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.

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