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?