Much to the squirrels' annoyance – they're terrible hams – I didn't bore you with a July reflection because I fled the North American Continent with Stedman Matthew, a friend to many from his years as Business Manager at Saint Dominic Parish in San Francisco, and his present service in the same capacity at the Western Province's Shrine of Saint Jude. For several years he has suggested we visit our Dominican brother, Fr. Richard Schenk, in Bavaria. And because – if one's clever – one can pay a visit to Iceland for no extra travel charge, Stedman suggested we coordinate our schedules to incorporate a visit to Reykjavik, as well.
As you might imagine, individuals approach travel from various perspectives. I learned some time ago what clothes I need, so laying them out took about ten minutes. Far more fun – FAR more – is choosing what I'm going to read while I'm away, and since I purchased my NOOK device this past Spring, downloading things to read has been a fascinating – and (in many cases, for a classics lover, like me) money-saving pastime.
Two of our Dominican students, Br. Peter Hannah and Br. Gabriel Mosher, recently introduced me to the work of John Savage, who was part of the group that selected "The Great Books." Apparently, Savage came to believe these works could not properly be approached without some initial intellectual formation, so he compiled a list of "A Thousand Good Books," a rather daunting list of volumes he thought set the intellectual foundation for the more select titles. I groaned when I learned these thousand volumes included all the works of James Fennimore Cooper, but I was heartened to find Jane Austen, Dickens, and Willa Cather on the list, as well.
Savage assumes parents will begin introducing their children to the masterpieces of Western literature, so Br. Gabriel and I have decided to play "catch up," he by reading Hans Christian Andersen, and I by assaying the Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans), a long series of moral reflections – apparently assembled in the Middle Ages as homiletic aids for preachers!
I doubt I will directly employ any of the Gesta in a homily, but some are quite touching, so let me include two. One is titled, "On the Conquests and Charity of Our Lord"
Cosdras, king of the Athenians, having declared war against the Dorians, assembled an army, and despatched messengers to the oracle of Apollo, to ascertain the fortune of the engagement. The god answered that, unless he himself fell by the sword of the enemy, he should not win the battle. The Dorians, also, understanding the response of the oracle, strictly enjoined their soldiers to spare the life of Cosdras; but the king, disguising himself, cut his way into the heart of the hostile army. One of their soldiers seeing this, pierced him to the heart with a lance. Thus, by sacrificing his own life, he rescued his people from the hands of their enemies, and his death was bewailed not less by the adverse host than by his own subject. My beloved, thus did our blessed Lord, by the predetermined counsel of God, die to liberate mankind from their worst enemies. As Cosdras changed his regal state for the humiliating garb of a servant, so did Christ put on mortality, and by His death triumphed over our demoniacal foes.
The second is a lesson against presumption.
There was a certain king who has a singular partiality for little dogs that barked loudly; so much so, indeed, that they usually rested in his lap. Being long accustomed to eat and sleep in this situation, they would scarcely do either elsewhere: seeming to take great pleasure in looking at him, and putting their paws upon his neck; and thus the king got great amusement from their antics. Now it happened that an ass, who noticed this familiarity, thought to himself, "If I should sing and dance before the king, and put my feet around his neck, he would feed me also upon the greatest dainties, and suffer me to rest in his lap." Accordingly, quitting his stable, he entered the hall, and running up to the king, raised his clumsy feet with difficulty around the royal neck. The servants, not understanding the ass's courteous intention, imagined that he was mad; and pulling him away, belaboured him soundly. He was then led back to the stable. My beloved, the king is Christ; the barking dogs are zealous preachers. The ass is anyone who, without the necessary qualifications, presumes to take upon himself the interpretation of the word of God.
The highlight of our trip was a five-day visit to Eichstaett, to visit Fr. Richard Schenk. I entered the novitiate in 1968; Fr. Richard followed me, in 1971. In 2011 he was named president of the Catholic University of Eichstaett, the only Catholic university in Germany. Fr. Richard has a great and long-standing love for Germany; he completed his doctoral studies in Munich a hundred years ago, and was on hand to greet Fr. Anthony Patalano and me when we paid our second visit to that city, in 1978.
Fr. Anthony's and my first visit to Bavaria was in the winter, when Munich was under snow, so you can imagine the pleasure we enjoyed, in the summer, when Fr. Richard took us to visit a Biergarten. I have the world's worst sense of direction, but I can follow a map if I challenge myself sufficiently. On this summer's jaunt, I closed my eyes, prayed for guidance, and was able to find the same Biergarten Fr. Richard led us to so many years ago. As a result, Stedman and I enjoyed a very pleasant evening in the surroundings that afforded Fr. Anthony and me so much pleasure, and such wonderful refreshment.
When Fr. Richard was invited to apply for the President's job in Eichstaett, I imagined the University to be no more than a seminary. As we enjoyed a remarkable dinner the first night of our visit, I learned it is a university like Loyola University, my Alma Mater in Los Angeles, with a student enrollment of five thousand, one hundred twenty full professors, and three hundred adjunct faculty. Its course offerings focus mostly on the humanities.
The difference is the small size of Eichstaett – its population is probably about 20,000 – which makes the university (by my calculation) the city's largest employer. Fr. Richard, in cooperation with the City Fathers, is working with the Dominican University of Santo Tomas in Manila, to expand a nursing program that will benefit a joint project with the city of Eichstaett to provide a care-center for the elderly.
He also proposes to build a Biergarten on the University grounds. When I first heard this I wondered what would be the impact on student studies. Then Fr. Richard led us on a tour of the proposed site for the refreshment spot; it will be located along a popular bike and boating path, so will appeal to a far more diverse population than the students at Eichstaett U. I really shouldn't be too Puritanical about this; when I was pursing my MBA studies at St. Mary's College, in Moraga, I was quite surprised to find a fully-equipped pub on campus. Our business classes all convened in the evening, so I had trouble staying awake without the challenge (however attractive) of chemical inconvenience, but a number of my younger classmates had regular recourse to the pub's offerings every night we met for class.
Fr. Richard is lodged in one wing of the Abbey of St. Walburga, an 8th Century abbess who came to Bavaria from England with her two brothers, and is buried in the abbey church. Nights in Eichstaett were cool, but hardly chill enough to justify the comforters we found on our beds, each capable of getting the slumber-er through an Arctic winter. I made use of a mere corner of mine, but still found myself more than adequately "comforted." The same generosity extended to the bathroom. I'd heard of "bath sheets," but I'd never given much thought to the term until I stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel that proved to be the size of a small tablecloth!
On one day of our visit Fr. Richard took us to visit Regensburg, where we enjoyed a splendid lunch, overlooking the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, an engineering project Charlemagne attempted (but abandoned) in 793. The present effort was completed in 1992, and connects the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. The portion of the Canal we saw was an immense waterway, dwarfing the huge ferry boats that travelled along it.
Stedman and I returned to California, via Iceland, on August 23, arriving a day before our Dominican student brothers returned from their summer assignments – and a well-earned vacation on the McKenzie River, in Oregon. Once again this year, our Western Province students have been joined by two students – Tomasz Mikolajski and Piotr Janas – from the Dominican Province in Poland.
The week after the students return is traditionally taken up with orientation at the Dominican School, registering for classes, and catching up with household chores that may have been overlooked throughout the year. Fr. Reginald, who loves nothing more than throwing things away, looks forward eagerly to these days, as he has unlimited hands – or so it seems – to assist in his efforts to rid the Priory of clutter.
As the students' first week at home drew to its close we had the immense privilege of hosting the vestition ceremony that welcomed our two novice brothers. "What do you seek?" Fr. Mark Padrez asked Christopher (Chrysostom) Mijinke and John Gregory before he gave them the Dominican habit. They replied, as candidates for the novitiate have, for generations, "God's mercy and yours."
The ceremony has changed slightly in the forty-five years since my own vestition. In 1968, my classmates and I were told, somewhat ominously (or so I thought), "God's mercy we cannot give; ours we give in part." On Thursday night our brothers were reminded, a little more optimistically, that they were receiving the Dominican habit, and with it a year in which to discern whether Dominican Life might prove to their liking.
The week drew to a festive close yesterday, as our four novice brothers – Clement Lepak, Gregory Liu, Matthew Peddimors, and Pius Youn – professed simple vows and truly settled in for the life of prayer and study that will equip them to be the Voice of the Western Province in the 21st Century. Those of you who share our liturgical life at Saint Albert's have the opportunity to watch your prayers at work, as these young men grow in God's grace. For you who share our life at a distance, the progress of our students is nonetheless a tribute to your kindness and your willingness to make a financial investment in our future. Our prayers for you each day are a sign of our gratitude.
For the Profession Mass our brothers chose Jesus' words from St. Matthew's gospel account, "Take my yoke upon you and lean from me... and you will find rest...for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Our Provincial, Fr. Mark Padrez, preached a memorable homily, reminding our brothers that the "yoke" Jesus offers is a gift, and "...the real rest and relief will come to us only if we accept this gift...Jesus does not say that he will put his yoke upon us; rather, he invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves." This yoke, Fr. Mark reminded us, is the life of prayer and study that equips a Dominican to "...center your life...and live as Jesus lived."
The squirrels have been pestering me to finish the Gesta Romanorum so I can attend – at last! – to some of the other thousand books on the list Br. Gabriel shared with me. I am happy to report I have finally done so, after a number of evenings' falling asleep in my chair before going to bed. I will admit the tales grew progressively less interesting as they drew on, probably (in my opinion, at least) because they became less religious. One, however, was quite charming, and I hope you will find it as edifying as I.
An archer, catching a little bird called a nightingale, was about to put her to death. But, gifted with language, she said to him, "What will it advantage you to kill me? I cannot satisfy your appetite. Let me go, and I will give you three rules, from which you will derive great benefit if you follow them." Astonished at hearing the bird speak, the archer promised her liberty. "Hear then," said she. "Never attempt impossibilities. Secondly, do not lament an irrecoverable loss; thirdly, do not credit things that are incredible. If you keep these three maxims with wisdom, they will infinitely profit you." The man, faithful to his promise, let the bird escape. Winging her way through the air, she commenced a most exquisite song, and having finished, said to the archer, "Thou art a silly fellow, and hast today lost a great treasure. There is in my bowels a pearl bigger than an ostrich egg." Full of vexation at her escape, the archer immediately spread his nets and endeavored to take her a second time, but she eluded him with her art. "Come into my house, sweet bird," he said, "and I will show thee every kindness. I will feed thee with my own hands and permit thee to fly abroad at thy pleasure." "Now I am certain thou art a fool, and payest not regard to the counsel I gave thee: regret not what is irrecoverable. Thou canst not take me again, yet thou hast laid snare for that purpose. Moreover, thou believest that my bowels contain a pearl larger than an ostrich egg, when I myself am nothing near that." My beloved, the archer is any Christian, the nightingale is Christ, and man attempts to kill Him as often as he sins.
What has become of my beloved squirrels, you may ask. They were awaiting my arrival, with signs to remind me how faithfully they had guarded the Priory in my absence – and to ask when they might expect the Triscuits that are their traditional reward. I, and a number of my ageing friends, have been asking one another where this summer has gone – and how swiftly. The squirrels share our bewilderment. I have read that some implanted or chemical element causes humans to perceive time to pass more swiftly as they age, but everyone – including the squirrels – agrees these summer days have simply raced by.
As our Pilgrimage with Christ invites us into a new month, I thank you sincerely for your prayers, which are the foundation of everything we do, and everything we hope to accomplish. Thank you for all you have helped us do in the past, and thank you for standing by us as we look forward with hope to a bright future. Christ's yoke is light because it is custom-made for us and – more to the point – because it is Christ's yoke. It is a very efficient tool, designed to help us bring His word into the 21st. Century. Thank you for believing in our mission and for sharing our preaching ministry!
With every prayer and good wish, --Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.