Sunday, December 30, 2007

Giving and/or Receiving

Last week I alluded to our Christmas gift-giving in a short paragraph towards the end of my column. This week I find that I have to expand on that paragraph because it was such a wonderful part of our Christmas.

For many years now we have had a gift exchange in the community. Each person has been allotted some money and towards the beginning of Advent we have had a drawing in which each of us got a name. Then began the work of finding out, or guessing, what that person might like to have and shopping and wrapping. The usual. On Christmas afternoon we had a community gathering and one of us played Santa and distributed the gifts that had been wrapped and were under the tree. It was great fun and there were lots of laughs and usually some touching moments.

But over time this event began to lose its energy. For one thing, monks don't really need very much, no matter how consumerist we try to be at least once a year. And the longer you live in community the more you discover that when you don't need very much the amount that you want also decreases. By last year we had gotten to the point where almost everyone was getting gift cards to Barnes & Noble or L L Bean (or even to our own Gift Shoppe!). Something needed to be done.

So we got a committee together - the great American solution for dilemmas - to decide what we wanted to do about Christmas.

And they came up with quite a good idea. We would have a Community gathering as usual and we would have gifts, but we weren't going to give gifts to each other. We would make the same amount of money available to each person, and we were going to give the money away, and each of us got to decide where we would like to our money to go. Furthermore, when we looked at our finances carefully we discovered that the Monastery would even be able to match these funds, so that what we would give away could be a bit larger. This sounded good to us all, and so we latched onto the project.

A week before Christmas the list went up - we had to put down where we wanted our gift to go so that the checks could be written. Slowly the list filled up. It began to look as though this might be very interesting.

"Interesting" turned out to be a mild word for it. In the midst of Christmas afternoon I went past one of our business offices and there was the community's Bursar actually writing the checks for our Community gathering. He was really simmering with joy at what he was doing, looking at the variety of the community's concerns and making it possible to do something to meet the needs of those we are concerned about.

And so we gathered. Each person got his check, and as he got it he got to tell where it was going to go and who it would help. It was a deeply moving time. One brother has admired the work of the Heifer International Project for many years. This year he got not only to admire their work, but to buy a goat for a farmer in Asia. Another brother has been a supporter of the cause of micro-lending. This a policy followed by a few international banks who make very small loans to women in Third World countries so that they can start businesses or have projects that will make their lives more bearable. A number of us decided to pool some of our gifts so that we could give a really nice gift to the drop-in center for homeless people at which one of the brothers works each week. Some money went to help with drug and alcohol treatment for teens. And on it went. To see the breadth of our concerns and to feel the light in the room as we each got to do something about those we pray for gave a dimension to Christmas that I think none of us will not forget any time soon.

So - it's just a small amount of money. We're not going to change the world. Or maybe we are. At least one man in Southeast Asia will have a goat to help on his small farm and with the feeding of his children. A woman in Brazil will have a sewing machine to start a small business and be able to begin lifting her family out of poverty. Some people in Newburgh will have a warm place to go and some food to eat instead of spending their winter days on the streets. Some teenagers will begin to learn what it means to live in freedom instead of the slavery of addiction. Maybe we aren't changing the world, but we'll be changing some of the world.

And me, you ask. What did I do with my money? Well, I had a very private wish fulfilled. Regular readers of this column will know that I graduated from Cornell University many, many years ago, and that in recent years I have returned to Cornell to work with the Episcopal chaplaincy there, and that this reconnection with my school has been a very powerful moment in my life. Another part of the story is that nearly all my adult life I have been a monk, and I have never had money to give away. I have never had anything to send to Cornell. Now, while they are having a Capital Funds Campaign, I get to contribute. It's not much, except to me. Cornell is raising 4 Billion Dollars to assure their future as a fine institution of learning. People come there from all over the world, including not a few poor people who are able to come because of the generosity of those who believe in the place. In the larger scheme of things my little contribution will scarcely be noticed. But knowing that after all these years my small gift will be there in the fund that is securing the future of my school means more to me that I can easily say. I learned a lot of stuff at Cornell; I got a degree in Chemistry. And I learned about being a man, and about being a human being and about loving and about living. Now someone else will get to learn those things, too. How wonderful!

On Wednesday I shared our Christmas with the small meditation group across the River that I sit with each week. "Oh yes," the teacher said: "this is another form of Practice. You are practicing being generous. Very important." Of course! One of the themes of the past couple of years here at Holy Cross has been the ways in which we want to be more generous - to become a community of generosity. So of course we are finding ways to practice that. And it is important: if you want to change something, you have to practice the new way that will take the place of the old.

So this Christmas we Practiced. It was a wonderful Feast.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Monk Celebrating Christmas

On Friday I had an appointment with an Acupuncturist whose office is up near Woodstock, and it's something of a journey to get there. I started out with a big surprise: the roads were completely empty. I drove all the way to Port Ewen, the seat of our Town government - about 8 miles away - without encountering a single other vehicle. I have never seen the roads so deserted. I couldn't imagine where everyone had gone. I was expecting a fair amount of holiday shopping traffic and there was nothing. "What?" I thought. "Has everyone suddenly developed some sense?"

I should have known.

Normally I take a back road around Kingston to avoid the traffic congestion of the shopping area, but Friday I decided I'd go the shorter way through the city, since the roads were so lightly traveled. Big mistake. When I got near the Hudson Valley Mall and all the stores around it, I discovered where all the people were who are normally on the highways had gone. Route 9-W past the mall was practically a parking lot 2 miles long. Jammed with cars. Horns blowing. People shouting. Nothing moving. By the time I got through that mess I was very late for my appointment, but of course everyone understood. Everyone but me knew what would be going on in Kingston on the Friday before Christmas.

This happens to me every few years, and it serves as a very useful reminder to me of just how differently we observe this whole season than almost everyone else. We celebrate what are now called "The Holidays" by slowing down instead of speeding up. We have less traveling outside the monastery than at other times. We have a rich liturgical celebration of Advent which focuses on the longing of the human race for God. "O Come" we sing, over and over. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". "O King of Nations, Come" "Come, O Lord in Peace."

In the week before Christmas we have a 3-day retreat. The guesthouse is shut. The whole place is silent. The liturgical schedule is pared down. We have a vast quiet with snow and the river to keep us company. We try to make it possible to be really refreshed and ready for the celebration of Christmas. One of our friends who was rector of one of the parishes in Kingston said that one of the delights of the season for her was to come down here during the busiest shopping days of the year and see the sign on the door of our Gift Shop: "Closed for Retreat".

A great cultural festival goes on in this country from Thanksgiving until December 25. It's a winter festival and it is found in nearly every culture and religion in the Northern Hemisphere. Its hallmarks are good cheer and good consumption. Parties. Gifts. So much celebrating and so much busy-ness that everyone is worn out. It used to be called "Christmas". It's now widely referred to as "The Holidays". I'm not one of those people who lament the detachment of the American cultural feast from the vestiges of the Christian religion. I think, in fact, it's quite useful to be clear that two different things are going on here.

Both things are good. At Holy Cross we aren't a group who are opposed to celebration. We are rather opposed to excess and we do insist that what we do always make room for quiet and for the inward journey, but we also like partying. We are going to celebrate Christmas in grand style and there will be a lot of people here to celebrate with us. We will decorate splendidly. We'll have a huge tree which we will decorate on Christmas Eve (are we the last people in the United States who don't put their tree up until Christmas Eve?) We will have a Midnight Mass that is solemn and stately and will have wonderful singing and preaching and rejoicing. We'll have a good reception afterwards and it will be ridiculously late when we get to bed. Edward, our chef, has been thinking for weeks about how he can make our Christmas dinner more splendid that it was last year. He will probably succeed, and our waistlines will show it. Again, lots of people will be here to share this with us, and will be here for a week. Our guesthouse will be open continuously now until January 1, and a good large supply of people will come and go all during the next 10 days. At the end of it we will be exhausted with celebrating and being hospitable. We'll be ready for a few days off, which we will proceed to have after New Year's Day.

There will be gifts, too. Many friends remember us at this time, and for that we are very grateful. And our own gift giving is going to be pretty special, too. Everyone in our community will have a certain amount of money available, and each of us gets to decide who - or what cause - they would like to give it to. At a community gathering on Christmas Day we will have a time to relax with each other. We will open the presents that people have sent. Then - the most important part - we will share with each other where each of our personal gifts will be going and why these people and ministries we have chosen to support are important to us. We are really looking forward to it.

So all in all I'm pretty satisfied to be out of step with most people at this time of the year. I really love the way we choose to celebrate Advent and Christmas. I'm glad not to be captive to The Holidays. I like keeping our focus and our care for the season. I think we celebrate well, and I don't feel in the least deprived.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Silence Before the Dawn

I was up really early this morning.

Last night I was quite tired, after a day that included digging one of our cars out of a snow bank and an afternoon fighting my way through the mobs in the Poughkeepsie stores. Faced with exhaustion, I managed to get myself into bed earlier than I usually do, which is a feat in itself, and which I found myself very glad to have done. And one of the results of this remarkable feat was that I woke up before 5 this morning, having had 7 hours of sleep and feeling rested and as though I had had my fill of sleep for the time being.

So there I was. I had an hour and a half before I needed to get my shower. I don't often have a nice stretch of time that is completely free and available for whatever I want. What to do? There is always meditation, of course, or Lectio, or study - things I don't usually get nearly as much time for as I would like. The only complication there was that I didn't want anything that felt even a little bit like work. I didn't want another task. December is a very busy time for us; sometimes it's almost completely crazy, what with guesthouse programs and people coming and going and needing to have time with one of us to reflect on their lives before Christmas, and Incense sales going through the roof and thank-you notes to be started on and so much else. And I do often get meditation and reading confused in my mind with just one more task that has to be done. I know better, but knowing better and reacting that way emotionally are, I have discovered, two different things.

So I didn't want a job, even (or especially) the job of praying. I wanted something that would feel like I had this lovely hour of free time to luxuriate in. It took a while, but not too long, to figure out what I was going to do. I threw on my robe and went down to the Common Room to make the morning coffee. All was quiet. No one else was up yet, at least no one who wanted coffee. So I made a carafe of good strong coffee, and filled my favorite mug with it and went back to my room, put my coffee mug on a little mug-sized heater that I have to keep it warm, and got back into bed.

It felt wonderful. The coffee was delicious. I lit a couple of candles (I am a real fan of beautiful candles) and they were lovely in the darkness. Everything was still; there wasn't a sound in the house. Outside were the sounds of the storm that we are in the midst of, principally the sound of sleet beating against my window. It was dark, with not a sign of dawn yet. And I felt the comfort of the pre-dawn hours that I really love.
Like a lot of people who pray a good deal, I am attracted to the night, especially to praying in the night. Keeping vigil is one of the most constant elements of monastic spirituality. There is something about getting up to pray before it is light that really nourishes my soul. I have never found it particularly easy to explain this attraction to those who think that this behavior is crazy, but it has always been true for me. This is the time I love to be awake and to pray. One of the happiest times in my life were the year that I lived with a monastic community in England that got up at 2:00 a.m. each morning to pray the Night Office. I know that most people find this outrageous, but I felt like I had been given a year-long wonderful present - I got to get up at 2:00 to pray. Even now in mid- summer I find myself quite out of sorts because no matter how early you get up, it's light, and that's not what my soul longs for.

So back to the darkness of this morning: this most interesting thing happened. This morning, having successfully arranged things so I wasn't feeling "on duty" or "at work" meditating and praying, I found myself praying and meditating. There was plenty of stuff to attend to: there was the sound of the sleet relentlessly whispering at the window; there were the candles across the room, giving out their message of beauty and the deeply symbolic gift of light; there was the silence of the early morning, waiting there to be savored. Gradually all of that took over. The simplicity that is supposed to characterize meditation came and carried me when I gave it just a little encouragement. I went 'in' and 'down', whatever those words may actually mean when it comes to describing these states. I was where I needed to be, comforted by my flannel sheets and my early morning coffee, and deeply present to the moment where I was. The Spirit seemed very close.

And I was more ready for the rest of the morning that I am accustomed to being. Matins was a real joy. Almost all of our guests have fled in advance of the storm, and the very few who are still with us did not choose to get up in time for Matins. So it was just us, and the weak dawn light and the Psalms and chants that have sustained this community for more than 100 years. The singing resonated around the Church, as it has been doing since the 1920's, when the building was put up, and it seemed completely right. And so the morning has continued to be: breakfast, with a nice quiche that our chef made before he went home last night in case he wasn't able to get in this morning (which he wasn't); and then mass with the chant and hymns that bring us back to this time in Advent and a very nice sermon that took us on a walk through the Scripture passages for the day and let us play with them as we would.

The day will continue like this. The service of Lessons and Carols planned for this afternoon has been moved to next week. We won't be going anywhere, because getting out of our driveway just now might not be impossible, but most of us will probably want to postpone that effort until the storm has passed. We'll enjoy the quietness and freedom of a Sunday to ourselves.

And I want to guard this day. I'd like to go on celebrating the freedom of that pre-dawn hour as long as I can. I want to play with the open space and love the whiteness that surrounds us and enjoy the stillness and let the Spirit be near.

Sometimes I learn more about meditation when I decide not to meditate than I do when I work at it really hard. Funny, isn't it?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Gift For Advent

On Friday of this week I set off on a two-hour drive to a Connecticut hospital for a visit I was dreading in a situation that I could only describe as tragic. I went to see a dear friend of many years whose life is drawing to a close. She is a woman who has lived by words. She has been a successful author and also a publisher, a woman of deep prayer and an equally deep commitment to the ministry of healing. Her words have brought hope and enlightenment to countless people. But time, and her body, have robbed her of her words.

About ten years ago she had a serious stroke, from which she recovered quite well. But since then there have been other strokes, large and small, and gradually the words departed from her, first because she could no longer write, and now after last week's stroke and seizures, because she can no longer speak. She has been mostly paralyzed for months now, and her ability to manage ordinary communication has grown more and more limited.

It's a terrible situation - the sort of condition that causes people to doubt the existence of God or the worth of ideals, and to pray fervently for a different sort of journey at the close of their lives. Very few of us would want to live the end of our life like this; but very few of us have a choice about that. I remember with clarity a conversation about death with this dear friend in which she said: "There are very few easy ways out of this life."

Of course I needed to be there, and I had to move a bunch of appointments to clear the time, but everyone understood. And so I set off. To say that I wasn't looking forward to the journey would be understating things a very great deal.

If you follow this blog at all regularly and are used to my writing style, you know already that I'm about to say that it turned out differently than I had expected. When I walked into the hospital room, my friend was sleeping. Her children, whom I know, were sitting about the room in the usual attitudes of a long wearying bedside watch. They smiled and welcomed me, and one of them shook her and when she opened her eyes said: "Mom, Bede's here."

What happened next was totally unexpected. Her body stretched and moved. Her face lit up. With the few facial muscles that still work she broke what I can only describe as a radiant smile. She glowed. She might not have much access to her bodily functioning any more, but with all that she had she was welcoming me. From a corner of the room one of the family members said: "Look at that!", and someone went in search of a camera. I just hugged her gently and gave thanks.

So I sat beside her and held the one hand that still works and talked to her. I started with doing what one usually does - telling her the news, who is doing what, what's going on at the monastery. That was OK, but it became clear very soon that it wasn't what she really wanted, so I stopped. What she really wanted was me, and that's what I needed to give her.

So we spent the afternoon together while I held her hand, and the time felt very full, and quite enough. She is having small seizures at frequent intervals and after each one she needs to take a little nap. The afternoon was marked by periods of silence and companionship and then by one of her small naps, after which she would awake and find me there all over again, and smile her radiant smile of welcome.

It was an afternoon of comfortable being together, punctuated with little bursts of joy. It all happened in silence. She was completely there. I had access to a part of her that was not limited by her physical condition. She was wholly my friend and my companion on the spiritual quest. We didn't talk much, and nothing was missing from our visit because of that. We had what both of us needed.

Then the end of the afternoon came. It was growing dark. Some snow threatened to make the return journey difficult. She was tired and needing rest. I had to go. So I rose and laid her hand down and told her I was leaving. And I can only describe what happened then by saying that she grabbed me. She didn't do it with her hands, because they hardly work any more. She did it with her eyes. She pierced me with a deep and intense gaze. She looked straight down to the bottom of my soul, and opened herself to me. And for many minutes we gazed at each other, and I was as open as I have ever been.

I felt completely welcomed, completely loved, completely accepted. She offered me all of herself, and received everything I had to give. It was all done in silence, of course, but it was so intensely private that the other people in the room quietly stole out to leave us alone, because even though not a word was spoken it was clear to anyone there that we were having a very personal time. I can't tell you how long it lasted. It lasted a long time, or a short time. It lasted forever. It was beyond time. Love conquers all our boundaries.

And then I drove home in a Friday evening rush hour of people leaving Manhattan for a weekend in Connecticut or upstate New York. I drove bumper to bumper at an average speed of 17 miles an hour and the trip that usually takes 2 hours took 5. It seemed like a few minutes. Through the whole time I explored the corners of my heart that had been seized and touched through the wonders of the afternoon.

I was sad, of course, and not wanting to go through what comes next. I was even more open than I had been before to the awful aspects of her situation. And I was filled to overflowing with love and gratitude and joy. A most remarkable transformation has been working in my old friend in these past few months. God has taken the gift of her soul, which she has so steadfastly offered over the years, and made it into gold. And I got to see that. This inner transformation is no longer an article of faith for me - I have seen it with my own eyes.

When I arrived home the members of the community wanted to know, of course, how it had gone. What I found myself saying was that I went expecting to see a tragedy, and what I found was very, very different from that. I found something about the depth of life.

This morning's Eucharist reading from Romans urges us to "abound in hope." That reading gave words to my experience on the way home from the hospital. I was abounding in hope. And the hope I have been abounding in is not an empty experience, hoping for some fulfillment that I don't have yet. It is a fulfilled, wondrous experience of what we look forward to. Life does flourish in the midst of dying and in the midst of death. I have seen that directly now, and in my own way have been transformed by it.

What a perfect Advent gift, as we wait for the coming of Christ. Thank you so much, dear friend, for your gift.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Jake the Dental Dog

My new dentist has an office dog.

Well, the dentist isn’t all that new: I’ve been seeing him for a year now. But I had, after all, been seeing the former one for nearly 20 years, until a medical condition forced his retirement. So the present dentist still seems new. A year ago I started with the new dentist on the project of a major interior renovation of my mouth that has occupied all of the time since then. This has involved frequent appointments which have often been quite prolonged.

Not long after I started this process I was in the midst of one of my first long sessions – about two and a half hours of probing and drilling, as I recall. In this midst of this ordeal the dentist, compassionate soul that he is, had given me a 10 minute respite. I was stretched out nearly flat in the chair with my arms leaning on the arm rests and my hands dropping down to the sides, thinking of nothing and trying to take advantage of the time between drillings. I was drifting half way between consciousness and sleep. And then, all of a sudden I felt something cold and wet in the palm of my right hand.

I started up and looked down to my right and there was a medium sized quite pudgy yellow dog, who had the most beguiling look in his eyes and who was wagging his long tail so vigorously that his whole body shook back and forth with the effort. All of him was wagging. He looked so perfectly delighted to have found a new person to love, and perhaps to get a scratch from in return. I obliged, and through half-closed eyes he let me know that I had given him the best gift that life affords. I was his friend for life, that was clear. “That’s Jake” the dental assistant said.

Jake’s job is to love people. He obviously likes his job quite a lot. He’s not always there when I go to the office, but when he is he roams from treatment room to treatment room spreading love wherever he goes. He delights people and delights in people. He eases the tension that always goes with dental treatment. In between times of wandering through the office he lies in a corner of the reception area, napping. But he’s always glad to interrupt his nap when the call of love arises. He is a real treasure.

Since the day I met him, Jake has held up a mirror before me. “Why” I think, “can’t I be more like Jake?” Why can’t I be given to love like that? The living out of the life of love is one of the most obvious demands of the Christian call. What is it that keeps me from doing it the way Jake does, simply, whole-heartedly, completely.transparently. Why don’t I wiggle with delight at the appearance of a new person to love?

Now I know dogs pretty well. I’m not naive about their foibles, their needs and their tricks. I know some of what Jake is up to in his doggie way. I also know myself, at least a bit, and I am not entirely clueless about the answer to the question that I just posed. I know some of the shadows and scars that keep me from that open-hearted loving response that Jake is able to offer.

This past weekend, as happens each year at this time, my dear friend Suzanne Guthrie and I conducted the annual Advent Retreat here at the monastery. In the course of one of her addresses, Suzanne raised exactly this issue in a particularly realistic and pointed way. She said:

“…….. for compassion to flourish, so much of me has to change and die. So much selfishness must be purified, tried in the refiner’s fire: the ever-accumulating dross of fear and pride, sloth and weakness, ignorance and craving and anger, all those things that make me so lovable! …… must be transformed. What a thankless, yea verily, what a hopeless task!

“Okay, okay, I get it.

“I’ve been working up to this my whole life. like the young Augustine writing about mere lust, “Make me chaste, but not yet…” I have been saying, “Make me compassionate, but … not yet.”

“Well then, when?

“Why not this Advent?”

And I look at Jake and say, why not? Can I look at him and give it a try? I have some motivation, at least, because I do know, down in the depths of my being, how important this can be.

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and across the street from us in an ancient house was an old lady who came as close to being pure love as I have ever known. Her name was Miss Nettie Robinson. She had lived most of her life with her sister Maude, whom I only barely remembered, and since Maude’s death she had lived alone. She loved everyone, and almost everyone returned the favor. She was pure goodness, as far as I could tell, and the people in our town honored this. The local grocery store delivered her groceries long after they had stopped doing it for anyone else. She drove a 1932 Ford coupe (which she always referred to as The Machine) and people flew to the right and left when she came down the street, but no one ever thought of telling her that she couldn’t drive any longer – not for a long time. People protected and cared for her so that she could go on loving everyone.

One of the people Nettie loved most was me. She looked across the street and saw the trouble that was in our house and looked at me and saw the weight of that burden in my life and how heavy it was for me to carry. She knew what to do about a small child sinking under a heavy burden, and she responded as she knew best: she loved me with all her heart. That’s what saved me. I'm not exaggerating: it really did save me, and much of what I have of balance and stability and just plain sanity is due to the love of Miss Nettie Robinson (and also to my Aunt Sarah, another great lover of people) I know how important it can be to love people.

So this Advent, can I take up this vocation? Can I love in the mold of Miss Nettie Robinson, and of my Aunt Sarah? Can I love, just because love is what I am called to as a Christian and as a monk? Couldn’t I be just a bit like Jake, in the ways it would be proper for me to be like Jake? Could I wiggle with all my heart when someone comes along?

I would like to try, and this is the best time that I know to start.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Leaving and a Staying

There were two events of significance in this community during the past week. Br Bernard, who has been with us a bit less than 4 years, and who is in Annual Vows, renewed his vow for another year. Br Robert, who is a novice, departed for a year's stay at our monastery in South Africa.

Holy Cross tends to believe that people integrate into the community best if they are drawn into our work life as well as our prayer life, and so both of these men are and have been central in the functioning of the house. Bernard is in charge of the application process for men from the eastern part of the United States who want to enter the novitiate of the community. As a former international banker he is also a mover and a shaker on our Finance Committee, and is serves on the Guesthouse staff as the person in charge of group reservations. Rob was a parish priest when he came to us, having spent the past 17 years in Stone Ridge, about a half-hour west of us, and for the two years before he entered he was an Oblate of the community and lived here part-time, so we've known him for a long time. In addition to his novitiate formation program he has been a key member of the Bookstore staff, and he has been in charge of most of the work in our sacristy. He also has been one of the key members of the Guesthouse staff - the person who sees to it that the guests are supplied with linens! We have used many of the gifts that these men have to offer and we have come to depend on them.

This didn't happen overnight. Entering a monastic community is not an easy business for anyone concerned - either the candidate or the community. Because most of the men entering our novitiate are middle-aged, they have had their own careers, their own relationships (sometimes their own families), their own possessions, their own lives. They are used to deciding how they want things to be, and to getting things done in their own way. They leave all of this when they come to us, and embark on the process of finding out how a community - especially this community - does things. It's fair to say that no one finds this process a continuous delight.

In a community of 15 people, no decision gets made as quickly as it would if you were making it yourself. No difficulty is addressed as smoothly as it would be if you were doing it yourself. No meal is served just the way you would have it. You are likely to find yourself doing things for which you don't have much preparation and to which you don't have much attraction. (Scott is fond of telling the story of how, when he was getting ready to come here, he told all his friends that everything would go well for him as long as he wasn't assigned to the Bookstore. And of course on the first day he was here, I, all unknowing, assigned him to the Bookstore.) (He did great.) Regardless of how prepared you think you are for this transition, no one is really prepared for it, and everyone finds it difficult. And so we know about the bewilderment, and confusion, and the consequent anger and depression that can accompany this process.

This is hard to live with. For one thing it keeps the professed members of the community in a constant state of uncertainty. Nothing we do or are goes unchallenged by those entering the community. There's no such thing as knowing that everything will remain the way it is, so long as new men are granted a share in the decision-making. No one guarantees that the new monks will think that what we are doing is the right or best way to do things, or that our goals and ideals are even acceptable, much less perfect. All of our cracks and crevices are available for inspection and comment - all the time.

This is just to say that if a man enters this community and decides to stay, both he and we have put a lot of work into the decision. There's been a lot of hard times, and sometimes a lot of conflict. It's been an up and down process, with lots of downs. No one survives this process without a lot of patience. And through it all we really do come to love each other, and people who view our community from the outside say that this is clear to them when they look at us.

So when a transition comes up it's a big deal for everyone concerned. Bernard has to decide, every year, whether this is the place that he wants to be. Does he want to go on living this life, with all of the rewards and all of the failures that are part of this very human community. What would we do if he decides to leave? That is painful to look at. Rob is going to South Africa partly because all of the novices live for a while in one of our other monasteries to get an idea of how the Holy Cross life is lived in different places and circumstances, and partly because that house has only one priest in residence, and could really use the support of another one.

Bernard's renewal of his vow was greeted with a lot of joy and affirmation. Now we can breathe out, after holding our breaths over his decision. We know we will have the benefit of his presence, his good humor, his skill and his considerable charm, caused not least by his Belgian-French accent and his occasional lapses in the use of the English language.

Rob's parting from us was certainly more difficult on both sides. His integration into the community has had its stormy passages, but his boat has sailed out into smoother waters by this time, and we have enjoyed him a lot. That means (surprise!) that we're going to miss him a lot. The separation was not easy for him, either. He rang our tower bell for the last time on his way to the car that drove him to Kennedy Airport. He let go of us with considerable ambiguity, as we did of him. It was painful.

So it's been quite a week. A time of affirmation and a time of sorrow. A time of keeping and a time of letting go - all done in the context of the bells ringing and the Psalms being chanted, the pattern of life that has governed this place for more than a hundred years.

You all have your own version of this process, of course. Keeping and letting go are part of every life. Our job is to live it as fully as we can, both the ups and the downs, and make it part of the process of our redemption - to pray it. It's what we call life, and the living of all of it is common to every human being, monks included.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Voice of God

When I was growing up we went through a time when the lives of monks and nuns were of intense interest to the public in general, and one of the manifestations of this was a rash of movies about life inside a cloister: "I Leap Over The Wall" was one of the most popular. I don't know if there is such a thing as lurid spirituality, but these movies presented the life of prayer in the most sensational way possible - which is saying quite a lot for a life that is mostly pretty ordinary. Anyway, what I am remembering this week is a scene in which a newly aspiring nun is being instructed in the monastic way by an older (actually, really old) sister, who says in the most dramatic way possible: "Heed the bells, my daughter. They are the voice of God." I don't remember if there was creepy music at that point, but it would have been a good spot for it.

Still, I remember that movie moment all these years later, and not just because of the ridiculous element in the conversation, but because there is something there I still hold on to. The old nun is presenting, in a fairly sensational way, a reality which we live out in this life, and one which has applicability far beyond this life. She's pointing to the reality that the stuff we get wrapped up in is frequently not all that important.

There is a tradition in old-fashioned monastic circles that when the bells begin to ring to summon you to church, at the the very first stroke of the bell you cease doing what you are doing at that moment. In certain texts you can find advice to go very far in this practice. If you are writing, you are advised to leave unfinished not just the word you are putting down, but the very letter your pen in on at the time. If you are talking to someone, the conversation is to be broken off in mid-sentence. If you are cooking, you stop stirring immediately. Whatever the task, it is to be stopped at the very instant the bells begin to ring, so that you can get yourself to church. God is calling, after all, and there is nothing more important.

Obviously people with outsized obsessive needs had a field day with this practice, and it has long been ridiculed because of the ways in which it has been abused. But I still remember the initial call: "Heed the bells, they are the voice of God." And I know, from my own experience, that there is wisdom there.

I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing. I have a lot of desk work to do, and there is always more of it that there is time to do it. Then I have incense to make, people to to talk to, money to raise for building projects, phone calls to make, etc., etc., etc and on to the end of time as far as I can see. It's all important, it all has to be done immediately, and the more I heed the voice that drives me into all those tasks the deeper I get in that hole.

Then the bell rings. It's time for another service. In the time that I've been in the monastery I have attended approximately 40,000 services. (Count it up - 5 a day for 40 years). What could possibly be important enough in another chanting of the Psalms to make it worth interrupting this crucial task that I am currently engaged in? This is total nonsense (my mind tells me). What I'm doing is important! It's more than important! It has to be finished!!!!!

And I have no choice. The life I have chosen calls me to chant the Psalms five times a day most of the days of the week. I don't often leave a letter unformed in the midst of a word, nor do I stop in mid-sentence when I'm talking to someone. Often enough I stumble into the monastery church just at the final minute - slightly out of breath and with no time to prepare for the chanting. But I get there. It's my life.

And, when I'm really alert to what's going on I realize that the wisdom behind this practice of ours is just that the bells challenge my obsessive nature over and over. It says to me: "Is it really all that important? Does it need to be finished as quickly as you think? What is really important to your life?"

If God is the center of my life and the bells are calling me to God's service, then the old nun is right after all; the bells are the voice of God calling. They call me to the reality of my commitment. They call me to what I said was most important to me when I decided to embrace this life. And they point out to me, over and over, how I tend to organize my time so that I would get around this commitment if I could - if only the damn bells would let me!

And here we are, right at the center of one of life's central dilemmas. As St Paul says in one of his most famous passages: "The good that I would do, I do not do............." Are my tasks, my work, my conversations, my counselling sessions, (yes, even my incense stirring) important? Yes, they are. Are they not the call of God in my life? Of course. But that isn't the point here. The point for me is how I can make any of these good things into an idol - a force that must be served to the exclusion of all else. I have to get it done! And over and over the bells sound to remind me of something deeper - the need to confront my obsessions, and to develop the freedom to walk away from them. The bells teach me, at a level far deeper that I would choose for myself, what I am really like, and what I need to do in order to be free for God.

Of course this has to be done with balance and common sense. From time to time there is a genuine emergency - one of the brothers is in the hospital, someone in a real crisis is talking to me - and I need to ignore the call of the bells. But that's rare (very rare, if I am honest about it). Mostly I need to deal, over and over again with what I am really like, and how something in me deeply resists some of the basic elements of my call to center my life in God.

And it's a lifetime task. It really is the drip of water wearing away the stone of my disordered nature. But, after a long time, I do see not just the stone but the little hollow that the drip has worn away in it. Conversion takes a long time, but it does happen. The voice of God does call me more deeply now.

And what is your version of this struggle?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spreading It Around

The biggest fascination of monastic life for most people seems to be what goes on in the monastic community - what it's like in those buildings where the guests don't go, what it's like to live a life given first of all to prayer, and what it's like to live with priorities that seem so different from the ones that most people live with. So it's these things that I write about the most. But an important part of the meaning of our life happens away from this monastery in places near to us and far away where we go to take the fruits of what we have learned and what we have become.

So it has always been for Benedictine monks. The image of a monk, of course, is of a person rooted in one spot, living quietly and simply, and never leaving the monastery. The reality of the Benedictine life is rather different, however. Those who know European history will know that a large part of that continent is Christian because of the work of Benedictine monks, and they didn't evangelize Europe by staying at home all the time. Many of the modern methods of agriculture were invented in monasteries and they didn't get spread to farmers in general by monks who didn't talk to outsiders and never left their premises. Monasteries have been the center of ideas, innovations and teaching almost from the moment of their founding, and the lives and needs of people around us are one of our primary concerns.

For Holy Cross this concern has been exercised primarily in teaching. We founded and ran two Prep Schools, the Kent School in Kent, Connecticut and St Andrew's School in Sewanee, Tennessee. Since our very beginning we have been active in teaching the Christian faith and the ways of the spiritual life in parishes all over the United States, Canada and beyond. For many years we had a large mission in rural Liberia, with schools, clinics, a leper hospital and many other works, and our present work in South Africa has a big concern with the education of children.

And so last weekend, I set off to spend a Sunday with the people of Grace Church in Elmira (that's why last week's column was posted early). I went at the invitation of Don Matthews, the Rector, who is an Associate of Holy Cross and a close friend of ours and who was going to be away for the weekend, celebrating the 21st birthday of his daughters. He wanted me to come and be with a congregation that at one time had a very strong and long-lasting connection with Holy Cross.

So off I went, driving four hours to the west. Elmira is a smallish city (a lot smaller than it used to be) close to the Pennsylvania/New York border in a part of central New York State that is struggling economically and seems never to have found its feet, or its identity, since the disappearance of the many railroads that used to cross the state.

I had the rectory to myself for the weekend, and when I opened the door, I was greeted by Sasha, the rectory cat. I had been warned by several people that she was unfriendly, and I had better not try to be affectionate with her, or I might regret it. But the minute I appeared at the kitchen door she dashed to my side, rubbed up against me, purred loudly and then followed me wherever I went for the next two days, wanting attention and wanting to be scratched. A nice surprise that was, because I love cats, and Sasha seemed to want whatever attention I would give her.

Grace Church has survived the economic difficulties of Elmira with good style. I had a marvelous time with the wonderfully friendly and thoughtful people who comprise the congregation. I enjoyed the liturgy a lot - Grace Church was nurtured by the liturgical style and the spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic movement, as was I - and the music was superb (one of the parishioners said to me: "Grace Church will tolerate poor preaching, but won't tolerate poor music for a moment.") From their response, I don't think I gave them poor preaching, and they gave me a Sunday morning of delight in their worship, their interest and curiosity, and their great friendliness.

I preached about what I always preach about: the relationship with God. I talked about prayer as giving voice to the longing for God that lives deep within each of us, and the answer that comes in knowing that deep within us is a Presence that longs for us as deeply as we long for it (him, her), and how the spiritual life rests on this foundation of the exchange of longing between God and us. They were an easy group to preach to: alert, attentive, responsive. They are obviously used to good preaching. Fr. James Huntington, the founder of Holy Cross, went regularly to Grace Church, Elmira for many years, and although that connection ceased with his death in the 1930's, it was easy to see how Holy Cross and that congregation make a very nice combination. It was a small event - two liturgies, two sermons, one Adult Education talk (on the monastic life in the Episcopal Church) and a couple of meals. It was also one of those times when you know that a message of some importance has been given and received and love exchanged. It was, to put it succinctly, Christian ministry.

I went from there to Ithaca, which is about 30 miles from Elmira. Though I no longer work regularly with the Episcopal Church at Cornell, I still do some spiritual direction with people who are connected with Cornell, and I still have friends there, so I went to make contact with both. I guess you have to be a Cornellian, as I am, to understand the depth of the emotional bond between those who went to school there and that institution. I always think I have been away long enough to not be at all emotional about it, but then I come over the Newfield Hill and there, miles and miles away is Cayuga Lake and the great valley carved out in the last Ice Age and on the hill at the foot of the Lake the Campus is spread out, and every time I see it I get teary, and inside myself the song starts that I sang for four years as a member of the Cornell Glee Club: "She Stands Upon Her Hill Serene.........." So I had that moment, and recovered from it, and for the next day and a half I gave what I could to those I saw for Direction and those I saw for friendship. And then I came home.

Well, that's monastic ministry. It is composed of quietly telling people what it's like to pray, or to believe, or to think about contemporary issues from a Christian perspective, and it's surrounded with affection and shared love, and it often goes on at a fairly slow pace for years and years, not unlike the monastic life itself. And that ministry did convert Europe at one point, and it still, according to many, many people who come here, converts people in this age. It's about offering the lessons we have learned in the hours we spend with God, and then giving time for those lessons to sink in to someone else. And it's all surrounded with love and affection shared. It's often not spectacular, as ministries go - but then, the monastic life is more the product of years and years of life lived quietly and deeply than it is a spectacular revelation, and we tend to share things the way we live them. We (try to) share love, to share what we know of God, to share our concern for peoples' suffering. Benedictines have always done it this way.

And in the past year or so, Holy Cross monks have been in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, West Virginia, and all kinds of places in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. For a little group we tend to get around. We could no more stop doing this than we could stop breathing, because it's part of the monastic life - it's deeply a part of the life we live. Fr. Lincoln Taylor OHC once said: "You can't love God the way we do without it's having results". We try to spread the results around. Over the centuries that Benedictine monasticism has been around this sort of ministry has had effects, most of which we small and unnoticed, and a few of which were really foundational for Western civilization. It's good, and it's also very moving, to be part this tradition, and to take it to Elmira and to Ithaca, and anywhere else that people ask to know about God.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A Sweet Task

For most of my life in Holy Cross I have been in authority positions: I've been Prior of several of our monasteries, I've been the Novice Master, I've been the Assistant Superior. I have spent a lot of time in the administration of monastic institutions, and like all administrators, I have learned that good administration is at base a pastoral task. So pastoring and administrating have been my life - mostly.

But as the years passed by I noticed an increasing feeling that something was missing. Leadership is a very wonderful and creative life, and it has taught me very much about people and about myself. But I needed something else. And finally after enough years had gone by I realized what that something else was. I needed a craft. I needed to use my hands. I needed to make something beautiful. I needed to be involved in shaping something, producing something, making something. I needed the grounding that physical work would provide, and I needed the spiritual involvement that working with my hands would bring. For a while I thought that carpentry was what I needed to take up, and I still think that would be wonderful if I had the time for it. But a combination of availability and need stepped in, a number of years ago, and gave me the craft that has been mine ever since.

I make incense.

For about 35 years Holy Cross has had a small business that provides liturgical incense to parishes and also to individuals who want to use a charcoal-burning incense in their homes. At one point the brother who was doing the work moved on to other work and someone was needed to make the incense, so I stepped in, and I've been doing it ever since.

Did you ever know anyone who made incense? I can testify to the fascination that the business has for our guests, and I often show off the workroom where I make Holy Cross Incense to people who oooh and aaah about the smells and the process.

It's not complicated. We use a base composed mostly of Frankincense to which a small amount of Myrrh is added. Both are resins and are made from tree saps that are imported from the Middle East. We work with a lovely bunch of people who run a fragrance importing business called Shemen Tov (which is Hebrew and might be translated roughly as "good stuff"), and they supply me with top-quality ingredients to work with . We used to deal with a company named Aphrodesia, which everyone found most amusing, but they went out of business.

To the base of Frankincense and Myrrh is added a tincture which is made of a scented oils and a resin, both dissolved in some solvent alcohol. We blend four tinctures for our incenses: they are Santiago (lemon) St Augustine (rose) Sancta Crux (rosewood) and St Benedict (a non-sweet scent whose base is Labdanum oil and which smells rather like butterscotch to me). The tinctures are stirred into the mixture of Frankincense and Myrrh and left to dry. I stir them every day, and depending on the blend I am making, it takes anywhere from 4 days to a month for the blend to dry and cure. Then it is packaged and sold.

Over the years I have developed a real sense of craftsmanship about my work. Each of our blends has its own personality. The smell changes just slightly with every new batch of ingredients and I need to work with that to make sure that what we are producing is recognizably the same from batch to batch, and that it is pleasing to smell. Each blend dries differently, and looks differently and needs to be handled differently. When I started out I thought I would learn all I needed to know about this simple process in a week or so. Now, some 20 years later, I am still learning about it. I am still making slight adjustments to the recipes. I still haunt kitchen supply stores in search of equipment that will make the measuring, stirring and drying easier and more even. Just recently I found a plastics manufacturer that has exactly the right sized container with high sides (impossible to find until now) that makes the work of stirring a lot easier and less messy. Every time that I think I have reduced the process to a matter of routine, something else comes along and the incense teaches me yet something else about the creative process.

It's an important part of my life. The workshop is in the basement - not removed from the community's life, but off to one side. It's often peaceful and very quiet. On Saturdays Kairos (the choir that is Artist in Residence here) rehearses in the room next to the workshop so I work to the melodies of several centuries of choral works. From time to time members of the community drift in and out to share the fascination with the process. Often, especially when I'm packaging a large number of our Sampler Packs, I am all alone, doing this rhythmic repetitive task, which goes very well with breathing and with meditation. So I pray my way through the manufacture of our incense and hope that some of the peaceful ingredient of prayer comes across along with the smell.

I would say that the making of incense is part of my spiritual life, but the fact is everything I do is part of my spiritual life. So I'll say that it's a special part of my spiritual life. I do feel more grounded when I deal with the earthy realities of buying, sorting, blending, packaging and selling. The workshop itself echoes the Jesus Prayer for me, because it so often has accompanied the tasks that I perform there.

It's important to me to have something to do that doesn't involve sorting papers or analyzing personal or communal problems. Certainly sorting papers and problem solving are part of the incense business, but there's always the basics - measuring, stirring, testing, waiting. There's a depth to this simple task that I don't get any other way, and I value it very greatly. It's a work that is both simple and profound. I am more whole because of it.


Censing the plaque
Originally uploaded by Randy n/OHC

Br. Bede getting you use the fruit of his labor at the inauguration of our Middle House's new entrance as the Br. Douglas Brown Memorial

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Getting Lost - and Found

Getting back to writing this column has taken longer than I thought it would, and has taught me a thing or two: or maybe I should say it has re-taught me.

What happened was that I got lost, in the way that all of us periodically get lost in the multitude of things that life throws at us. My focus, my alertness, my sense of balance all forsook me. Well, they do that at times. But I have made precious little attempt to recover them until now.

I have plenty of reasons for this: good, legitimate reasons. It started out with a night in the emergency room at Kingston Hospital with one of the brothers, and was followed after a while with another night in the same emergency room. Both of these nights were followed by a trip away that required several hours of driving, and I was confronted with the reality that I am six months away from being 70 years old and I don't recover from that sort of thing the way I once did. Then a dear friend of many years died. And I've had two minor illnesses, both of them viruses that were going around the community. Neither of them were at all serious, but they required rest and sleep and time.

I operate close enough to the line to have problems if I have to take time away from my usual work. So as all these other things happened my work piled higher and higher until I found myself surrounded with a mountain of things waiting to be done, many of which seemed to have the word "urgent" painted on them in large red letters. I wasn't prioritizing, I wasn't choosing, I was just trying to attack the pile in any way that I could. Not a very efficient or effective way of dealing with a situation that admittedly was difficult to begin with. The reality was that I wasn't conscious and wasn't trying to be conscious, I was just operating in the midst of my usual fantasy of too much to do, no time to do it, etc., etc., etc.

And then, gradually, consciousness returned. It returned first with breathing. I usually do a series of breathing exercises to keep myself in the present and to increase the amount of oxygen that my body gets. As I turned to these exercises again life began to slow down and come into focus, and I got back to the reality of things, where the situation could be assessed and plans could be made.

I got back, in fact, to the reality of the present moment.

And I realized this time around, that this process is exactly the same as the one I experience in meditation. I start out focused and attentive. I drift away. When I realize that I've drifted away I bring myself back to the present moment and start again. And the cycle repeats. To recognize this pattern in my tendency to get lost in the "distractions" of my life has linked my spiritual practice and my living of my life more firmly together. It's the same process, and it has the same goal: to find God in the midst of things. A key to engaging in this process skillfully is not to beat up on myself, but to realize that this is the way things are in life: we focus on what is most important, we drift away, we realize that we've drifted away, we come back to focus. This is what is called, in meditation circles, Practice. We practice. And we practice. And we practice. Over a long period of time we have sudden realizations that practice does begin to transform our lives.

The well known meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg, in his book "Breath by Breath" describes this process of relating the spiritual path of meditation to the path of the daily living of our lives in a very effective, step by step, way. He lays it out like this:

1. When possible, do just one thing at a time.

2. Pay full attention to what you are doing.

3. When the mind wanders from what you are doing, bring it back.

4. Repeat step number three several billion times.

5. Investigate your distractions.
(page 168-170)

The great advantage to this description is that it is so human. It reminds me yet again, as I have said before in this space, that I am not engaged in a perfection quest, I am engaged in living my life. The thought that making the transition between my meditation life and my daily life requires "several billion" moments of attention is realistic, and gently humorous and quite doable.

My whole life is, in fact, part of the search for God, if I will let it be. To find God, I have to find the present moment: God is here, now, not in my fantasies of the future or my ruminations of the past. If I'm going to meet God in my life I have to BE in my life, and that requires practice - constant, gentle, repeated, continuous practice. Come back to this moment where God waits. Come back several billion times. Investigate just why you failed to stay in this present moment, and do it with penetrating honesty and also with gentle humor. Resist the urge to beat up on yourself. Do that several billion times.

This is how transformation is worked. And it does work. I experience it.

(Sorry I was away for a couple of weeks while I learned this eternal lesson one more time)


At the Middle House entrance
Originally uploaded by Randy n/OHC
Picture of Br. Bede addressing friends and monks at the inauguration of the new entrance of the Middle House as a memorial to Br. Douglas Brown, OHC.
Clicking on the picture will take you to Br. Randy's Flickr photographs.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Oops - a delay

I'll be delayed a few days this week. I spent 9 hours in the emergency room at the local hospital yesterday with one of the Brothers. Then the Incense orders have been twice the usual number this week, and I have to be gone Sunday - Tuesday on a short trip. All of this has crowded the time I usually use for writing. But I'll be back later in the week - by Wednesday, I hope. Check then.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Impossible (or difficult) thoughts

I want to know something:

What is God like?

That's what I want to know. That's what everyone wants to know. And philosopher/theologians are fond of pointing out that the urge to know the nature of God is pretty much universal in the human race, and it's also the cause of a lot of problems, one of which I ran across this week.

Almost the first thing that theologians say about God is that God is infinite. That seems right - it pretty much has to be true. But it also gets us into the very tricky area where everything we say about God is inadequate - or just plain wrong - because we can only think and say finite things. We can only describe things in terms of our experience, and God is beyond all of our experience. We can talk about God being Love, for instance, or Power, or Compassion or Justice, but that only means we are talking about our experience of love, power, compassion and justice, and the reality of God is so far beyond our experience that it's impossible to think that we could be describing the divine nature adequately. So what do we do with that? Once we've realized that we can't really describe what God is like, what do we do with our yearning to know God?

There is a whole school of spirituality and theology that tries to deal with this by using opposites: they talk about the all-powerful Creator of the Universe being born as a tiny helpless baby, for instance, and writings from the early church are full of these couplets of descriptions of the Divine, which operate in very much the same way the Zen koans do: they are designed to get our rational minds to shut down, because the spiritual perception is that rational thinking can only get in the way of perceiving the larger reality of Truth.

Forgive this intellectual digression. I don't usually write this way, and this is not the sort of stuff that most people find particularly interesting. But I put it down here because it's the background to the really intriguing situation I found myself in this past week, and it has a lot to do with how I am explaining things to myself in the past few days.

To put it shortly, I got hit over the head with one of these couplets of opposites at Vespers last Sunday, and I've been kind of dazed ever since.

What I got so stunned by was the Collect - the prayer that sums up each of our services as it comes to an end. Now we had been using this particular collect since the evening before, which means that I had heard it four times before we got to Sunday Vespers, and I don't know where my mind was during the praying of that prayer on those four previous occasions - in outer space, probably. But at Sunday Vespers I actually heard what it said. It said: "O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity................" And something about that conjunction of "power" with "mercy and pity" sent my mind into a real whirl.

"Good God" I thought: "I never think of power in terms of mercy and pity. I think of power in terms of getting what I want. I think of power as the ability to Get Things Done. I think of power as the ability to run straight over any opposition. I think of power in lots of ways. But I never think of power as being merciful and showing pity."

What made this such a stunning moment, I think, was my body. I wasn't just thinking this dilemma, I was feeling it, and I was feeling it in my body. For some reason, when the officiant of that office sang the words "your almighty power" I really felt that power - or at least what my senses think of as power. And I was wrapped up in feeling my version of God's power when the words "mercy and pity" came along, and they completely toppled me off my (intellectual) horse. Because power - the power I think about with my mind and feel with my body, has to do with a lot of things, but not with mercy. Not with pity.

But God's power has everything to do with mercy and pity. That's what the collect says. And if that is true, I have a lot of work to do.

And this has occupied my thoughts all week long. For one thing, I have to face that fact that I have this God thing all wrong. Or partly wrong. Or a bit wrong. Or whatever. My thinking turns out to be crazy, at least when applied to God. I do, at a very important level in my conscious mind, think of God in the same way that gets people into so much trouble: "If God is so almighty powerful, why doesn't God just make everything all right? Why doesn't God just decide to do away with injustice and suffering? I could make a better world than this!" Well, I have managed to get my thinking adjusted so that I don't face that sort of dilemma much, but it turns out that the emotional sense that it all rests on is still securely in place. I think of power as the ability to run right over everything that stands in my way.

And God is different from that. God uses power differently than that. Even deeper: God, who IS power, isn't that sort of power. I have my image of God all wrong in an important (and until now, largely unconscious) way.

Even more than that, I have some really big and really important integration to work on, because this is not just about having the right ideas about God. After all, according to our tradition I am the image of God, (it's right there in the second chapter of Genesis) and that means that when I act out power in this world, what I have to be acting out is "chiefly mercy and pity". Somehow my felt sense of power has to be integrated with my felt sense of mercy and pity. If I don't start walking this path, I may be a very admirable individual in lots of ways, but I won't be the image of God to this world.

How do I feel powerful when exercising mercy and pity? That's the big question. And it's a very important question. I'm going to have to reflect on this, and look at my actions, and think what changes need to be made. And I have to pray a lot.

It's too bad that I'm nearly 70 years old. I think I have just uncovered a lifetime's worth of work that is waiting to be done. But it's pretty exciting, just the same.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Moonlight on my Pillow

Autumn is a wonderful time for me. Partly, of course, this is because of the weather; it's cooler and crisper, the sky is an extraordinary deep blue and the leaves have begun to turn. But I have a more private reason for looking forward to this time of the year. I don't know how many of you watch the Moon wander about the sky, but it travels about the heavens in the course of a year, and it has quite a range to its wanderings. In particular it tends to be in the South in the summer when the Sun is farther to the north and then as the Sun retreats southwards the Moon moves north. By late September or early October it has finally arrived pretty far north and at the time of the full moon it rises in the northeast. This is significant for me because my room faces northeast and so we have come to the time of the year when moonlight falls over my bed as I'm going to sleep at night.

Ever since I was very small I have been comforted by the sight of moonlight in my room at night and especially on my bed. It soothes me and awakes a lot of my senses that respond to beauty. I anticipate these nights a lot and they bring me a good deal of joy, as they have throughout my life.

But all was not so smoothly beautiful when I was small. I grew up in a place (Kentucky) and at a time (the 1940's and 50's) when having moonlight fall on the bed of a child was regarded, at least by a number of people that we knew, as problematic and even dangerous. It was part folklore and part superstition and we knew that, but the superstition was common enough and had enough hold on the common imagination that family members and friends went out of their way to make sure that I wasn't indulging my passion for moonlight. Were my shades pulled safely down? You couldn't be too careful, they said. It wasn't good for a child to have moonlight on his bed.

I never believed it - not really, but I was close enough to the feelings of the people around me that I felt some of the dread just the same. That didn't keep me from my passion, but I had to sneak my moonlight fixes by adjusting my curtains and shades so that people in the family and neighborhood wouldn't notice what I was letting into my room.

There were two other things that were also regarded as Bad For Children: tomatoes and bananas (except for tomato soup, which for some curious reason was regarded as all right, even healthy). I didn't mind about tomatoes, but I liked bananas, so the guardians of my health had trouble with me about that one. It's easy to look back on all that from the perspective of dealing with street gangs and AIDS and feel how silly it all was. But I suspect that it was deeply serious. Raising a child is a tricky and fearsome business, and those who do it always need all the reassurance they can get - so moonlight and tomatoes and bananas were out and I worked my way around the prohibitions carefully and secretly.

Funny what a change of perspective 50 or 60 years can bring. I don't know anyone who worries about moonlight or tomatoes or bananas for children these days. Lying on my bed at night and enjoying the moonlight, I think about that sort of perspective and how it plays out in some other areas as well.

There is a controversy raging in the Episcopal Church, and in the worldwide Anglican Communion at the present time - a controversy about homosexuality. One longs to look back to simpler and more placid times. I can only say there have been few placid years in my lifetime.

When I became an Episcopalian in 1961 there was a controversy raging. It was about whether women had to wear hats in church. I wonder if anyone else remembers how ferocious a controversy it was? There were nasty, even vicious, letters to the editors of the various church publications questioning the motives of people on each side of the issue, and deploring the lack of biblical standards in our church.

People left the Episcopal Church for haven in some more traditional bodies. It was no small thing. By the standards of the present controversies, it's hard not to smile when I think of it, but it was no smiling matter at the time. But I did have a bit of perspective on it even at the time, because the church I left was involved in a quarrel about card playing and dancing, and my own congregation had something of a split when it was decided to put a kitchen in the basement parish hall (worldly!) I knew something about controversies and how they seem to pick whatever issue people can get excited about.

I wonder how many people know about the great upheaval of the early 1900's when people and parishes left the Episcopal Church because General Convention voted to allow Protestant Ministers to preach in our pulpits on special occasions. Most of those who left became Roman Catholics (and a sizable percentage of them came back within 5 years) and there was quite a stir when one of the people who exited was the Reverend Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Mary. I don't know how many people at the time explored the irony involved in these people leaving because we weren't catholic enough when just 30 years before there had been a notable schism in which a bishop and a number of parishes left to form the Reformed Episcopal Church because we weren't protestant enough.

After a particularly tiresome row at our community's Annual Chapter one year I talked with the Superior about why we got into things like this, since the issue involved was not of any particular importance. He said: "It's the need of various personalities to encounter each other".

There is more than a little bit of that in the present controversies that surround us. One of the things we need to be alert about in arguments such as the present one is that it isn't all a matter of the issue itself. Some people need to encounter each other, and an issue is always hanging around to enable them to do it. As each year passes I have a deeper appreciation for the founder of Holy Cross, Fr James Huntington. One of his most memorable bits of wisdom was to tell his community that "we are to treasure up instances in which our assured judgment has proved wrong." A nice bit of wisdom for the present situation. Our assured judgment on the issue of the day seems very important to us. It really is important to keep in mind that just because it's our very own assured judgment, God is not assuring us that we are necessarily right.

All of this I ponder from time to time while lying on my bed in the moonlight (sometimes while eating a banana, just to make the point). I wonder what we'll be upset about 50 years from now?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Big Noises and Little ones

I've been thinking about noise this week, or maybe I should say loud sound.

The background to this is a couple of events. The first was the installation of our new organ. Our old pipe organ has served us well for many years, but it has been failing for quite some time and was in need of major restoration. All of the advice we got about it was that our particular instrument was probably not worth the cost that would be involved, which would have been considerable. And we also had to consider the fact that we didn't have the money for a restoration. But we did have the funds for a digital instrument and after considerable investigation and a trip to Albany to hear an organ installed in a church about the size of ours we made the decision to purchase one.

On Monday of this week the installation began and it was complete by Tuesday and we had our first little "concert". There wasn't any organist, but one of the marvels of this instrument is that a certain number of pieces are programmed into it, so it will play itself if you push the right buttons. After Vespers Br Scott skillfully pushed the right buttons and we sat pretty much enthralled by the sound that is now available to us. There were a number of different effects, of course, as with any good organ. It whispers and croons and offers a whole palate of sounds. But it was the Widor Toccata that enthralled most, with everything at full volume, loud, brassy, full-throated, shaking the floor with sound. It was very exciting. Everyone applauded at the end, even though there was no organist to applaud.

The next day I went to New York City to be part of the celebration of a friend's 70th birthday. The celebration lasted for a good part of the day, but the real feature of it was an evening game at Yankee Stadium. I would not describe myself as a baseball fan. In fact I could be a lot stronger about my feelings than that, but we will let modesty prevail. I was happy to be there to help celebrate, but I expected to be pretty bored, which was my usual experience of baseball while I was growing up and was taken every once in a while to games that the Cincinnati Reds were playing.

I got quite a surprise. It was a real cliff-hanger and one of the most exciting public events I've ever been to. The Yankees were ahead by one run for most of the game, never falling behind and never managing to get any further ahead than that one run. And as the game approached its final innings the tension got greater and greater, and people were more often on their feet and those thousands of fans got more and more expressive. And there was a classic finish - ninth inning, two out, the bases loaded and 3 balls and 2 strikes. Everything depended on the one last pitch - the whole outcome of the game was right there. And they struck the batter out and the Yankees won by one run, and, as they say: "The crowd went wild." They screamed and shouted and made that sound that only ten thousand shouting people can make and it was a moment of pure exhilaration.

And man, it was loud.

On and off over the years I've reflected on the connection we make between important events and loud sounds. I've always been an amateur astronomer and more than once I've stood outside at night and watched the Northern Lights fill the sky with sweeping sheets of colored light or seen a comet streaking across the heavens in the hours before dawn and felt that the whole thing was slightly incongruous - because there wasn't any sound. Shouldn't something that impressive be making a lot of noise? Shouldn't there be something that sounds like Beethoven to accompany that comet on its way? A lot of noise seems to be required to mark important things.

Then I stop and reflect on how often the opposite has been true for me at real turning points in my life. For me some real crucial times have been accompanied by almost no sound at all. People ask me, for instance, about my decision to become a priest. Now if I'm honest about describing it I have to say that it wasn't really a decision. It was more like a shift. It was on New Year's Eve of 1961 and I was trapped at home (which was out in the country) by a sudden storm which dumped a whole lot of snow on Cincinnati. So I couldn't get to the party I was supposed to be at, and my family couldn't get out to the house and I was alone for that New Years. I went out for a walk in the midst of the storm, which I have always loved to do. It was a gentle storm by then, still snowing quite heavily, but no wind; just lots and lots of snow falling - and almost total silence. No traffic, no voices, just quiet. And in the middle of that silence everything shifted and I knew what I was going to do with my life and knew that it involved the priesthood. It could be described as a "decision" I suppose, but my experience of that moment was that the meaning of everything had just changed. I hadn't thought it out, I hadn't considered it carefully, I hadn't made an inventory of everything that needed to be considered - all of that came later. It was just like suddenly standing on completely new ground.

And there was no sound at all, except for the silent sound of everything falling into place.

God so often moves like that. We plan and consider and debate - all quite wonderful and necessary things, of course. And we make a lot of noise to accompany our planning and the joy that comes when our plans go right. This is also quite wonderful. But there is another level to human experience, which is the level of the spirit. Sometimes it erupts into our world in ways that are sudden and unexpected, and sometimes it comes in a slowly developing consciousness. But this eruption is not accompanied by anything loud, and most usually for me has been in silence.

And so it seems only natural that God is sought principally in silence. Monks live their lives so that they will have a good deal of silence each day. This is so that we can be in that place where the spiritual dimension of life has room to speak. Not that extraordinary experiences are ever very common. Most often, if those times of silence have any quality to them at all, it is just one of simple listening - of listening, waiting, longing, and from time to time of knowing that the same listening and attention comes back to us from that space. Mother Theresa used to say, when asked about her prayer, that she listened to God. And when asked what God did at those times she said: "God listens to me." All wrapped in quiet. All in silence.

Which is more important - the exultant celebratory noise, or the quiet attention to the depths beyond our usual experience of this world? Maybe we're not supposed to be comparing things here, but just attending to the different ways in which God reaches out for us and touches different parts of us. Maybe we can give attention to all the moments of our life, the loud and the quiet, and find God reaching out in each one.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Golden Floor

Every once in a while a small moment comes along that opens up a perspective on everything - a moment I wasn't expecting and couldn't have anticipated. That happened one afternoon about a week ago when I was looking at the new floor of our church in the afternoon sunlight.

For three years we have been intensely involved in the renewal of the physical plant of the monastery and the guesthouse. We've raised money (we're going for a million and a half at this point) and an extraordinary amount of work has been done:

The first year we tackled the basic inhospitality of the buildings caused by the fact that, like a certain number of Victorian structures, our buildings were built to have steps going down so that you could also have steps going up. In our case the entrance to the original chapel (which later became the library and then the room we call the Pilgrim Hall, now the social center of the guesthouse) had three steps going down to the entrance so that there would be three steps going up to the altar - and not having those three steps going up to the altar would have been unthinkable at the time. This meant, of course, that when the next set of buildings was built, including the present monastery church, there had to be another set of steps going down so that............ you guessed it............... there could be steps going up to the altar of the new church.

People at the time oohed and aahed at the design; going up to the altar was a very important symbol in those days, and accessibility was simply nowhere on the agenda. If you got old or crippled and your mobility was limited you stayed at home. This this is another age, and people now expect to continue to move, even when they have more difficulty in getting around, and it became more and more important to address the fact that we had a ministry of hospitality and a set of very inhospitable buildings.

It took a lot of dreaming and some very skilled planning, but in the end we got it figured out - a way to make the floors level from one end of the property to the other. We began three years ago with the first stage of the project, the leveling of the main traffic-bearing floors. We did it with fear and trembling because we couldn't be sure before we saw the result that the final result would look right. We worried a lot about how the new level of the floors would relate to the windows: would it disturb the integrity of the proportions of the building? In the end we seem to have revealed a design that lay hidden in the original architect's mind. Not only did it look all right, it looked to most of us as though it should have been that way in the beginning. Almost no one who comes to the guesthouse now remembers that it has ever been any other way.

The next year two more projects were undertaken: the new entrance and the repair of the bell tower. We needed an accessible entrance to match our outside to our inside and a very handsome and functional one was designed for us and constructed in the second year. It is so successful that almost no one remembers that it too is not an original part of the building. And then there's the bell tower - our great nemesis. It was supposed to be a minor project of passing interest. We thought it needed a bit of repointing. It would be a matter of a month of so and we'd be done. Instead, when the scaffolding went up we were presented with what our engineer referred to as "a most interesting example of structural failure". Translation - it was about to fall down. It took nine months instead of one month to fix it and now it is very handsome. It ought to be - every single brick in the structure is new. It also took (a lot) more money than we had planned.

This summer we've had two projects. One is the replacing of the roof on the church, and the other is the interior floor of the church. The church roof is quite straightforward, except that the roof is Spanish tile and that isn't straightforward - each individual piece has to be lifted, inspected, repaired and either put back or replaced. Some of the tiles have had to be custom manufactured. Part of the roof in which the original tiles proved to be unworkable is also being replaced with copper. It's a good way along and we hope it will be finished before the snow flies.

And then there's the church floor. It needed to be removed, the under-structure inspected and repaired and then a radiant floor heating system installed and a new floor put down. This also raised the level of the floor and eliminated, at last, all of the up-and-down aspect of these buildings. There were, of course, some surprises. Part of the floor proved to be inadequately constructed and had to be propped up before we could proceed. And, in one of those marvelous moments that you sometimes get in work like this, we discovered a course of foundation wall just sitting there, not related to anything else. No one knew that it was there. When was it built? What was it for? Was it something the original architect changed his mind about? Was it for some structure we don't know about? We'll probably never know. It sits there, under our floor, as a mute testimony to the things we don't know about the past.

When I left for my vacation at the end of last month the new floor was just beginning to go down. When I came back it was a radiant presence: it was obviously new. A brand-new Douglas fir floor with a deep oil finish, it is a golden honey color which is quite breathtaking and sets off the deeper oak of the choir stalls very beautifully. A deep red carpet now sets off the lectern from which the Word is proclaimed day by day and the standard candle that provides a basic symbol of what we are about.

And it was there, in the church one afternoon last week, that I was sitting in the Prior's stall and looking at our new floor in the afternoon sun when I finally realized how much we have done. I knew it all, of course, but I finally felt it. I felt how much has changed, how far we have come, what we have made possible. I looked over the guest court and in my mind's eye saw the people who have been coming since we began our work and realized the number of them who are on canes, on walkers or in wheel chairs. This isn't because the guests are getting older (because, in fact, a growing number of them are younger). It's because we have made it possible for people to come who can't go up and down all those steps. The first week after we reopened this month one of our guests was wheelchair-bound, the first such person we have ever been able to accommodate, and she seemed completely happy with her time here. What we have done here is beautiful - a very talented architect and a wonderfully skilled crew of contractors have insured that. The much of the beauty is not the visible kind. It lies in our determination to be serious about our ministry - our ministry of hospitality. We've finally heard the call - and had the grace to respond - to welcome a whole group of people whom the structure of our buildings prevented from coming here until how.

There were tears in my eyes when I realized how far we have come.

There is more to do, of course. We still have an elevator to install and that is going to involve a good deal of demolishing, reconstruction and remodeling. It will be expensive. The bell tower took much more money than we had expected, so we haven't got the money to do it. But people have been amazingly generous and we are arriving at this stage of our construction with more left in our fund that we had thought we might have. So we will raise what we need. I don't know how long it will take, but we will do it. We will get there. The vision of an accessible facility is too important to leave unfinished.

And our honey-colored church floor will be there to witness to that as we go on our way.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Loosing It, Finding It

Normally, during the course of each week I think about this column and I'm on the lookout for what I am going to write about. Because people are interested in what it's like to live in a monastery, I look for things that have happened and I investigate how those things have affected me, both interiorly and in the more external parts of my life. Almost always during the course of the week it becomes obvious that something that has happened is "it" for this week: this is what I'm going to write about.

That didn't happen this week. I arrived at this morning with no sense at all of what I was going to write. Nothing. What was going on that I wanted to look at? Nothing. What special thing has happened that would be interesting to explore? Nothing. What's going on spiritually that would be profitable to examine? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And on the way up the stairs to my office, I thought: "Well, this is it. I have to write something. What's it going to be?" And I answered myself: "I don't know. Nothing has happened this week." Then I thought: "Oops! That must be it."

Is it true that nothing has happened this week? Of course not. Among the things that I think about just off the top of my head are:

  • The pace of life right now is very different from my usual pace. There are no guests for the whole month. It's quiet. We move in a more relaxed way. Our meals are longer because we have time to spend with each other in easy conversation. We catch each other in various places during the day and just have a few moments to spend. It's easier to find time to meditate, to read, to study.
  • The chef is on vacation while the guesthouse is closed so we're cooking for each other. It's quite wonderful what a dimension this adds to our life. Those of you with families may not think of this, but you get to know a person in a whole different way when they are cooking for you: their tastes, the care they take to make sure it's 'good', just the fact that they are caring for you in this way, deepens our experience of each other
  • With everything around the place quieter the local wild life has noticed and has come out to play. The field below the monastery has been full of deer, including two tiny fawns, still with their spots and all their timid curiosity. There has been a flock of about 3 dozen turkeys relishing the big empty field full of grasses and grains. The bald eagles that fly above the Hudson River come a little closer and a little bit more often. Mice, bats, snakes, stray dogs, insects: we live in the midst of a settlement of life that is much more hidden during most of the year.
  • We have made a temporary chapel in one of the guesthouse common rooms while the new heating system is installed in our church. At Mass this morning I was facing the river. The wind was blowing over the surface into wavelets and the sun was at exactly the right angle to create a thousand flashing gold and silver points as it reflected off the surface of the water. At the other end of the day, the evenings are long and lovely, and the first hints of fall can be seen in some subtle color changes, and the angle at which the sun is now setting. The long, slow evenings are exquisite.

Do I really think that nothing has been happening? Of course not. Life unfolds as it always does, in a thousand thousand different ways each day.

I mean, of course, that I haven't been paying attention. I've allowed my sense of the present moment to lapse. My openness to the wonder of what is around me, which is normally pretty good, has gone underground. I have been, in a word, oblivious.

This happens to us all, of course, on a regular basis. So it isn't grist for my guilt mill - or at least it needn't be. But it is important. It's important because it is just this state of oblivion that all of us get into that is the cause of those moments when we catch ourselves thinking: "Where has my life gone?. Where did those years disappear to? How has all this time passed?" Harry Belafonte sang of his children so poignantly many years ago: "I don't remember getting older. When did they?"

My life hasn't gone anywhere, of course. It has been here all along, every moment, all those years. I am the one who has been absent. This sense of missing life is an important tap on my shoulder. "Come back" it says. "Come back to me."

And it isn't going to happen without some work. Having a definite practice of meditation is central in keeping me in touch with my life. Taking a few minutes each evening to reflect on the day is important, too: what's been in this day? what do I feel real joy about? what do I wish had been different? Is there something that needs to be changed?

Most of all, I need to bring this practice of the present moment into each day as the time moves on. Notice where I am. Notice how it feels. Notice what I'm doing. When I discover that I've drifted away, bring myself back to this moment. And then, as one of my teachers said: "Repeat this process several billion times."

Is this important? Oh, yeah. What could there be that's more important than living my life? What is more crucial than the moments when I realize that I've drifted away from myself and make the effort to come back? Doing this leaves me with a sense of fullness rather than emptiness. It has a lot to say about why I'm here in this world and what the meaning of it is.

And so I've learned to value those moments when I feel that nothing has happened. I have a deepening sense of thankfulness for the times when I wonder where my life has gone. I don't have to take them as indications of failure. They are a call - God's call, if you will. They call me to come back to myself and to my life. I'm supposed to be here, where I am, with all of the joy and the pain and the satisfaction and the disappointment that being here holds. This moment is, in fact, all that I have. It's so important to actually have it.

(And if you've read this far, you'll probably want to know that I'm going to be gone for the next couple of weeks. I'm off to Minnesota for some vacation, and when I get back I go immediately to Cornell for several days. So it will be the end of the month before I appear in this space again. Hope you're some nice time, too.)