in our journey with God, as well, sometimes forgetting our destination and allowing ourselves to get sucked into the distraction. Advent, he reminded us, is a time for renewing our desire for the destination of the journey. To hear, once again, the voice of God and to surrender to the love of Jesus which compels us ever onward. That voice and that love provide for us direction that leads us out of our own self-centeredness. God, Fr. Robert claimed, invites us to come home as quickly as we can.

This time at St. John's has allowed me to listen, afresh and anew, to that compelling voice and to ask, "What do I hope to accomplish in these last 15 to 20 years of my professional career? What is it I want to be remembered for?" As we gathered one last time as an entire group of sabbaticants yesterday afternoon in the beautiful sunshine of a December day, we shared with one another one word to describe the character of each. I was surprised that several spoke of me as caring and focused on others. This certainly would not have described my first thirty or so years of life. Certainly my wife's empathy for others has rubbed off, to some extent, over the last thirty years! But, I think what is really at stake here is getting close to the heart of God. Whenever I get so busy and overwhelmed by work, I can't hear the voice of God as clearly and I tend to become much more egocentric and shrill around others. If this sabbatical has taught me anything it is that keeping close to God's heart, listening, reflecting, finding time for solitude and silence, is not only necessary to my well-being but also to my ability to care for and love others. So, Lord, keep me close to you so that I can, over the next few years left to me, learn to care for others and be sensitive to their needs.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Feast of St. Ambrose

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Ambrose, fourth-century Bishop of Milan. When I was studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams (the last time I was on sabbatical seven years ago), Ambrose was on a list of top ten or twenty preachers I most admired because of his ability to help his congregation reflect "mystagogically" on the meaning of their faith in a period when the church had suddenly come into prominence. In his time, he probably would have been looked to as one of the best intellectual preachers who could carefully articulate the meaning of the faith in its cultural context.

One young scholar who fell under the tutelage of Ambrose's preaching was Augustine (yes, the same guy who would become the most important Christian theologian of the first thousand years). Augustine toyed with a variety of philosophical approaches popular in his day, ranging from Manicheanism to outright dualism. Trained both as a rhetorician and a philosopher, he was hungry for someone to help him understand this new faith in the intellectual terms he so needed. To the rescue came the Bishop of Milan who was able to cut through the jargon of the day and help the young scholar to focus on the meaning of Christ and prepare him for the mystery of baptism.

In honor of Ambrose, we ate northern Italian cuisine yesterday up at the School of Theology. As I looked around the dining room at the numerous budding young scholars, I wondered which of them would extend the cause of the gospel and make their professors proud. In the end, today Ambrose is probably better known for his one convert than even for the wonderful sermons he produced. Augustine went on to pen many of the most important theological treatises, including his De Doctrina Christiana which became the singular textbook on preaching for the next thousand years. I think for many of us who teach and preach regularly, this is our one great hope--not that what we have said will be long remembered, but that one or two of our students will rise up to carry on the tradition of careful articulation of the faith in a new generation.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Feast of St. Nicholas

Today we celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century saint who was known for having given funds to a family (anonymously) in order to save three daughters from prostitution by providing them with a dowry. Since the gold was thrown down the chimney (according to legend), he became the patron saint of children and eventually evolved into our very own Santa Claus.

This evening, his Holinenss Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia and a leader of a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, received the Pax Christi award for his broad ecumenical work. Attired in purple cope and black hood, he and his retinue accompanied Abbot John into choir for Evening Prayer--complete with all the smells and bells one might desire. The joke amongst the sabbaticants was that I would have fit right in with my bright yellow goose-down parka with a hood that shrouds my face. They can make fun all they want, all I know is that with it going down to -5 degrees F. tonight with wind chills of at least -20 below, I think I'll just keep my Land's End purchase!

We sang one of the most ancient hymns tonight, the Greek Phos Hilaron ("O Radiant Light") to open the service, then alternated with the cantors working our way through Psalm 1,112,113,145, and concluding with the Abbot's reading of 1 Peter 5. Then followed a homily delivered by His Holiness without a note. He spoke deliberately, slowly, yet forcefully of our need to conform our lives to the holiness of our Lord and Savior as made known in the saints who have gone before us. One could easily sense the charism of leadership as he spoke.

But, it was clear that this was no "cult of personality." Had he died, right there in the bishop's chair, there would have been one to take his place. Though there are certainly gifts that propel one into leadership, in the Christian faith it is never about the person her/him self but about the one to which s/he points. So, let us join in emulating St. Nicholas who gave with grace and without accolades. May his spirit of giving pervade the season before us.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Baby It's Cold Outside

It's almost noon here and we're struggling to get out of the single digits. The moaning of the wind mixes with the freshly-fallen snow to create a tundra-like atmosphere that blasts you full in the face when you walk outside. Yesterday afternoon I had to get out for a bit so I snapped a few photographs including two guys who were lacing up their skates beside the bridge I cross over to the main campus. Fortunately, the wind was down at that point.

It wouldn't be so bad except that just ten days ago I was home where it was close to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and I was walking around in shirt sleeves. Here, I've finally donned the yellow goose down parka and the heavy snow boots. I may look funny but at least I'm not freezing when I go outside. The apartment includes a fireplace which I have taken to using on a more frequent basis. One of the monks has split and stacked wood for us at the top of the hill, so I fill up a cardboard box outside my front door every day.

The intense cold makes one want to sleep, or at least curl up with a good book. I just finished reading over the weekend Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, an account of the "dirty-thirties" in No Man's Land (the American Dustbowl). The perseverance of these people and the enormous power that the landscape threw at them is almost beyond belief. It made my encounter with the cold seem almost bearable. At least I didn't have to huddle in a hole in the ground or burn buffalo chips for fuel.

At Morning Prayer, I sat next to Kathleen Norris, an author whose works I've used regularly in class (Dakota, Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, etc.). Unlike most mornings, I caught myself starting to nod off in the silent times after the readings. I had an awful image of falling asleep in choir, knocking my head against the railing, and blood spurting all over me, the monks, and Ms. Norris. After lunch today, I think I'll retreat from the library back to my apartment, get a rip-roaring fire going, and return to my reading. Many more such visions and I'll be ready for a vacation in the Bahamas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Cold Descent of Advent

The lake outside my window is now thoroughly frozen, spattered with blowing snow that stirs up in pools as the stiff north wind blows. The sighing of the wind is broken only in the morning by the sounds of animals settling in--the caw of a jay, the thumping of the woodpecker, the scratching of a squirrel looking furiously for a nut. My bright yellow down-filled jacket provides needed protection, but my eyes have this terrible habit of leaking as I face into the north wind.

The advent wreath hangs ominously on the pulpit side of the chancel as the organ begins its peal and the monks huddle in the chancel around the baptismal font preparing to make their entrance. Then the procession starts, with Fr. Columba Stewart, O.S.B., bringing up the rear, bending low to the altar, and taking his place in liturgical leadership--a beautiful gown trimmed in purple and gold to signal the change of the seasons. The Advent texts speak of remaining awake and alert, our redemption somewhere just over the horizon.

"Advent has a special place amongst professional religious," Columba says, "containing a certain atmospheric darkness which ends in Christmas." Then he launches into a reflection on the curious juxtaposition of the violence of the Advent texts with the gilt-edge manger scene with which most people are most comfortable. "Salvation," he proclaims, "however near, lies at the other end of calamity." By the end of the peroration, he has reminded us that, unlike other animals, we can hope and that this liberating love, promised in Christ, will cast out our fear.

But, I think, we are a people who no longer know the sense of pervading darkness that our ancestors knew, yet we are just as fearful as they. We fear the "other," we fear a lack of security, we fear, above all else, the unknown. We want to know, to be in control, to avoid these keenly apocalyptic texts and scuttle, like bed bugs, for the comfort of that Bethlehem manger--scrubbed free, of course, of the smell of dung and the discomfort of the penetrating cold. Help us, O Lord, to learn to embrace the present darkness and, in so doing, to recognize that you are with us perhaps even more powerfully in these "in-between" times when you seem so far away.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Preparing for Advent

Yesterday, after the stress and strain of the campus lecture the day before, I attended an Advent Retreat at the Episcopal House of Prayer, along with eleven other students and staff. It was hosted by Michael Dennis Browne, professor of English at the University of Minnesota and a widely read poet. Michael poked and prodded us with a bevy of poems, suggesting that this season beckons us to learn to "pay attention to the moment," to the very genius of language as it seeks to get us to slow down.

We spent time writing, praying, and sharing--sometimes in ways that bordered on discomfort. While I love the feel and power of poetic language, I don't always enjoy making public the private self--at least not with people I don't know very well. Michael's advice to graduating students, however, made perfect sense to me--he tells them, "Keep good company." By that he means, not only creating a circle of friends and mentors, but spending time with good poetry and pieces of literature. This has challenged me to read, not only the fiction and short stories which I enjoy so much, but to be more intentional about tackling poetry on a regular basis. I tend to go through spurts, gobbling up whole poems every few weeks, not allowing them to drip into my mind and heart on a daily basis.

One of the prose pieces Michael shared with us was a paragraph from Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., which seems most appropriate on this day before the beginning of the Advent season:
"During most of our waking hours we live on the surface of our being in contact with all the different things which are presented to our senses. Sometimes when we are deep in conversation with a friend or reading a book or perhaps in a dangerous situation, we lose the sense of time and enter into a deeper region of the soul, where it is withdrawn from the outer world: but we are still not far from the surface. Beyond this, beyond all thought and feeling and imagination, there is an inner sanctuary into which we scarcely ever enter. It is the ground or substance of the sould, where all the faculties have their roots, and which is the very centre of our being. It is here that the soul is at all times in direct contact with God. For behing all the phenomena of the world, behind the sights and sounds, behind the forms and energies of nature, there is the ever active presence of God, which sustains them in their being and moves them to act."