Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Beauty of Tulips

In his book The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, the author Michael Pollan explores the nature of domesticated plants from the dual perspective of humans and the plants themselves. He writes, "Everyday roles and values are suddenly, thrillingly, suspended, and astounding new possibilities arise." Naming particular desires, Pollan identifies the tulip with the desire for beauty.

Last week my housemates and I decided to tiptoe through the tulips at the Munsinger Clemens Gardens in St. Cloud. We were greeted with a riot of color, size and variety that, indeed, was thrilling and astonishing. There was an area of white tulips that particularly caught my attention. On the face of it, white may seem to have a boring sameness, yet here was a purity and simplicity that touched me deeply.

 As we walked through this feast for the eyes, I couldn't help but stop along the way to examine particular flowers. Some were curled tightly, and with a feeling tenderness and reverence I gently opened the petals, peered into the center deep inside, and for a moment, everything was "suddenly, thrillingly suspended," and I saw "astounding new possibilities."

It occurred to me that I want to look at the people around me with the same reverent attention, so that I may somehow begin to appreciate the uniqueness and hidden beauty inside each person. I want to discover that each person can reveal how, as Pollan writes, Everyday roles and values are suddenly, thrillingly, suspended, and astounding new possibilities arise.

We left the garden and joined a throng of people at the Dairy Queen on Highway 10. What a perfect evening!

photo originally found at:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

The recently released movie Atlas Shrugged is based on Ayn Rand's book with the same title. Rand (1905-1982) is best known for developing a philosophical system called Objectivism. To quote Rand: "Objectivist ethics, in essence, holds that man [sic] exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest social purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself." ("Ayn Rand," Wikipedia). While one may agree that certain forms of self-sacrifice are inappropriate, how do we square Rand's views that "Selfishness is a virtue, altruism is a crime against human excellence, and self-sacrifice is weakness" with Christ's exhortation to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked" (Matt 25) and "lay down one's life for one's friends?" (John 15:13) (Michael Gerson, "Ayn Rand's Adult-Onset Adolescence," Washington Post).

 And, were she alive, how might Rand respond to the Catholic Church's teaching on social justice, which emphasize focusing on the poor and working to correct injustice?
  • Those who are more influential because they have a greater share of goods and common services should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Church Document on Social Concern. #39, 1987
  • The works of mercy call Christians to engage themselves in direct efforts to alleviate the misery of the afflicted. The works of justice require that Christians involve themselves in sustained struggle to correct any unjust social, political, and economic structures and institutions that are the causes of suffering. Health and Health Care, #3
I have not read all of Atlas Shrugged. The temptation to oversimplify or caricaturize Rand's position is real. Nonetheless, it seems accurate to say that Rand unapologetically glorifies selfishness, advocating it as a necessary virtue.

My reaction to this book's continuing popularity a more than a half century after publication may have been intensified because I just read Bishop John F. Kinney's revised pastoral letter, As I Have Done For You . . . So You Also Should Do. The major content and heart of that document is the section on "The Church's Social Teaching." A fascinating project might be a simultaneous reading of the pastoral letter and Atlas Shrugged, letting each document speak for itself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dandelion Resolutions

photo found at:

During this Easter and spring season I've been thinking a lot about the Gospel of Jesus. There was such an authentic and nonjudgmental way in which He walked among us. I must confess I've been particularly influenced by the scriptural comments of Richard Rohr and Jean Vanier. Both of them highlight the radical nature of Jesus' world view. He was never confused about how sacred everyone and everything is. He was never deflected from his course by persons who tried to belittle or harm him. He acknowledged his human dependence by creating time to "go to the desert or mountain or garden" to listen to the words of His Father, the source of love and truth.

I got to thinking, what I want right now is some concrete "Summer Resolutions" that tune into this Gospel of Jesus. Maybe I'll try to focus on just one.

Walk more slowly and look more deeply at whatever I'm looking at
Find a garden, mountain or deserted place to hang out in and listen

Notice what "I'm fighting"
Notice what I'm longing for
Notice what I'm grateful for

The one thing that's certain is that any of these will slow my pace. And maybe just like the dandelions I see appearing, my taproot may have a chance to grow deeper and stronger. That way, if ever there be the rare occasion I get the feeling that "someone has just lopped off my head," my taproot will let me stay grounded and full of life.

Sisters and their bikes

If you have never been on our campus you might not know that Saint Benedict's Monastery is made up of many buildings: Main Building, Walburg's, Rosamond, Marmion, Lourdes, to name just a few. All these buildings are residences for the Sisters which can mean quite a bit of walking between buildings several times a day. So someone coming from Evin Hall, for example, for prayers, meals and Eucharist will need to walk the equivalent of approximately two city blocks. And if that person is at the last minute like I often am, then a bike comes in very handy. We also share a campus with the College of Saint Benedict which means more walking from one area to another. It is good to have something with two wheels that can move around in places where cars cannot go.

For the most part our bikes are called clunkers. Most of them are old, second hand bikes that we have inherited from a family member or friend. Some of them have speeds and hand brakes and some just have pedal brakes. But they all stay outside from May through October - or until the first significant snow fall. We don't lock them because we trust that if someone borrows a bike, that person will return the bike some time to the rack they took it from. There are, however, situations that arise that leave a person scratching their head. Like the time my bike ended up on the tennis court at St. John's University, 6 miles up the road. Obviously someone was in a rush to get home and could not wait for the bus that goes back and forth between Saint John's and Saint Benedict's. Or, they missed the last bus back to Saint John's.

The next time you come to our campus you might find yourself driving behind a person of a certain age on a bike, with her knees going out from side to side as she pedals because the seat is not high enough for her; she does not appear to be heading to a specific destination but simply enjoying a spring evening.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sprucing up the Campus for Graduation

Graduation happens at the College of Saint Benedict tomorrow, May 14, with Eucharist at 9 and 11 a.m. in Sacred Heart Chapel. Everyone will be dressed up and eager to hear the student speakers who most likely will sum up the four years of experience here at St. Ben's and St. John's. The other part of their messages will be encouragement and positive attitudes about going out into the world where few jobs are available and grad schools are hard to come by.

But that is not all that students are doing. Some are volunteering for a year. We at Saint Benedict's Monastery are delighted to be sending four of the newest grads to serve for 10 months at monasteries in Puerto Rico and Tanzania.

Sarah Schwalbach and Jana Gracyzk will be leaving for Humacao, Puerto Rico on July 30, while Maggie Niebur and Ashley Irons will be flying to Dar es Salaam on July 30 in order to travel across country to St. Agnes Convent in Chipole. I will accompany them, because this is our first placement in Tanzania.

It seems fitting that the campus be spruced up so our graduates have one last look at this gorgeous place they have called home for four years! Congratulations Graduates!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Words with Friends / Words with God

I read an article last week by Tim Elmore about the generation of kids that have been connected to handheld devices since birth. It seems like we often demonize these handheld devices like we did TV in the '60s until "Captain Kangaroo" and "Sesame Street" revolutionized the education of our children before our eyes. These handheld devices are revolutionizing our educational system and I am intrigued by how they have revolutionized my life.

The article went on to state how kids are more active and functioning at higher levels in problem-based learning, student-driven learning and experiential learning. This article articulates some of the active learning I have experienced through playing "Words with Friends," which is basically Scrabble on a hand-held device. Being a visual and kinetic learner and being educated in an oral passive education has left me believing I was never as smart as my eight brothers or sisters. I thought I missed that gene or something!

The revolutionary aspect is that I can take the time I need to play and not have the anxiety of people waiting; I can create and submit words and be wrong with no dire consequences; I can take time to learn new words, see patterns and figure out the dynamics of a game that is played strategically. As a result, I have gained the confidence to play Scrabble (I am convinced the monastery houses some of the best Scrabble gurus in the world), learned new words, begun reading more avidly and experienced the freedom to PLAY. I am connected to students, family and friends in a new, fun, learning realm of relationship that transcends traditional systems of relationships. It's quite mind boggling and I admit hard to get your head around. But I wonder…

As the educational institution adjusts to this cultural phenomenon, what about the Church? How do we keep the Gospel as our guide and connect to a high functioning, visual, technological generation? Could handheld devices be used to engage students in a connection of prayer, community, devotions, reading the Bible, finding answers to questions of fear and doubt and provide the grace of making mistakes? Maybe handheld devices create a mutuality that transcends the barriers of hierarchy and power. Could God be showing up in handheld devices in the future?

photo found here:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reflections on Peace

May 5 is a Mexican national holiday honoring a famous victory in 1862 by Mexican soldiers over French forces invading Mexico. Thousands of people in the U.S. also celebrate this holiday with parades and feasting, though one wonders if they are fully aware of what the holiday is all about. We do not celebrate Cinco de Mayo in our monastery, but we surely have the same sentiments as those who do celebrate it—rejoicing in freedom, independence from foreign threats and foreign domination.

Regularly, at Eucharist and at Liturgy of the Hours, our community offers intercessory prayers for peace worldwide. Occasionally, some of our Sisters demonstrate publicly against war, carrying signs near the Barnes and Noble store in St. Cloud. It seems war is a constant in human history and our monastic life cannot ignore that fact.

Photo of largest human peace sign (2500 people) found here.

May brings us to the peak of Spring and we see fresh life as Nature buds forth. Perhaps all life will someday be held so sacred that wars will be the exception and not the rule.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Early Morning Reverie

submitted by Renee Domeier, OSB

I love the early morning hours. Usually, I rise at 5 AM but with a 6:30 AM appointment today, I had to be out of the comfy zone by 4:30! I knew I would miss community prayer at 7, so I was pleasantly surprised when my appointment ended at 7:35 -- the very time I would typically be leaving the Oratory at the monastery. With a bit of time on my hands, I felt free to go where the Spirit led me. It brought me to a sign on a wall outside a small, recessed room at the Central Care Unit. The sign said, "Prayer Room:  Just BE, REST, THINK, PRAY."  Wanting to accept every element of that beguiling invitation, I entered the room.  No one else was there and, when I closed the door, every sound was blocked out; I felt that the room enclosed and enfolded me protectively.  All of the chairs, some 8 or 10, faced east -- into the sun. And what a glorious sun it was! It shone brilliantly through the large bay window, making the colored glass circles within it shimmer like jewels. The effect was stunning - mesmerizing! Subtle designs of hills and mountains shone through on the glass as well. Allowing myself to be stunned and mesmerized, I felt enveloped in beauty and grace.  Moreover, I was pleased that my Benedictine community had donated the attractive fountain in front of that bright, colorful window. The fountain's gently bubbling waters were baptismal for me. I felt pasted to the chair and could not move. "All that was your Father's kiss for the day," suggested a friend. 
Early morning hours hold promise, don't they? This day's beginning gave me so much more than I expected, but then moments of grace often do.  

photo originally found at