Monday, February 26, 2007

February 25, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

People are surprising. College students are even more surprising. Like young people everywhere, this is something they specialize in. You have to delight in being surprised to work successfully with them. But in all of the years that I have worked with teens and with college students, and it's been a long time now, there are times when even my capacity for surprise gets tested.

I work with the ministry of the Episcopal Church at Cornell University. During semesters I spend 4 or 5 days a month on campus. The ECC (Episcopal Church at Cornell) community is a smallish group - the Christian community on any campus like Cornell is a very small minority of the student body - but it is alive, vigorous, and a whole lot of fun to be with. It is composed of undergrads, graduate students, faculty, staff and people from the surrounding community, and has a very diverse membership with an even more diverse range of interests. But I had not expected that asceticism was among their interests.

I arrived on the Cornell campus on Ash Wednesday. I arrived in something of a flurry because of some dental problems: two crowns had fallen off my teeth and I had to consult with the dentist before I could leave West Park. So I arrived much later than usual; in fact, I arrived 5 minutes before the 5:00 pm Eucharist. Suzanne Guthrie, the Episcopal Chaplain, greeted me warmly as she always does. She was already vested for the service and said: "Get your habit on so you look like a real monk, and you can preach." Uh-oh. I often preach at that service, but I had not planned to preach last Wednesday. I didn't even know whether I was going to get there in time for it. So there I was, with 5 minutes to get dressed and to think of something to say.

So there wasn't much to say except what had been in my own heart and mind as I approached Lent this year. I decided to talk about what I was going to give up for Lent this year, and why, and about why giving something up for 40 days is a practice that continues to hold meaning for me. I described my process: I try to look for a part of my life in which I sense significant disorder, usually for something about which I might use the word "addiction". I usually decide to give up something not because I like it and think I should give up things I like. I don't even give stuff up because I feel guilty about it. I tend to decide to do without something because in my dealings with it I sense that I have lost some of my freedom. For an example, let's take one of everyone's favorite things to think about when the subject of giving up something for Lent arises - chocolate.

Periodically I run into the reality that my relationship to chocolate is not free at all. The chocolate is making the decisions, not me. And it is making bad decisions, even to the extent of affecting my health. (Yes, I know the perils of describing the process this way, but this is what it feels like). So I give it up for Lent, not just to give it up but to see what happens when I do. The feelings are often complicated and pretty unpleasant. I don't like feeling the depth of my "addiction" to this substance, I don't always like feeling all of the feelings that drive me to overeating in the first place, and I frequently don't like the memories and associations that come with feeling the feelings.

But if I honor the process I find that I learn more about myself. I learn what I am doing in my relationship with chocolate, which is significant because this relationship is usually conducted in a pretty unconscious sort of way. And not unfrequently I find that this exploration has increased my freedom. I come back to my relationship with chocolate not as a passive victim but as a participant. And this small increase in freddom affects other parts of my life including, most importantly, my prayer.

This is what I talked about when the time for the sermon came. I knew it wasn't going to be the best sermon I ever preached, and that its organization and delivery were going to be far from optimal. But the ECC community is a pretty loving and forgiving bunch, and they know me pretty well, and I figured they would be disposed to forgive my lack of polish on this Ash Wednesday.

Well, they quite surprised me, once again. What I had expected was wandering thoughts on their part, and all of the little signs that a preacher is used to that indicates that the congregation's attention is anywhere but on what you are saying. And I expected to be greeted warmly afterwards, as I always am. What happened was that there were, as far as I could tell, no wandering thoughts at all. No one that I could see in the unusually large congreation that day seemed to be looking anywhere but directly at me. They seemed, in fact, to be wrapped up in what I was telling them of my story. They seemed to have been captivated by the prospect of giving up chocolate for Lent. I was bowled over.

And afterwards I had several conversations about the sermon. There were requests for more details, for more explication of how the process works for me. Several people wanted to reflect on parts of their lives that they wanted to get in better order, and wanted to know how Lent could be part of that process. They were still talking to me about it two days later. This poor little effort of mine seemed to have engaged the people there in a way that much of my more polished work never has. Go figure. Should I give up preparing my homilies? Maybe I should just deepen my capacity for delighting in surprises.

And this is why I love my time at Cornell. I'm often challenged, and sometimes it can be exhileratring and sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but it's always fascinating. College students are surprising - I guess most people are surprising. Being involved in this surprise adds wonderful depth to my life and to my ministry.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

18 February, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Winter finally came this week. After seeing snowdrops bloom in December and crocuses poke their shoots up in January, a couple of weeks ago it finally turned really cold, with nights below zero. This week we got a foot of mixed snow and ice (I still don't entirely understand why it can sleet when the temperature is 11 degrees, but there it is). The Hudson River finally froze.

It's very picturesque and many people who live in this part of the country are heaving sighs of relief and saying that it's good to know that there is still such a thing as winter. But something darker lurks behind all of this relief. Those of us who live beside the Hudson River and in the Mid-Hudson Valley now live with the reality that climate change is not just a theory any more. Some learned people and even more political people continue to debate whether it is real or not, but to know the reality of it you just have to live beside a large river. The Hudson River used to freeze early and stay frozen all winter. Now it doesn't. Some winters it doesn't freeze at all. Something big has happened, and it has happened rapidly.

Now what?

Well, for us, the community here is beginning to talk about climate change as a fact of our life, and beginning to be willing to see that our patterns of energy use are complicit in what is happening to our weather. And we are beginning to want to act.

Our beginnings are very small, and that is deliberate. We want to see how small steps can begin to change the way we live, in hopes of developing habits that might change our impact on the climate. Those spiky plastic balls that are alternatives to dryer sheets have made their appearance in our laundry room. Cloth napkins are used by some at meals to cut down on the number of paper products that we consume. We are more careful about gasoline use and the price that we pay for it. This summer there will be a clothes line in our side yard for those who would like to dry clothes without using a dryer. We've started small so that we can get used to the process of making change and so that our concerns about our energy use can get to be part of the way we think and live, and not just our latest trendy fad. We hope that by moving in this way, bigger changes will be things that we want to embrace.

And that is beginning to happen. We have recently had new climate controls put on the boilers that supply our heat. They have actually resulted in more even heat througout our buildings and a 30% decrease in the amount of natural gas that we use. We now have a chef who uses almost no pre-packaged food products and buys produce locally and in season. Not only has our food gotten better, but our food costs have decreased dramatically. Our next car will likely be a hybrid vehicle. We know that hybrid technology is not the final answer to fuel economy, but it is a step, and we are looking for steps.

Bigger steps loom in the future. We are planning for our buildings to be heated with a geothermal system. We don't know when this might be and the amount of money we will have to raise to make it possible will be very large - probably between 1 and 2 millon dollars. In the meantime we can see to it that any change we have to make - for instance in the heating of our church, which has to be updated soon - will be compatible with the geothermal system to come.

From my point of view, this is more than anything a spiritual issue and the techniques that we have adopted are ones that I have had to learn over decades of trying to master the art of meditation: start small, with goals that you can pursue consistently; pursue your course with dilligence and gentleness; learn to be forgiving when you make mistakes or don't do it right; and when you find that you have drifted away from your goal come back to the goal over and over again, without blaming yourself for having drifted away. Just keep coming back to the path, knowing that you are training yourself to live a new way, and that changing your ways is likely to be difficult and require a lot of time.

A lot will change in our perception of the problem as we live through the next few years. Some of our efforts will prove to be wrong-headed or mistaken and will have to be changed. In ten years the ultimate goals may look a lot different. That's life. In the meantime we are determined and we have begun. That is a big step.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

11 February, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

How does a monastery do missionary work?

This may seem a strange question if your image of a monastery is a place where monks are hidden away, never having contact with the outside world, secure in their own universe. But this would be a very different image than the one that this community holds of itself. Several thousand people come here each year for retreat, for quiet, or for time to pursue their own search for God, and our interaction with these people is one of the great richnesses of our life. Our interaction with our guests, the conversations we have with them, the meals we share with them and the programs we conduct for them greatly affect our lives and deepen our prayer.

And so it seems natural to us to ask how we are to be involved in the task of spreading the news of God's presence in this world. And being monks, the most natural thing for us is to think first how this place, especially these buildings, can be used in this task.

Among our great treasures is our monastery church. It is a beautiful building with a palpable sense of the holy about it. And it has nearly perfect acoustics, because it was intentionally built for the performance of chant and of sacred music. Scores of musicians who have come here over the years and asked us over and over again whether they could perform here. So when Kairos, the choral group that are Artists in Residence at the Monastery, asked if they could do a series of concerts here, their desire fell right into place with the question we ask ourselves about how we can be of service to the community around us.

What we ended up offering was not a series of concerts, but a series of events centered in worship. About eight times each year we are now offering a Choral Vespers on Sunday afternoon, which features the Kairos singers and a string orchestra performing one of the Bach Cantatas. This is all set in the context of a worship service and also features a small amount of the monks' chanting. We wanted to offer not just a performance but worship, and to see if worship would draw people here. With faith and some trepidation we started a little less than a year ago.

And what happened has surprised and amazed us. One of the members of Kairos says his rule of thumb about crowds is that a performance is a success is there are more people in the audience than there are in the chorus. By that standard, we have never had anything less than a resounding success. The smallest crowd we have attracted has numbered about 55, and this past week, on Super Bowl Sunday, there was standing room only in our Church - and this in a rural area, with a minimal local population and a significant drive away from the nearest population center.

Why do they come? Some people come because they love the music. Some come because they love beauty. Some come from curiosity. Some come with a barely formed idea that they want to love God. Some come for reasons that we can't even guess.

And what will be the outcome of all this? That too is impossible to really know. What we do know is that some of our love of God and the skills that Benedictine monks have in making that love visible in worship appear to be very attractive. We also know one other thing: we know from our experience over the years that nearly every Episcopal Church in Ulster County (our local county) has people in it who first discovered our church when they came to the monastery.

This isn't a bad answer to our question about how to engage in making God known. We begin with our own desire to love God. We craft out of that a way of worship that is quiet, beautiful and deep. Then we offer it to those around us. This time, at least, people have responded, and have responded far beyond what we had hoped. We sow the seed. God will see to what happens after that.

Now, what will we do next?

Sunday, February 4, 2007

February 4, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, February 4, 2007

Come, let us sing to the Lord:
Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Psalm 95

Psalm 95 starts the monastic Office of Matins, and I have begun most of my days with these words for the last 43 years. Our community prayer is this: singing and saying the words of the Psalms and other scriptural texts over and over again.

Just before I came to Holy Cross in 1964, I had a very difficult conversation with my best friend, who couldn't understand what I was going to do with my future. One of the things that was most difficult for him to understand was our litgurgical life. "You can't possibly say that same stuff over and over again and have it mean anything!" he said. He was convinced that I was giving my life to a meaningless task and he was very angry at what I was going to do.

And here I am four decades later, still here and still starting each day with the same words. A large part of my life has been the recitation of the same words over and over again. We say the Psalms completely through in the course of two weeks, so I have said, or chanted, the Psalms now 1,000 times, more or less. I have listened to the reading of the New Testament 86 times and to most of the Hebrew scriptures 43 times. And what has the experience been?

To begin with, my friend was right. There have been a lot of dull and dry times. There were times when repeating the same words was just .................. repeating words. It didn't mean much to me and I wasn't paying much attention. The work of paying attention has been just that - work. And the constant task of bringing my mind back to this work has had to be repeated over and over again. I have repeated the Psalms 1,000 times and have had to force my attention back to those texts a lot more than 1,000 times! A good many times I wouldn't have chosen to do it if I had any choice. But the bell rang and there I was in church, because this is what we do.

But there has been a lot more to it than that. Somewhere in the course of those 43 years the texts of thosee Psalms on which I forced my attention over and over again began to transform. They ceased to be something more than dryness and repetition and became my prayer. In some way that I was hardly aware of at the time, my heart awakened to these Biblical prayers and they became mine.

It didn't happen fast. It didn't happen suddenly. Often enough I didn't even notice that it was happening. But there did come a time when I noticed that these prayers that I was reciting and chanting now awoke an echo from the center of me. Now I really did (and do) "shout for joy" at the beginning of each day.

This is what the task has been for, this struggle with the endless repetition that my friend referred to in his frustration at my vocation. And what a gift this has been, this gift of simple persistence, and work and yes, desire. I always wanted these prayers to be more than words, and I never knew what depths I would discover until those words awoke inside me.

The passage of Psalm 95 with which we start each day ends with the words: O that today you would hearken to his voice. And here I am, after 43 years, engaged in what has become much more than dryness or work. It is the really fascinating task of learning to hearken to that voice. Has it been worth the labor of 43 years? You bet! I wouldn't trade anything for the gift of awakening to myself and to the presence of the Divine within.