Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Deep Stillness

I'm late this week. I was in Ithaca over the weekend for a series of meetings and conferences with the Episcopal Church at Cornell. I got home about midnight on Sunday evening, really exhausted, and I needed my day off yesterday, which I spent mostly sleeping, so here I am two days late.

One of the reasons my work at Cornell is so important to me is the great privilege of regularly touching the roots of my spiritual awakening, which happened during my college years. Cornell is a curious place religiously speaking. In many ways it is an agressively secular place and has been since Day One. It was the first private university in this country founded without religious backing, and it has always guarded that identity jealously. There is no reliigous affiliation on any formal level, no religious requirements, and at the time I was there, among the thousands of courses offered on the various campuses, there were nearly none with religious content. A course on Old Testament, which I took and which was greatly influential in my life's course, was a new and rather daring departure for my University in the late 1950's.

At the same time there was a large and active non-denominational University Chapel - Sage Chapel - in whose choir I sang for four years. And shortly before I came to Cornell a sizeable gothic building had been erected - Anabel Taylor Hall - which houses the dozens of religious chaplaincies who work on campus and provides a small and very beautifully simple chapel. And it was in that chapel, while I studied Chemistry at that great secular institution of learning, that I found something I needed, without even knowing that I needed it.

The chapel in Anabel Taylor was open all the time in those days, and it was lit at night, always. I don't remember the first time I went there late at night. But the deep stillness I encountered there resonated with something in me that I didn't understand at the time. I just knew that I needed it. I had to go back. I wasn't associated with any of the groups that used Anabel Taylor Hall - Sage Chapel provided all the formal religious practice that I needed. But I obviously needed something more than that, and I found that in the hours I spent in that chapel at night. I would slip in on my way home from night walks, or night parties, or night bull sesions in the dorms. I sought out that chapel at all hours of the night (always the night). And I sat there and was quiet.

I didn't know why I did that so much. I couldn't describe what happened, because so far as I could tell, nothing happened. There was just a deep echoing silence. At that point I had never heard the word "contemplative" and had no notion that it would describe a sort of prayer. At that time of my life, I wouldn't even have used the word "prayer" to describe what was happening there. I had no idea that there was a prayer that didn't use words, didn't have concepts and to which no description could be put. I just knew that it was important to be there, and that it was irresistible. It wasn't just important; I had to be there.

And so I sat in that deep silence. It was a long time afterwards that I understood what I was doing there. Later I recognized that one of the chief elements of my life was awakening during those night watches. The search for a Presence that goes beyond all ideas, all concepts, all experiences, all words, was stirring and trying to be born in me.

Now we skip forward nearly 50 years. My friend and colleague Suzanne Guthrie has just become the Episcopal Chaplain at Cornell. She is going to be installed as Chaplain by Skip Adams, the Bishop of Central New York. She has asked me to preach at her installation. And her installation was going to be in - guess where? - the Chapel in Anabel Taylor Hall.

That occasion proved to be extremely important for me, and what I decided to say was almost as intuitively directed as my first search for silence and prayer had been. I couldn't preach doctrine on that occasion. I couldn't preach intellectual concepts in that place. All I could do was tell the story of what had happened to me there. So that's what I did. I told the story of a college student sitting in silence in the Chapel in Anabel Taylor Hall. I talked of my search for that deep silence and what it meant to me. And the people who were there listened to what I said.

And even more moving for me was what happened afterwards. After the service there was the usual reception. During the reception several people came up to me and said "You know, I go there to sit, too." Then after everything was over, I slipped out of the Founder's Hall, where the reception had been held, and went across the entrance hall and back into the chapel just to renew my acquaintence with that silence. There, in the chapel, were several undergraduates, just sitting. I had told them, and they had heard, and now they were seeking the depth of that silence for themselves.

And so I make the trip to Ithaca monthly to be part of the Episcopal Church at Cornell which worships in the Chapel at Anabel Taylor Hall. All kinds of things happen, in all kinds of places around the campus. But really, at the bottom of it, what I go for is to bear witness to the deep silence to be found in that Chapel, and to what it can open up in the life of someone who is called by it.

It's so good to see those who are still touched by the depth of the stillness in that place. My guess is that, no matter where they go or what they end up doing, they will not forget it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Pray Without Ceasing

I was awake in the middle of the night last night, and while I lay there in the dark, a train went by on the other side of the river. This happens all the time, of course. The rail line that runs along the east side of the Hudson River was first put there more than a hundred years ago as part of the newly founded New York Central Railway and it still serves as a major transportation line: during the day AmTrak goes by twice an hour carrying people bound to and from Albany and Buffalo and Toronto and Chicago. At night freight trains pound those rails constantly, carrying goods from all over the world.

So one of the dozens of trains that pass each day happened to come along as I lay there and I happened to notice it. Most of the trains that go by pass without any notice from me at all. I am so used to the sounds of rail traffic that they are blocked out of my consciousness pretty totally. But when I do notice, especially at night, a feeling rises up in me. It's a feeling of great poignancy, almost of longing. There is a great peace that often comes over me as I hear those night trains, a feeling that all is right and even if I'm awake and can't get back to sleep, the world still goes about its ways and people tend their business. And there are some other roots to the feeling I have. I know that some part of me is wondering what it would be like not to be tied to this place, to be free to wander, to pick up and go wherever that train is going. There's excitement with that, and wistfulness as I contemplate all the things that might have been if I hadn't settled here. And interestingly enough, with all of that there is much peacefulness.

And I know, because people tell me so on a regular basis, that this monastery functions in the same way for a lot of people. Our friends, and sometimes people who have been here only once, will hear a bell tolling to announce that it's noon, and they will have a flash of memory of white robed monks in choir, chanting the noonday office. And they describe peace, and wistfulness, and longing, together with that same wondering of what might have been if they hadn't taken the course in life that they did. And they talk to me of their gratitude in knowing that we are here, and that we are praying, hour by hour, day by day, and of how important that is for them.

I'm glad of that. I'm glad that we serve as that kind of symbol for many people. I'm happy that we live in their hearts and that the image of a community that is always praying is important to them as they consider the meaning of their lives. And I also wish for more. I'd rather be more than a memory of prayer for people. I'd like to be a sign of what every Christian in the world is called to be.

Because it isn't just monks who are called to pray constantly in their lives. Everyone has that call. When the Apostle Paul said "Pray without ceasing" he wasn't addressing a special group of church professionals, he was writing to an ordinary group of women and men about how to live their lives together. The call to pray is a call to be more fully human, to realize who we are. The divine presence lies at the center of every one of us. To reach towards that center and to touch and be one with that presence, is part of what it means to be a human being. And we call that reaching out "prayer".

So what I hope for most is to be a sign of that inner presence for people. When someone hears the noon bell or siren and thinks of us praying, my wish is that the memory of our prayer will lead to that person's own prayer. Instead of simply a pleasant memory, I wish for our friends to experience that pleasant thought and then turn themselves towards God. Maybe they only have time to do it for a moment - an instant. That's enough. Anything that brings a moment of reaching for God into your life will add a bit - even if it's only a tiny bit - to the strength of your longing for God.

Spiritual writers sometimes refer to monks as archetypes. They mean by this that there is a part of every person that is a monk. Some part of you, larger or smaller, yearns to give everything to God, to really answer that longing we feel for the divine, to let our interior space bloom in the realized presence of the One who always calls us. I think it's part of the vocation of those of us who are monks to be a sign to people of what their own nature really is, and to hold out the call to awaken to that nature. Obviously not everyone is called to live in a monastery. But everyone is called to reach towards God. When the memory of our community chanting the Psalms rises up in the heart or memory of someone who has been here, what I would like is for that person to experience that moment as a direct call from God to themselves. It's a call, not just to relive a pleasant memory, but to respond right now to the summons to deepen, to reach out for God, to hear the call from the center of our heart.

And it doesn't take words to respond. Words are fine, but we don't have to stop and find the right words. We just need to take that feeling of peace and of desire, and let it be a part of our journey to God. And I am convinced that the core of the feeling that I have been describing, which periodically awakens inside all of us, is a simple and deep longing.

It is the call to long for the One who longs for us.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Another Chapter

I'm a bit late this week. This is because the past 7 days we have been occupied with the meetings of our Annual Chapter, which is the business meeting of our wider community, the Order of the Holy Cross. We are a community that has 5 monasteries in 3 different countries - The United States, Canada and South Africa. Once a year we have our Chapter and this year we met here at West Park and nearly every member of the Order was able to come. This isn't always true, but it's always good when everyone, or almost everyone, can come to this combination of a business meeting and a family reunion.

And it really is a family occasion. These are the people with whom I have spent my life. I have lived with most of them at one time or another. I was trained with some of them. Since I spent many years being the Novice Master, I also trained some of them. We have lived, worked, partied and fought with each other as the years have gone by. Because we are a small community we know each other quite well.

This year something happened that, while I have seen something like it on occasion, is certainly not a frequent experience. We had a number of difficult issues to face. Among them is the fact that, while we are a vigorous community with a good number of younger men, we are still predominantly older, and we need to face that fact and make plans for it. And these need to be plans that will enable the Order to continue to be vigorous and out-going as we care for those of us who are becoming less active.

So we began with some group discussion. We started with a presentation and some small group meetings. Then on our second morning we had set time aside for a free conversation about our current situation and we left the floor open for anyone to say what was on their mind. We began with a description of current dilemmas and our challenges to living creatively given the realities of our lives. And as we went on the discussion began to change. One by one the brothers began to talk, not about fears but about their love of Holy Cross and of how God drew them to us. We talked about our ideals and what a life of service and of giving our lives to Christ has meant for us. Many of us talked about how differently our lives had turned out from what we had expected when we entered Holy Cross, and how enriching that had been. We talked about triumphs, turning points and small joys. We reaffirmed our faith in each other and in this community in which we have served, some of us for a long time.

And as we spoke the atmosphere became more tender. Our hearts opened to our history and to our community and to each other. It was very moving to be in that room and to share my ideals and my history with my brothers, who always turn out to have pretty much the same ideals, even if the histories have been somewhat different. It was a gentle and deep moment in our common life.

It was also a very creative moment. From that morning on we dealt with a number of hard decisions and difficult discussions and we mostly did it with grace and love. (I will have to admit that we are not at our best when dealing with the details of parliamentary procedure, and one day we'll learn to laugh even about that). We made decisions that we had not thought we would be able to arrive at this year. We have turned some corners - corners that we didn't think we would go around just yet. We experienced how very creative a shared love is.

I guess we're like lots of families. This tender level of our common life is not where we often live and not something we often share. The business of daily living and yearly decision making more commonly crowds this sharing off the stage. And I don't know whether this sharing can be programmed or whether we just have to leave it to happen when it will. I do know that it has not always turned out very well when we tried to force this kind of discussion to happen.

But it's very good to experience the reality that we can share that part of ourselves and we can live in the goodness that results. I guess I complain about my community as much as most families complain about themselves and I loose the long term perspective like everyone else. I'm just grateful right now for having stepped deeper into our common life and experienced the goodness and creativity of that.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Surprise in the Evening

There were fireworks over the river last night! It has been a long, long time since that happened, and it was a treat.

Hyde Park is directly across the river from us and the town used to provide fireworks every year on the 4th of July. It was one of the highlights of the summer during the years that I was a novice and everyone came for the occasion. The neighbors filled our lawns and hillsides and the river was full of boats that came for the show. Many of us went up on the roof of the monastery for a better view, and it was an evening that we looked forward to each summer. Then came financial problems in this part of the world during the 70's and one year the fireworks didn't happen - and they never came back, at least until last night.

I was on my way to bed just before 10:00 when I heard a couple of loud booms. I didn't think anything of it because we had thunderstorms in the area during the afternoon and evening, but when the noise kept coming I started to pay attention. I went out to one of the big windows in the hall that overlook the river and there they were: fireworks! So up to the roof I went, where I reminisced and enjoyed the show. There were no crowds on the hillside and not a single boat in the river. There was just me on the roof and the wonderful colors of the display. And to the north and the south nature was providing its own show of thunder and lightning to accompany the main event. It was a fairly modest display as these things go, but it was a nice one and had a couple of special effects including one deep red heart. I don't know what the occasion was, though Br Bernard suggests that the heart may mean that it was a wedding. But it was so good to welcome the fireworks back to the river and enjoy a balmy evening with the counterpoint of the storms all around us.

Then an interesting thing happened when I got back to my room. I settled down in bed, and was going to do some before sleep reading, but I never opened the book. Instead I replayed the display and let it bring back the times of the 4th of July shows now long past, and as I let all of those thoughts drift through my mind I discovered how full of joy I was. It wasn't any small thing, either. I was really joy-full. It started in the center of my belly, and I could feel it radiating down my arms and legs and it filled my mind and emotions as well. This small event of an early summer evening had given me an unexpected gift - I was, in the words of C S Lewis, "surprised by joy".

And I wonder how often those surprises of joy wait for me and I miss them. I think it is fairly frequent. If I am going to be surprised by anything it is usually some harder or darker experience: one that I really have to work with in order to regain my composure after being thrown off balance. But I know that the joyful encounters are there. I'm sensitive to small moments of beauty when they come, whether provided by nature or by my community or by the guests who come here in such large numbers. But so often I don't really take those moments in. I need to take a minute or two out and to become aware of how deeply that beauty, and the joy that comes with it, can fill my being. That is not something I do very frequently, and so I was surprised last night by how deeply moved I was.

I obviously have some work to do. I have to get more conscious of the joyful surprises of each day. If I don't open up this way naturally, I have to start a practice that will enable me to do it. And I will need to work at this practice. It may seem funny to talk about "working" at something that is really more like relaxing. But 'work' is a good word for the disciplined attention that is required for any change, including the opening to joy. My life will provide many opportunities. I just need to be with it, and to do the work required to be with it.

It's all about opening my heart, of course. This is the center of the path of Christianity, and it's why this particular practice will be important for me. The more I am able to open my heart the more I will become what I am supposed to be: filled with love for life and for my brothers and sisters and for everyone I encounter. This is what I, and every other human being, is made to be and to do. This is what spiritual practice is supposed to accomplish for us. The Christian spiritual tradition is very clear that the path is not about 'spiritual experiences' - it is about love. The fireworks over the river just offered me the chance to wake up to a the possibility of a deeper walking of that path. The rest is now up to me.