Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
Last evening at Vespers we clothed a new novice.
For those of you who aren't familiar with monastic life or our ways of doing things, this means that we had a service during which a man who is entering the Order takes his next step forward. Jim has been living with us for 6 months, trying this community out. He has decided that this is a life in which he can grow and to which he wants to commit himself, and the community has agreed that this seems to be a good place for him and that he is a good person for us. So during Vespers last night he was given the white Benedictine habit (robes) that members of this community wear.
At the beginning of Vespers the Superior called Jim forward and asked him what he was seeking, and he gave the answer that Benedictines have given since the sixth century: "the mercy of God and of the Order". Then several members of the community gave readings from St Benedict's Rule and the Rule written by James Huntington, the founder of this community, to present a vision of what this life is supposed to be about. After that Jim's new white habit was blessed and given to him and he went out of the Church to change into his new garments. While he was gone the community and his family and friends sang:
Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
Then Jim, now Brother James Michael, came back into the Church in his white habit with the hood covering his head, looking like monks have looked for nearly 2,000 years. He was prayed over, blessed, and then he gave each of us the Peace.
This is one of the most moving moments in our community's life. The service is short but it expresses all the yearning of someone who is determined to give his life to God and thinks that this is the place to do it. I expect that each of the monks, no matter how long we have been here, are carried by this service back to the day when we received our habit, and to the longings and ideals that filled us on that day.
And of course that means we also have to reflect on what has happened to us in the days, months, years, or decades since that day. And over the years there have been times when I have had to reflect on how my first commitment sometimes seemed to have gotten buried in the administrative details, the countless small problems, the demands of fund raising and the daily pettiness that is sometimes part of my life. Where was the Call that seemed so clear on that day 43 years ago when I got my new white habit?
There have been times in those years when this questioning has been very painful for me. Have I really lost sight of the clarity with which I felt called on that day now so long gone? It has sometimes seemed so. Have the details of living this life day by day really covered over what I wanted my life to mean instead of revealing it? It has looked tempting to answer "yes". That is part of the journey, I think. The pilgrimage from the first clarity,whether it be to this life or to a relationship or to a dedication of some other kind, always seems to lead through some dark places where it seems that we have lost our way.
But those times don't last forever - or at least for me they haven't. They have been a gateway to a larger vision of what I am about. It's taken a lot of perseverence, day by day, and a lot of commitment to believing that I am somehow doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that has not always been easy. Sometimes I have wondered if it was even going to be possible. But where I find myself now is at a place where all of the details of my life, down to the tiniest administrative chore, reflect for me that early clarity with which I began this life.
A lot of the naivite and unreality that underlay my original commitment has had to go, of course, and that has had its painful moments. But in the end I am truly blessed with a sense that my call to give myself to God radiates from the tiniest task or the most repetitive of my desk jobs. Sometimes it's expressed directly, when I am engaged in spiritual direction or preaching or being with the students at Cornell, and that is easy to see. Sometimes it's less easy to see, as in adding up a column of numbers or working on the mailing list or being involved in a session of meditation that consists of nothing but distractions. But even there I catch a glimpse of what I always wanted: the making of my whole life a gift to God. What a joy it is to feel the increasing sense that all of my life really can be a response to my call to dedication and giving.
And this even includes stirring the incense (about which I will write more at a future time).