Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Short, Sweet Summary

OHC's 298th Chapter - The assembled monks and a few Holy Cross Companions
West Park, Saturday, June 11, 2011 - picture by Br. Randy Greve (who ran into place, top right)

Chapter is over! It was quite an amazing week. We worked really hard. We prayed hard, as well. We even played some. And we emerged from all of this as a remarkably united, energized, and amazingly well-functioning group of men - brothers.

We agreed to the founding of Holy Cross School in Grahamstown (South Africa). This will be a school under the Order's aegis which will provide high-quality primary education for poor rural children.

This is an outcome of years of work, trying to find a solution to the dreadful educational conditions in the area around our monastery. Schools are seriously sub-standard or completely absent. Over the years we have started a scholarship program, an after-school tutoring program, recreational programs and other things. The outcome has been the realization that the kids are so deprived so early that the only solution is to have a school that will get them early and will have first-class instruction right from the beginning.

We will be operating grades K-3 (actually South Africa calls Kindergarten "Reception", so it will be R-3). We have good advice that if we get them started this far, they will be able to adjust to the excellent schools that can be found in town, and we can see that they are able to continue in those schools through our Scholarship Program. We will support them for as long as they want to remain in school - through college, if that is their goal. Our scholarship program has just had its first students graduate from local universities, so we have a track record there.

The Order has committed to pay for the construction of the school building, and work will begin soon, so that we can have a Grade R and a Grade 1 beginning in January, when the school year starts. We will then add one grade a year until we are operating all 4 years. Classes will be small. Instruction will be first-rate. Equipment will be state of the art. The school is going to be small, because of the small size of the classes, so what we can accomplish will be limited. But we are going to do what we can. We have also committed ourselves to a major capital funds drive which will raise money to finance and endow the school.

The monastery in Grahamstown is named (in the local language) Maria u Mama we Themba, which means Mary, mother of hope. This is one of the ways in which we are determined to offer hope to the poor people who live in the area around us. And without this school, the local kids have very little in the way of hope.

The Order also committed itself to a major building renovation at the monastery here in West Park. This involves installing a new roof on the monastery building (which has needed doing since the day the building was finished in 1967). This will make possible the remodeling of several rooms to provide Assisted Living space for some older brothers, as I described last week. We are finalizing the plans at the present time. We hope we can begin on this project within a few months.

The conversations that led up to these decisions were full of energy and of hope. Passing the actual resolutions took less than an hour. We were extraordinarily united. It was an amazing week!

We also took an afternoon off for a cruise on the Hudson River. It was really fun. You get a totally different perspective when you're down on the river itself.

Monday is a rest day for me. Tuesday is for packing. Wednesday I leave for Kerhonkson, at the foot of the Catskills. When next you hear from me I will be into my Sabbatical.

I deeply appreciate the many good wishes and promises of prayer that so many people have sent. I hope before long to be letting you in on what life is like for a monk on the loose.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Between

Andrew preached this morning on this being an "in between" Sunday - in between Ascension and Pentecost - and of the difficulty of getting in touch with the identity of this day. As it happens, that was something that was good to hear for me, because I'm in a very in between time myself.

I'm still in charge, but nearly everything has been passed on, so there's nothing to be in charge of, except to be the one who indicates when the silence at the end of readings is over. And it's been about 40 years since I have haven't been in charge of something.

It's disorienting, and I have become easily distracted, so I'm now finding at regular intervals that I've made the wrong decision or given the wrong signal for something to happen. It's embarrassing, but the community corrects me gently, and we go on our way. And it won't last long: about 10 days now.

I remember that I reacted in much the same way in 1982 when my time as Novice Master ended and I went to be Prior of our house in South Carolina, only I had fewer years on me then, and somewhat more grace with which to handle the confusions of the time. But as I told people at that time, some of these things are simply not under my control. My body and my mind are making this change at their own pace, and I have a limited amount to say about that.

And there is comfort in knowing that the change is happening, even if I'm not causing it. I'm making the adjustment that needs to be made, and it's happening surely and steadily. It's nice to know that it doesn't all depend on my skillful or unskillful decisions. My mind has its own sense of timing, and I have to trust that sense.

In the midst of all of this there was a small wonder dropped into our midst. In the middle of the week we came out from lunch one day and someone said that there was a fawn on the lawn over by the monastery building, so a small bunch of us headed in that direction.

Just by the monastery building the grass was quite high. Our groundsman had fallen behind in his mowing because of the difficulty of getting a heavy mower into parts of our grounds which had become water logged in the recent rains. So we passed beyond the stone wall just outside the door to our Church and went through thigh-high grass and there, just in the middle of the lawn, was a very small, perfectly circular nest, and lying in it was a tiny deer, looking at us with huge eyes, and lying perfectly still - so still that it was hard to tell if it was actually breathing.

It was really beautiful, and quite awesome, and there she was, all by herself. And where was the mother? Well, as ordinary urban Americans, most of us had no idea where she was. But one of the brothers went off to find out from the source of all knowledge these days; the InterNet. And he discovered that when a doe has given birth she makes a little nest for her offspring and then goes away for an extended period. This apparently is the safest way for the newborn to survive. The mother is feeding so she can produce milk to feed it, and she is not drawing attention to the fawn while it is helpless. It is nearly scentless because she has licked it thoroughly clean before she leaves, so it is usually quite safe, since the nest is usually not visible in the high grass where does prefer to leave their fawns. Who would have guessed?

The newborn, of course, doesn't like this kind of treatment, so the doe usually has to put her foot down - literally - on the infant and roll it up in a ball and force it to stay down, and then she goes off. But the fawn has some sense of what's good for it, because it stayed quite still and unmoving while we were there.

We were careful to stay fairly far away and to be there for only a short time. Rafael, whose room looks out on that patch of lawn, said that he saw the fawn get up to stretch in the middle of the afternoon, and then it laid back down, and from most of our windows it was quite invisible. By the next morning it was gone, so both it and the mother are no doubt wandering about in the woods by now, and the next time we see them, the baby will be much larger.

I like the idea that the mother thought that a really good, safe place to put her newborn would be some tall grass about 15 feet away from one of our buildings. The local wildlife is generally pretty tame, because they know they face no danger from us or our guests. But this is evidence of just how safe they feel. Either that, or there is a shortage of tall grass this year, and that certainly doesn't appear to be the case.

While we're speaking of the wildlife, one of our guests saw a bear yesterday afternoon, ambling placidly across the lawn. You never know.

I certainly appreciate the good wishes from so many of you for my sabbatical and the expressions of appreciation for the blog. It does feel at this point like I will be continuing it, but I want to wait until I actually get into my new situation and have some time to feel what that's like before I make a decision. I'll also need to see what my rhythm is and when the best time to write would be because, as I've said, I'll be away from my house on Sunday mornings and not able to do it then. But I won't be dropping the blog suddenly in any case, and will give some notice about any changes.

That being said, I don't know when my next post will actually be. Next Sunday we'll be in the midst of our Chapter - which is the annual business and planning meeting of the Order, so I won't be free to do my usual writing. I'll try to get a note in to let you know what the situation is. I move a week from Wednesday, so my life will be unsettled for a couple of weeks now, but I'll be back with news of what's up when I'm able to do it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Plans and More Plans

The community is making plans: plans for the future, and especially for the next year. All sorts of things are afoot.

This is, of course, a result of the sort of transition we are making. Scott is being installed as the new Prior on the 12th of June, and I will be gone on the 15th so, as I have explained in the past few postings, we are doing a transition process in the days leading up to the new Prior's installation instead of afterwards.

So plans, as I say, are being made. Important space is being given to thinking about the integrity of the community's life. There has been a very large increase in the number of people using the Guesthouse in the past couple of years, and especially in this last year. We've been experiencing these increases for some time now, and periodically we need to stop and make sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog.

Of course, we earn our living by running the Guesthouse, and it's important that it thrive. It's also important that we take a look periodically and make sure that we have the time and the silence necessary for our lives as monks, for prayer, for lectio, for reflection. Scott has asked the community to plan more retreat time into the schedule of the next year, and this is a really good beginning. More than anything, we need to have these reflections on a regular basis, just to make sure that we're still in balance.

And to move to the other side of the balance, James, who will be the new Guesthouse Director, has asked for more of the community to be directly involved in the hospitality side of the ministry - welcoming guests, helping them find their place and get settled, orienting them and seeing that they are comfortable and know how to negotiate this mildly complex set of buildings. We hope this will increase the hospitality of our welcome.

We're also considering a new initiative in ministry. We are investigating the possibility of running an intern program for college students that would be based on ministry in the local area and spiritual formation for the interns.

This would be a direct outflow of the living of our monastic life; sharing with young people what it's like to live a life of prayer, and leading them into the practices necessary to sustain such a life. We think this would be a gift to the church, and a very rewarding ministry for us. Enough college age men and women come here now for us to know that this is an attractive place for young adults. Having a ministry directly focused on them is an obvious next step.

This will mean some construction, of course, and some fund-raising. If you've seen our newsletter, the Mundi Medicina, you'll know that we have a space that could fairly easily be made into a suite of 4 bedrooms with a bathroom and a common room, so that the interns could have their own space, which would greatly assist in their community building.

So the next year will be for planning, for fund raising and for various practical considerations. If things go as we hope, we think we could be ready to launch this ministry a year from this fall.

We also considering how we can better provide for the elderly members of our community. Since the earliest days in West Park, we have regularly had to place elderly brothers who are in need of care in nursing homes in the area. This is far from optimal and we don't like it any more than any family does, but it is sometimes necessary. But we think that the time that our brothers spend in such care might be lessened, or in some cases even eliminated by some remodeling of our space, so that we could provide a monastic version of Assisted Living.

We have been very lucky over the years that such a large proportion of our community has had vigorous health into old age, and that we have had to make relatively little use of nursing homes. But this is something that we can't continue to count on, especially as modern medicine is prolonging life so markedly. So Scott has been consulting with our architect about the renovation of some space in our monastery building, and we will talk with the wider community about this at Chapter, and see how we all feel about it after we have talked it over.

So we are moving forward. I've expressed to the community how excited I am about what the transition is revealing, and how much I am going to miss being part of the process. But I know that a period of time away will be good for me and most helpful for the developing of this next era in the community's life. I'll just have to look forward to my return and to seeing how things have worked out, and where I fit into the life that is yet to be revealed.

PS - as part of the transition, this blog will be renamed "Bede's Blog." It will continue to be featured on our web site's "Community Meditations" page. Come visit me there!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Advent in May

This is truly a fascinating experience. The path we have chosen for the new Prior to take over is slowly but surely exercising its power. I have less and less to do - at least of those things associated with being in charge. I've arranged everything that needs arranging. I've made all the lists that are needed. Slowly but surely the brothers who need to ask something are beginning to ask Scott and not me. I still sit in the big chair. But I'm more and more a symbol and not anything functional.

This means the process is working, of course. Once you announce that a transition is taking place, there's no way to stop it from beginning. A certain amount of the change just takes place because of its own energy. And a symbol is not an empty thing. A good deal of the power of any office is symbolic. It's just different - quite different.

This afternoon we have a meeting for the community to begin considering issues for the living of the next year. I expect there will be a good deal of energy for this meeting, and that after it the process will be even further advanced. Then we will be in retreat for three days this week. This is simply our usual quarterly retreat, but it comes as at particularly significant moment in the community's life and it will have its own significant energy.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, there's plenty of stuff that still needs to be done. There are filing cabinets that could be cleaned out. But they could have been cleaned out long ago. There is long-delayed correspondence that can be done. Ditto. There are small things that I always wished I had the time for. Is that it? Well, I may do one or another of those things, but I don't think they are it, if by "it" I mean what this time is really for.

I think my principal occupation now is to wait. The energy has gone elsewhere, for myself as well as most of the community, and this is the way it should be. Now I wait. That's my job. I have my own personal Advent this year, only it's in the Spring.

A time to wait. A time to feel what waiting is like.

I don't want to live in the future or the past. I want to live now. I treasure many, many things about these years of being the community's leader, and I know that the (immediate) future is going to be really good. But neither of those is where I am now. And so I wait. Waiting has its own discipline and its own feelings.

I might not have described the process this way as recently as yesterday. But when I started to think about what I was going to write this week, I realized that I couldn't think of anything. I usually write about what's going on now. Well, I've said what I have to say about ceasing to the the Prior, and I've given a beginning description about what I'll be doing after this. I couldn't think of a thing that needed to be said. And so I thought I'd explore that and see what was there, and that's when I knew that I'd entered into this waiting time.

It will not be long. And it will have its own disciplines and rewards.

PS - a few of us were having a discussion the other evening about what I should call this blog after I'm not the Prior any longer. Elizabeth said it should be called "The Prior Prior's Column." That really tickles my sense of the use of words, and I do love it. But I'm not sure I want to emphasize the fact that I used to have this position. Something more about what I will be next, I think, is more what I'm looking for. "Bede's Blog" is the first thing that struck me, but I'm not sure that's it, either. Hmmmmm. This will require some thought.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Transition Continues

The transition of my stepping down as Prior involves a lot more people than me, of course, and we have begun that process.

Our practice in the past has been for the Superior to discuss the appointment of a new Prior with the Order's Council at Chapter (the annual meeting of the Order in June each year). Then the appointment is announced, the new Prior is appointed, and the transition begins.

This year Robert decided to try a new pattern. He met with the Council a couple of weeks ago, at the time of Br James' life profession, because all the members of the Council were going to be here for that event. A number of appointments had to be decided on because all of the terms of the Order's officers expire every three years, and that occurs next month. The Council discussed the proposed appointments, and consented to them, and Robert made the appointments at that time. This means that we now have a month or so of "Lame Duck" status. Br Scott will be the next Prior, and he will be installed on June 12, but the transition has already begun.

This has proved helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, doing it the old way was going to make for a very abrupt change, because I have to leave immediately after Chapter. Our friend Elizabeth, in whose house I will be living this summer, is leaving for a period of residence with our community in South Africa at the end of that week, and I have to be there for a couple of days before she leaves so I can learn what needs to be known about the house, and the care of the cat, and the relationship with the neighbors and all of that sort of thing. This would mean that, in fact, there would hardly be any transition time, and that didn't seem satisfactory. So the new way was proposed and agreed on.

Right after his appointment was announced Scott and I agreed that I would be in charge of anything happening between now and June 12 and he would be in charge of anything happening after that. It has worked very smoothly from my point of view. It has made a natural way of turning things over and has contributed well to the sense that things are changing, but at a measured pace and as a natural part of our life, which of course it is.

Scott set to work very quickly to organize things for his term. He has announced a couple of appointments of house officers and started to meet with the Brothers who will be on his Council. People are shifting into new positions. Shifts in work responsibilities are happening. For instance, Br Mark will be doing the Incense work while I'm gone. I've been working with him about this since last fall, but he has now taken over completely and is doing the work on his own, with a bit of looking over the shoulder from me. Br James, who has been doing all of our weekly work lists for a long time, has now offloaded that onto Br Julian, who took some time to learn this particular craft and is now doing it himself. Brothers seem to be taking their time making shifts and adjustments, and the process has been fairly placid.

But it has come along in a major way. Yesterday when I had finished writing some notes to people who had sent gifts to us, I realized that I had finished just about every administrative task that needs to be done. A couple of minor things remain - putting out the next preaching rota and getting the calendar of community events arranged for the time between now and June 12 - and then I will be done with the administrative part of the job. I have not been looking at this much free time in many years. It feels really nice.

Not that I lack for things to do. There are always files to clean out, and in my case, they date back to when I returned to this house from South Carolina in 1990. Fortunately most of that stuff can just be pitched at this point. Not much sorting, just into the trash can they go. I need to make sure that I have books that I want to take along organized and in a box. But just doing that makes clear that I'm now making detailed plans for the future and not wrapping up, so there's another shift.

It's been a good process, and I think it will serve the community well as the turning of things over continues. I'm grateful for the way it's going.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Big Transition

There's a major transition coming up for me. In just a little more than a month my term as Prior will be completed, and I am stepping down and will be taking a period of sabbatical. I wanted to let my readers know that this change was coming rather than spring it at the last moment. So what I am going to do this morning is post a copy of an article that I wrote about it for our Newsletter, Mundi Medicina, which will be appearing very shortly.
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Sabbath, Sabbatical and Us – and Me

Few things are as deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the keeping of a Sabbath – a regular day which is given to rest, to socializing (especially with family) and to worship. Reading of some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures can give the impression that there is really only one Commandment – you are to keep the Sabbath; and this means one simple thing. No work.

The provision of a regular day on which the routine is entirely different, when the focus is not on the usual business of life, is based on a deep intuition. We get into a routine, which becomes a habit, and then becomes a rut. It is necessary to interrupt the routine periodically and regularly so that we can think differently, so that we can pray differently, so that we can be different. Over a period of time, Sabbath keeping introduces us to deeper levels of experience. The Hebrew Scriptures present the Sabbath as the meeting place between God and human beings, and the keeping of the Sabbath as the sharing in the very being of God. It’s not a small thing.

We have a Sabbath here at Holy Cross: for us it’s Monday, since our Guesthouse ministry means that we work on weekends. We do our best to make a real Sabbath possible. The usual schedule is suspended and our business offices are closed. There’s no pressure to get things done, except, of course the pressure that comes from within. We hope that the space we create for ourselves on Mondays will relax us, refresh us – and more than anything, sanctify us. Above all, Mondays are about expanding our time, so that we have time for quiet, and for each other, and most of all for God.

Sabbaths gave rise to a different kind of rhythm, that of the Sabbatical. Now largely restricted to the academic community and to the clergy, sabbaticals offer – at least potentially – an expanded experience of Sabbath, one in which a person is able to relax, expand, see things differently and get the creative energies recreated.

And so we come to my plans. In June my term as Prior of Holy Cross Monastery will come to an end, and being 73 years old, it seemed the right time to draw this part of my monastic vocation to a close. These years of being at the helm of the monastery have been full of wonderful blessings, and I have a great sense of joy and thankfulness for this time. I will always be grateful for this opportunity, and for the marvelous, creative and most unusual community that we have here!

What now? The first thing is a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals have been traditional in Holy Cross, especially for people who have been in leadership positions for a long time. Our Superiors have, ever since I have known, taken a long time away after their terms expire. I’m going to step into this tradition and have an extended sabbatical over the next year.

The opening time is going to be a good long retreat. I will leave the monastery directly after Chapter in mid-June, and during the summer I’ll be house-sitting for our friend Elizabeth Broyles, at her place in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Elizabeth was for some time a Resident here at Holy Cross, and she is going to be at the monastery in South Africa for 3 months this summer, and while she’s gone, I’ll keep her house occupied and her cat tended. I’m intending for this part of my time to be largely one of solitude, though I’m not going to be rigid about it. I’ll have a bit of social life, and I’m planning to spend some time with the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, just to have some community life. But mostly I’m going to have quiet, and space, and time to luxuriate in the Scriptures and some other reading, and lots of time for prayer and meditation. I’m also going to roam the Catskills and sit by mountain lakes and learn again what morning and noon and night feel like.

Then in the late Fall I will set out for Kansas City, stopping to visit with some friends and family along the way. When I arrive in “KC” I’ll be occupying a lower floor “apartment” in the home of my friends Mark and Clare Romain. They have a beautiful home in the far western suburbs of the city and from my hillside room I’ll have a view of deep woods and a stream, and have access to hiking trails right outside the door. I’ll build on the foundation that I hope to establish in the summer, and continue to give much time to prayer, to lectio and to study. I’m also going to set to work to recover some of my long-lost cooking skills, and I’ll do some craft work – I hope to work with beads, making rosaries, prayer ropes and such. And of course I plan to have good time with friends I haven’t been able to be with in many years. I’m hoping that it will be a deep time, and also a leisurely time. I will return to West Park in the late Spring of 2012. I hope for the prayers of many of you while I’m engaging in this adventure, and I know there are going to be lots of stories to tell both during and after this time.
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At the present, I do not know what the future of this blog will be. I'm not sure that the reminiscences of a solitary will have the same appeal as a blog about what it's like to live in a monastery. I think I'm just going to have to feel it for a while and see what I want to do about writing. I do know that I will not be able to do it on Sunday mornings, because on that day I'll be with the Sisters in Brewster most weeks. So we'll just have to see.

The years of offering a perspective on our life to all of you have been a real joy, and I've loved seeing the blog develop and grow. I also look forward to what happens next, and hope for your interest, and for your prayers.

Br Bede

Sunday, May 1, 2011

And One More!

Just as you were beginning to think that we had reached the end of the Big Community Events, along comes another celebration to cap off the two we have already had - the Clothing of Br Mark as a Novice and the First Profession of Vows by Br Julian. On Thursday of this week we had the Profession of Life Vows by our Br James.

And what an event it was! The crowd was really something, by the standards of the size of our Church, at least. There were people from all parts of James' life: his family, a number of them, his mother included, from England, where one of this brothers is now working, a nun who taught him in high school in Virginia, people who knew him when he belonged to a religious community in the Roman Catholic Church a good many years ago, people who knew him in his professional life as a Theater and TV Director, and of course those who have come to know him since he has been a member of our community, including the people involved in the ministry of Ecclesia, the Newburgh ministry to street people with which he is deeply involved.

And, of course, all of that was topped off by a good helping of people who were here because they care for the Holy Cross community - local clergy, members of several religious orders, both Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, our Associates, our friends. It was a fine old crowd, and they sang with unusual gusto, and they were so happy that you could almost have weighed the joy on a scale. And did they sing!

At Chapter, just about 2 hours before the service, Jim said to the community: "This is a wonderful day for me. I have wanted to do this for all of my 49 years." Not a one of us doubts that.

The service began with a question with whose nature you are now surely familiar: "James, through Baptism you are dead to sin and risen in the Lord. Are you resolved to pursue this consecration to its fulfillment in your life by undertaking Monastic Profession?" To which he answered simply: "I am."

Then all of us knelt while James prostrated himself before the altar and we sang the Veni Creator - the great hymn to the Holy Spirit - and then he read out his vow of Stability, Conversion of my life to the Monastic way of Life, and Obedience, and took the Vow which he had written out in his own hand ahead of time, laid in on the altar and signed it.
Br. James signs his Life Vow - Picture by Br. Julian
Br. Julian's photographic report of Br. James' Life Profession

He was then given the black cross which marks the Life Professed in our community and a copy of Benedict's Rule and the Rule of Fr Huntington, our Founder. I am always particularly moved by the words that are said when Benedict's Rule is delivered to the newly professed: "Receive the Rule of St Benedict. Many saints have been formed by it. Be faithful to the tradition now passed on to you." That's the point at which I see most clearly the line in which I stand, as it goes back more than a thousand years and stretches ahead of me into the far, far future.

Who knows what monks will be like a thousand years from now? But they will be bearing that rule and that tradition.

The rest was all happiness and celebration. And just before we gathered around the altar for the consecration of the Bread and Wine, we sang:

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord,
If you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

It is a perfect expression of what this life is really about: God calls, we answer - as best we can - and we hold the world and all its people in our hearts, and we also respond to them - as best we can. Monasticism is never going to be a majority movement in this society. But there are some people who belong here. I am one of them. And I doubt if there was a person in that crammed Church that morning who didn't know that Br James is also one of them.

So one more time in this Eastertide - Alleluia!