Friday, November 30, 2012

Electronic Teaching & Discussion

In the spring of 2011, I decided to step away from the traditional classroom and teaching. I felt that the rountine of class presentations and the repetition of 3-4 classes was just too much for me. I have never been a teacher who sticks to written notes and I found myself losing it in regard to covering the necessary material in all classes as they followed one another. To me it was like giving the same homily over and over! Honestly, I have a hard time repeating a homily twice!

In teaching Social Justice and Peace, I will always remember the section of the textbook dealing with the elderly of society and how we treat them. As I grow older, I try to be honest about aging and what I can do and to be honest about what I really should be letting go. So I want to admit that there were actually days when I could not remember the names of some of my students sitting right in front of me. It was embarrassing, to say the least. When I have failure of memory now and it is happening more and more often, I try to say that I am having a senior moment. Most people are kind enough to help me say the word I am groping for or to remember a name.

However, since I have left the classroom, some alums are disappointed. Some want me to teach their own sons, so that father-son can have the same experience. Actually there are a few monks still in the teaching ranks that are having this very experience right now. Abbot Michael would be one of those teachers.

So eventhough I have been getting some "flack" about not being in the classroom any more, there have been some suggestions about doing something on line. In many ways, I have never left the classroom-- the classroom has just taken on a different meaning. One alum, who has kept in contact all these years, would be Dan Mulhall of 1980.Of course, since Dan is in the same business that I dabble in, gardening and landscaping, etc., we have had a natural connection. But Dan is the alum who keeps encouraging me to think outside the box in regard to teaching and to try something electronically. Dan has been an avid reader ever since I have known him. I do believe there is a point when many students surpass their teachers. He would be one of them. Over the years he has suggested many books to me and he continues to re-read books of his days here at Mount Michael. It has been a pleasure to exchange opinions and thoughts about an author or a particular theme or thought expressed by an author. Just this past summer, when it was so hot and dry, Dan sent me an e-mail message to enquire about how I was holding up in regard to gardening under such extreme weather conditions. In the same message he mentioned that he had just re-read Michener's CENTENNIAL. I will always have very fond memories of teaching that long, long novel. I think to this day, there are some alums who play a type of trivia game in regard to characters and material treated in that novel. Who could ever forget:  Pasquiel, my brooder--McKeag, Blue Leaf, Potato Brumbaugh, Rufus and on and on!

I must admit that there were some very memorable and wonderful moments in those literature classes over all those years. I am going to mention some names and I know that as soon as I do this I will miss some alums and some great discussions, however by doing this perhaps I can stir up some enthusiasm to go back to these pieces of literature and get alums and maybe even present students to do more reading. But before I start recalling classroom moments, I also want to admit that everything I did in the classroom was not always the best thing. When under strain and pressure I did not always response in the best way. I trust that I can be forgiven for those times. The old meaning of classroom is a closed chapter now and I want to move on to another one.

Here are just a few names an incidents that come to mind.

Brian Phipps -- INHERIT THE WIND -- Brian inspired me to teach that play -- I think Brian played Clarence Darrow in one of the drama presentations -- I always thought that it was rather tight casting for Brian was a perfect Clarence Darrow during the monkey trial, riddling William Jennings Bryan in regard the Bible.

Theodore Dreiser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY -- I can't believe that I pulled students through that long novel, but it seemed like I struck the nail on the head with some alums -- Tim Zach, Mike O"Neill, Pat Regan.

The play ON GOLDEN POND -- to liven up class, I decided it would not be such a bad thing to do some acting in class. Of course, that meant that some students had to be female characters-- Mickey Gotsch was an awesome Ethel Thayer! This was Mick's junior year -- you bailed after that year for Elkhorn Public!

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST -- lots of alums come to mind with this novel. But one who sticks out in my mind would be Mike Cizek. Mike, you aruged with me for a long time whether or not Cheswick took his own life-- remember that? What do you think now? And having just written this, my mind also runs back to Ryan Moody of the class of 1992-- maybe I am confusing who doubted Cheswick's demise-- just one more indication of loss of memory.

Fydor Dostovevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. That is another novel that I am shocked about pulling students through. But it was such a great success that I refused to repeat the experience. John Lumir Drahota -- you were in one of those classes of Elective Literature. Remember?

Eugene O'Neill -- LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT-- I am pretty sure that this play is the reason why Tim Dalton did so well on the AP English Lit Exam. I was very impressed with your free response essay on this play, Tim. It was awesome.

These are just a few that come to mind right now. Perhaps we can get much more going by reading and discussing in the future.

I will just finish this blog with a few memories about style in the classroom.

Journal writing and creative writing did wonders for lots of students -- this was mostly in the 80's. Admittedly, that some entries in your journals were alittle off color and weak, but there were some great ones as well. I wished I had those to go back to right now.

Of recent years in theology class (Social Justice and Peace and Christian Lifestyles) there were several methods that I used that seemed to work really well.
I will just list three and let you students take over from there.
2)Building community and unity in the class -- each student sitting on the throne and listening to each of your classmates tell you about 3 qualities of character that he sees in you!
3)Field Trip to Schuyler, Nebraska.

So to be concrete-- if you want to get involved with this, your homework is to read Morris West's novel, THE CLOWNS OF GOD. I just re-read it again this past week. It was as exciting as the first time I read it. And it is so appropriate for this time of the year. I would guess that it will make your Advent and Christmas season so much better if you do read it.

Blessings and I hope to be hearing from you.

Fr. John/Padre Juan

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mount Michael Christmas Gifts

                                         Christmas Cactus Blooming in the Abbey Entrance
Hello Holiday Shoppers,
I would like to remind you all of possible gift purchasing at Mount Michael Bookstore and Guest House.
This year there will again be Farmers Market items available.
Jam and Jellies: Rhubarb/Strawberry—Grape—Choke Cherry—Jalapeno—Wild Plum. All jams and jellies are in pint jars -- $5.00 per jar. There will also be some Kosher Dills available -- $5.00 per quart.
There will be pumpkin and banana bread available -- $3.00 per loaf. If you want large amounts, you should order in advance.
 Most of the Farmers Market Items will be available in the bookstore.
Bookstore hours are: Tuesdays – 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
                                       Wednesdays – 2:00 pm – 7:30 pm
                                        Thursdays – 11:00 am – 4:00 pm                
There will be some Farmers Market Items available at the Guest House, but there are lots of things available at the Guest House.
Guest House hours are: 10:00 am2:00 pm – Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays.
If you need any assistance don’t hesitate to call.

Saint Benedict's Gift Shop
Bro. Jerome Kmiecik OSB

Blessings to you all,
Fr. John

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Peaceable Kingdom -- Thanksgiving

For numerous years of the recent past, I used Edward Hicks painting -- Peaceable Kingdom-- to illustrate various points in my classe of Social Justice and Peace. I have always liked to use art work in teaching in the classroom. This particular print I have used is a decoupage done by Br. Peter Spurber. He is now deceased but he was a monk of Mount Michael when I first joined Mount Michael Abbey. Here is a photo of  the Peaceable Kingdom in decoupage by Br. Peter.

Here is a closer photo!

I remember drilling the seniors of the class of 2011 daily about who painted the Peaceable Kingdom. After weeks of this drilling Zach Loefellholz and Josh Mitten could readily answer what the painting was about and who painted it. At an alum gathering in Kansas City, Loefellholz told me that he had referred to the Peaceable Kingdom in a paper or a class that he had taken. My memory is that Grant Parr retained a lasting impression of this painting as well.

Br. Jerome, who has done the environment in chapel for many years, always brings out this painting at this time of the year-- just before Thanksgiving and it usually remains in the chapel for the most of the Advent season. The colors of this painting go well with the earth tones of the chapel and the season with dried flowers and grasses as well. The painting is based on the prophet Isaiah -- 11: 6-- why it is so appropriate for the season of Advent.

The painting does  speaks of peace -- not only in the animal kingdom but also in the human world with the treaty between the Native Americans and William Penn -- the individuals across the ravine or divide on the left side of the painting.

Edward Hicks painted this scene nearly 100 times. Although the animals began to look less peaceful, Hicks
never gave up trying to express the possibilty of the Peaceable Kingdom.

At this time of Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for all the we have been given. For if we are really honest with ourselves, we will be aware of how much we have all been given.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and lets try to work for the Peaceable Kingdom.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fr. Ron Rolheiser -- article dealing with fear

If any individual spends much time with me, he/she will find out that one of my favorite spiritual writers is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate by the name of Ronald Rolheiser. I admit to lots of people that I have read Rolheiser's, The Holy Longing many, many times. In fact, I can locate certain stories he talks about quite easily because I have become so familar with his book.

I am proud to mention that the newspaper of our Archdiocese of Omaha features an article from Rolheiser each time the paper is published. It is rare that I don't read his article, even more than once.

Rolheiser speaks about what we should know as an unhealthy fear and then a healthy fear of God. Included in his article is a little parable -- a true story. At the end of the article Rolheiser lists 10 principles to invite us to live in less fear.

This article can be read directly on Rolheiser's website --
The title is: Living With Less Fear.

I was reminded alot of the article I wrote some time ago entitled: Fearing Failure. I suppose we all have lots of fears and I wrote the article Fearing Failure in regard to vocations. It's particular bent was about individuals fearing to try religious life because from the very beginning, many fear failure

Since I  have written that article I have seen a movie entitled: The Ultimate Gift. There is a certain part of that film that deals with failure as well. And furthermore the point is that for most people to be successful, they need to or just do fail numerous times before achieving success.

The point I want to make is that Rolheiser has done much to help me in regard to fears-- fear of God, fear of failure, fear of being successful, fear of life changes, fear of changing job positions, fear of growing old, fear of death, etc.

I just wonder how many people really read someone like Rolheiser? I think that he could be helpful for many people and I just want to express my gratitude to him for being so helpful to me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Promised to God at Birth

Recently, numerous individuals have said they could identify very closely to an article that I had written about five years ago. It is entitled: Fearing Failure. The article is still available on our abbey website under the vocations button.
Because of the feedback that I am getting, I thought perhaps it would be advantageous to do more articles of this nature.
In this little article, I would like to take a very different approach. I would like to tell my own personal story about why I made the choices that I did and why I continue to stay where I am.
My story goes back to the day when I was born, January 23, 1949. Although I was just a baby, the winter I was born – 1948-49, was a winter to behold. I have seen lots and lots of photos of the blizzards of that year, particularly the huge snow drifts. Nebraskans experienced a winter in 1948-49, which Nebraskans these days have no idea of. The latest issue of Nebraska Life(January/February, 2009) has a great article about the winter of 1948-49 and will verify that my story here is not a tall-tale. There are also some great photos of the amounts of snow that winter in this magazine.
I am from a small rural area – Albion, Nebraska. In 1949, there was no hospital there in Albion. The two older siblings above me were born in Norfolk, Nebraska, approximately an hour’s drive from Albion. The plan was for me to be born in Norfolk as well. That did not happen.
The day I was born, another winter storm was in progress. My Dad packed Mom up to get her to the hospital, but the weather prevented them from reaching their destination. As it took longer and longer to get to their destination, Mom became more and more agitated and uncomfortable and I kept wanting to be born. Dad explained that the windshield wipers could not keep up with the heavy snow, so he kept his window rolled down and had to keep his head partly outside to make sure he was actually on the road. Mom feared the worst-- that I would be born in the car and that they would get stuck in a snow drift and we would all freeze to death. (Obviously, this did not happen.)
So Mom prayed. She prayed earnestly. Like women so often do. Dad arrived at a small town, just before Norfolk. Tilden is its name. There was clinic of sorts there and that is where I was born—very soon after they got there. I was born safely and healthily.
Mom’s prayer was one of those conditional prayers that we sometimes send to God. Yes, it had a very pleading tone and was conditional. “Please God, if everything is ok with this birth, I promise this child to you.”
Mom promised me to God, shortly before I was born. I don’t know if she said this aloud, and Dad heard it as well, but Mom told me this story when I was very, very young. And Dad never stopped her, never disagreed with her, at least on this issue. So from the moment Mom told me this, I wanted to be a priest.
The problem with this is: was it my vocation or my Mom’s vocation?
The timing of the Catholic Education system in Albion at St. Michael’s Parish was significant in my vocation. St. Michael’s Parish opened a new elementary school the year I began the first grade. My class was the first class to go through all eight grades of the school. At that time St. Michael’s was graced to have religious women operating and teaching in the school – Benedictines from Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. Indeed, these Benedictines influenced me and nurtured my desire for religious life. However, I was not interested in becoming a Benedictine.
My mother was born and raised for most of her childhood in the Lindsay—St. Bernard area of Nebraska – Platte County. This area was Franciscan territory. There were numerous Franciscans in Mom’s family. I must admit that I was enamored by a great uncle, my maternal grandfather’s brother—Br. Adrian Borer. He was a very simple man who seemed to be very happy with simplicity and humbleness. I wanted to be a Franciscan.
As I continued in elementary school and maybe even before I was in elementary school, I played priest. I had vestments and an altar. My siblings and I would play mass. We used the basement stairwell for pews – this is where my siblings were (on the steps) and I would be on the bottom behind the cardboard altar. I used sliced pickles for altar breads—bread and butter pickles. (For the longest time, I always thought the real altar breads had to be in some kind of juice, just because I had pickles in juice.) But when I got to the 7th and 8th grades, things became more serious. Where would I go to high school?
I still wanted to be a Franciscan and so Br. Adrian wanted me to go to Quincy, Illinois to the Friary there. I was ready to do that. But then the parish priest intervened. His name was Fr. Daniel Brick, a very matter of fact sort of man and priest. He very aptly stated that he thought going that far away from home would present a great problem for me. He noticed how close I was to my family and knew that I would get homesick. He was right. I got very homesick, even being only two hours-distance from my home and family.
Fr. Brick suggested St. John’s Seminary in the Omaha Archdiocese at Mount Michael Abbey. Offering to drive me there for a tour and visit was the beginning of the rest of my life as a religious person. I don’t know if I was just being na├»ve or stubborn when I was questioned by the administration of the seminary, but I did not declare a diocese. I was always an independent student. I think in the back of my mind, I still dreamt of religious life as a Franciscan. But as time passed in high school, I was really drawn to the monks of Mount Michael Abbey. I would also say some of the monks took full advantage of the fact that I did not declare a diocese. Perhaps a little recruiting was taking place among them.
Many wonderful things were happening in those days of the 1960’s. It was a good time for me for lots of reasons. Mount Michael was really growing in those days. I did not totally understand what was happening to me, but I began to realize that monks of Mount Michael were a large reason for making me the person I was becoming. I really began to feel indebted to them. I was very drawn to their way of life – a combination of academics and manual labor. I was from a rural area and had to work hard and I loved the thought of being able to continue to do that sort of thing and still being involved in matters academic and religious. I was so impressed that I just wanted to do for others what these wonderful monks had done for me.
The rest of the story is pretty much history. I came to Mount Michael when I was fourteen years old in 1963. I am now sixty years old – 2009. I have been here forty-six years. Perhaps time will now allow me to deal with the ups and downs of those forty-six years and create content for future articles. To be continued in one way or another!!!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Back to the Basics and the True Spirit

These last few months of 2012, we in the Catholic world, have been reminded of what happened fifty years ago—the opening of Vatican Council II. In fact, our table reading presently is: The Spirituality of Vatican II by Fr. Anthony Ciorra.

I was in the eighth grade then – 1962. The very next year I would come to Mount Michael Benedictine which was then St. John’s Seminary. I must admit that it was a very exciting time of my life and many, many things were opened for me, which until then were rather closed. Pope John XXII really became a hero for me at that time. He became know as “good Pope John”. My paternal grandmother often reminded me that I should pay attention to this pope and even pray to him for help in my seminary education, especially since he chose the name: John!

I also have to admit that fifty years later, the Vatican documents are still exciting because so much seems possible. And I would have to admit that listening to Fr. Anthony Ciorra’s conferences on Vatican II is really wonderful.

I have already gone back to some of the documents that were written at that time. I still find them refreshing, filled with hope and encouragement.

There is one aspect of the document on religious life (Perfectae Caritatis—Decree On Renewal of Religious Life) that will always stay with me -- the plea for religious orders to stress the spirit of their founders. For us Benedictines that would mean going back to The Rule of Benedict and the life of Benedict and trying to glean the essentials of the way of life prescribed in those documents. Then adapting the essentials – the charism of monastic life and living it in present times. We used the word charism a lot in those days.

Perhaps one could say that the charism of Benedictines has much to do with St. Benedict’s motto – Work and Pray. St. Benedict set up a structured schedule for monastics for prayer and work. We certainly follow that way of life here at Mount Michael Abbey. Of course, there is down time as well and time for relaxing and resting!

For me, work involves the land—particularly, the three acres of Mount Michael’s garden.

To be a true Benedictine, one needs to be connected to a particular place. In a sense, a Benedictine needs to be grounded – rooted. We are one of the few religious orders that take the vow of stability. We promise to stay in one place. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but we do take the vow of stability.

I have now been here at Mount Michael – in this place – for nearly fifty years. In the fall of 1963, it will be fifty years!!

In many ways, I do feel tied to the land here. I have actually worked the land here – at least part of it most of my life. In many ways, I do feel grounded – maybe even rooted.

However, I also have Franciscan roots. When I first came to Mount Michael, I had no intention of being a Benedictine monk. I wanted to be a Franciscan. I had a great uncle who was a very impressive Franciscan. (Find a fuller version of this story in an earlier bog—A Benedictine with Franciscans Roots).

I would have to say that I feel both spiritualities – charisms—Benedictine and Franciscan – are compatible. Both have much in common and both deal with the land and simply with creation. Albeit, there are no films (of which I am aware) about Benedictines as explictly and romantically involved with creation and God’s creatures as the story of Francis and Clare presented in Zeffirelli’s–Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Nonetheless, even with a quick perusal of the Rule of Benedict, one can find many references to the land, the garden, providing food for the community and generally the care of creation. The longest chapter in The Rule of Benedict is chapter 7 – Humility. If one really understands humility, he/she will know that humility involves the word humus—soil – land. I would say that St. Benedict understood much about the land and being tied to it!

So besides spending time with some of the documents of Vatican II, I intend on planning, planting and working the garden in 2013—this Year of Faith—in honor of St. Benedict and St. Francis and also their female counter parts – St. Scholastica and St. Clare.

It seems appropriate to dedicate the flower areas of the garden to the female saints and the vegetable areas to the male saints. Since St. Francis had a way with animals, perhaps he will deal with the deer and raccoons, creatures that really love the produce of the garden. And since St. Scholastica (story in the Dialogues of St. Gregory) was influential in her intercession with God in regard to an abundant rainfall, perhaps we might, through her intercession, have bountiful rains this next growing season