Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent has begun...

Even though Saint Benedict says a monk's life should be Lenten in character all the time, (see: I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. Not being much of a meat eater, for example, how can a dinner of wonderfully cooked vegetables and perfectly roasted fish be a penance? Some of the best meals of the year come to the monastic table during this season. We have an abundance of breads, cheeses and fruits as well as delicious black bean soups. How is that "abstaining?" Yet, I only speak for myself. I'm sure some of my brothers who love the meat and potato diet that our German founders brought with them from Metten are truly miserable during these 40 days.
Around the school, I hear the students talking about what they are "giving up" and this is impressive. So far the words "chocolate" "TV" and "being mean to my sister" have been bandied around. Yesterday, at our Ash Wednesday Eucharist, I asked two students and one teacher's wife to talk about their experiences of service in Ohio, Jamaica and Haiti. All three spoke to the reality of giving as a life changing act. The notion of service has become more and more interesting to our students both at Prep and in the college. It is my hope that more of us can delve into that world with more frequency and intensity. Even the briefest of times in service to the truly desperate in our world can go a long way in helping us understand our place in the world and how narrow it can be.
So, to the love/hate feelings I have for Lent...I usually dread it mostly because it represents the dog days of winter. When Ash Wednesday rolls around, we see the sun begin to rise a little earlier each day and stay with us a few more minutes in the evening. We feel the "death threat" wind chills abate and the aching, teasing promise of spring....but you know, deep down inside, that you won't be able to open those windows and breath fresh air for a few more weeks. The drabness of the outdoors is matched by the bare, spare liturgies and the whole experience begins to drag. But in the end, that's OK too. The emergence of spring and Easter wouldn't be as meaningful without the cold of winter and Lent. Perhaps that's why Benedict believed in it so much.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hospitality ala 2010....

When I was a faculty resident living with college students, I once overheard a conversation which threw me for a of the guys had been caught with an authorized overnight guest (of the opposite sex) and she was being escorted out of the building by the resident assistant much to the chagrin and loud protests of her host. "Whatever happened to Benedictine hospitality?" he cried as his evening's plan were drifting out into the cold Collegeville night. You have to give him a point for creativity. I've heard the concept of Benedictine values used as a club before but not in that way!
Hospitality is indeed something endemic to Benedictines because the Rule is pretty explicit on the matter: "Let all guests be welcomed as Christ." The beauty of that simple directive though can mask the sometimes unexpected challenge which guests can present. Our new guesthouse at Saint John's is a remarkable place of welcome and warmth but every so often we hear of the guest who turns the place upside down either figuratively or literally. Our staff of brothers and lay people have had to address some interesting moments. The details are not important although I've encouraged them to keep a record so a book can be written. What should be pointed out, however, is that unlike a hotel, where unruly guests can be turned out into the night, a monastery doesn't have the option (unless of course there is some imminent threat of harm to self or others.) Put quite simply, a monastery is the only place in the world that I can think of where inhospitality is NOT an option even if the behavior of the guest leaves something to be desired.

Monastic life is often thought of as "counter-cultural" and perhaps this is a radical instance of that. Monks are mysteriously able to tolerate almost anything. Whether or not that is uniquely monastic or perhaps because of a twinge of "Minnesota Nice" thrown in the mix, it is certainly real.

To read more on Benedict's notion of hospitality go here:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Finally, Fujimi!

Fujimi monks in recreation room.
The monks of Saint John's built a new monastery in Fujimi, Japan in 1999 which replaced one closer to Tokyo that had been gradually choked off by commercial development in the wake of WWII.  This place could not be more amazing.  Surrounded by two mountain ranges, it is an incredible blend of east and west, Fujimi and Collegeville charm.  The poured concrete walls (what else?) contrast the warm teak wood floors from the Philippines.  The chairs and tables were crafted at Saint John's then shipped over and assembled on site.  If the weather permits, you can walk out the main path of the house and see Mt. Fuji in the distance.  There are young men joining the monastery at a faster rate than they have room....a good problem for any monastic community.  The Prior, Fr. Roman Paur, is as gracious a host as you can imagine and not just to monks.  They have a perfect guest wing, small but beautiful and open to any of you who read these words.  I add their email address with confidence that they would love to hear from anyone who is interested in their ministries:  The monastery is a few short train rides from Narita airport, even closer to Tokyo. 
Tomorrow I look forward to seeing the small town, famous for its water, skiing and of course, the views.
These are images from The Humble Adminstrator's Garden in Shanghai China.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Today I am coming to the last point on a whirlwind trip to Asia which included visits to China, South Korea and Japan. We are blessed with a large contingent of students from this part of the world and once a year I gather with their parents to celebrate that relationship. I cannot say enough good things about their children. Bright, talented, polite and respectful are words that only begin to scratch the surface. At our last regents’ meeting, one of the students played piano for us and left his audience breathless. Others in the past have executed and donated wonderful pieces of art. The Asian students have also helped raise the academic profile of the school by scoring incredibly well on national tests in math and science. They are a much beloved part of our residential program drawing accolades from Brett Hendrickson, our director. But most of all, these students always seem to have a good attitude about everything. I’m sure this experience is not all an easy street for them. We forget how far from home they are and how foreign our ways must. Yet, I can never pass one in the hall or on the way to the refectory without receiving a polite greeting and a warm smile. Perhaps they intuit the fact that a headmaster’s day is not an easy street as well?

At any rate, I am always excited to see Asia and this trip will include a much anticipated stay at the Saint John’s house in Fujimi, Japan called Holy Trinity Monastery. We have several of our monks living in a community that has been there since the 1940’s but recently relocated out of a busy section of Tokyo to a more remote, mountainous region which is more conducive to monastic life. In their beautiful new home, the monks feel more able to recruit native vocations and live a more contemplative life style. It must be working because there has been a sudden uptick in the number of young men joining the community. It would be very nice to see resurgence in the membership of that house.

The China visits included Shanghai where I saw about 12 parents and then Ningbo, a smaller city (by China's standards) but one of our hubs because of faithful parents who love Saint John's Prep.  Yesterday, I spent less than 24 hours in Seoul Korea but had a lively and incredible meal with several of our Korean families.  One of the couples drove over 4 hours just to be there.  More on all of this later.  In a couple of hours I will make my way by train to Fujimi hoping to navigate what I'm told is a complex but very efficient train system.

Friday, November 20, 2009

We humans are very systematic thinkers and doers. We always seem to find either by necessity or invention, the shortest distance between the starting point and the goal. The entire history of human society is a constant telling and retelling of this phenomenon. If you didn’t get a chance to see the movie Wall-E, I would urge you to put it on your priority of things to do in the next few weeks. It tells the story of our planet being so overly polluted that eventually all humanity has to evacuate to this large galactic village that floats somewhere in space. The human beings have become huge blobs that sit on these chairs that float around in rather orderly fashion from place to place. All of their communication is done virtually with these monitors that sit before them. They don’t even have to move their heads left or right – they simply talk to others through their screens even though the person to whom they are speaking is floating right next to them. They’ve created a life of such ease that their existence is literally machine like. They don’t even wear shoes anymore because their feet never touch the ground. But, through a series of unexpected events, they eventually come back to earth….literally. They reclaim their former existence, accept the messiness of their planet and set out to become truly human again but this time with a new found appreciation for each other in real time and for their home which through neglect they had allowed to deteriorate.

It’s a simple story and a bit silly but it touches a nerve with regard to our responsibility to the environment AND to this tendency of ours to seek the easiest way possible to our goal. The embarrassment of riches that flows from modern, scientific accomplishments has the power to make our human race more productive and holy. But the shadow possibility also exists. These achievements can lead us to a sub human existence, turning us into floating blobs of being that go from one desire to the next regardless of the consequences. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fair and balanced no more!

I amaze my friends when I tell them I listen to conservative talk radio and watch Fox News but I like to keep one ear on the other side of things. This country seems to be oddly and impossibly split right down the middle and has been for years so it should be of interest to all of us to try and keep abreast of the issues. However, lately, the great divide is no longer interesting. It has become predictable, boring and in some cases, unintelligible. Take for instance, the debate on health care. There are simply no solid figures to support the claim that European "socialized medicine" is inferior to the free market structure we currently employ. But all it takes is a unified voice - even if it's totally false - to convince a broad number of us to fear a fabricated conclusion. From what I can understand, the purpose of reform is to help insure those who are not currently insured. Logically, the more health care that reaches the masses, the less we spend on the disastrous results of an unhealthy populace. "But health care is not a right!" they will cry on talk radio....this is true but can you look a dying person in the eye who can't afford dialysis and tell him or her "it's not your right to have this treatment?" This is the thing that is beginning to turn my stomach with these conservative views: everything can be reduced to ideology and principle. But the fact is we are talking about people. I guessing that reality is just too harsh for idealogues to deal with so they stick to the "principle" in order to avoid the psychological or spiritual damage that would result if people got in the way of their good and just order.

No, I'm done with trying to stay "fair and balanced." Their voices are angry, shrill, and mean-spirited. I've begun dialing the radio over to classical music and letting Mozart or Debussey help me escape the assault on common goodness. We don't debate anymore in this country...we choose sides, dig trenches and then lob any kind of weapon we can in the direction of the enemy, formerly known as "fellow citizens." From what I can tell, and I hope I'm wrong, this society of ours is officially in decline and we need someone to lead us out of it with a voice of hope, confidence and mercy.