Monday, July 9, 2007

A Monastery Is .........

For a good number of years I held the position of Director of Admissions for the Order of the Holy Cross. I was the one who "guarded the gates". I decided who got to join the community, or at least to give it a try.

During that time I regularly got letters from people that went something like this: "My therapist tells me that if I can get into a monastery and not have to deal with people I will probably be all right. Please tell me how I can join." I had to reply: "Your therapist has a rather different idea of the monastic life than we do."

Almost everyone who comes to enter this community has had someone among his family or friends tell him that he was "wasting his life" or "hiding from the realities of living" or some other such phrase that indicates that the persistent image of a monastery is that we are a place where the normal stresses of life and the challenges of dealing with people don't apply. And the reaction to our way of life is often quite ambiguous: many people find the thought of this fantasy state of freedom very attractive, and just as many (often the same people) think it's a bad idea.

Where this image of our life comes from is something of a mystery to me. For hundreds of years Benedictine monasteries were the centers of society's spiritual and social life. A few communities chose to live in remote locations but a lot more of them were right in the middle of things, and this was certainly true in Britain, where the Anglican tradition of Christianity was formed. Though a lot of the details remain to be discovered, it seems clear now that Celtic "monasteries" were gatherings of men or women (or in some cases men and women) who lived lives of prayer among the ordinary village and city life of their times. It often is not possible to tell from the remains of these villages which buildings were for the 'monastery' and which for the ordinary residents - they all look the same. Pretty clearly the "monks" lived as part of the local society, and the people who were not monks lived up against, and presumably also as a sort of part of, the monastic community.

Later in England the institution of the Monastic Cathedral set the pattern for a Benedictine community to be the center of City and Town and Village life. Here the architecture is much more developed: a discernible monastery was built, right at the center of things, not on the fringes. And we know from contemporary documents that the monks did a lot more than offer spiritual advice. They were at the center of the economic, agricultural and social life of their times. They were often the "glue" that held the fabric of society together. This is what made it possible for the monasteries to be the institutions that got European society through the long Dark Ages.

And so for us. Holy Cross is in a fairly rural location, but people are a lot more mobile in this age, and we are still at the center of a sizable population. At the core is the community of the monks and residents, numbering just about 20, sharing prayer and meals and work and meetings and the common joys and sorrows of life.

Then there are our Associates - people who look to us for support in the living of their lives, especially their spiritual lives. The Associates bind themselves to the living of a disciplined spiritual path. Many of them are frequent visitors here. They are definitely part of our extended family and we are in touch with them in many ways. There are about 600 of them.

Then there are our guests. They come for programs. They come for rest. They come for quiet. They come to be with us and share our time, our work and our leisure, and to converse with us at meals. They come for a day or a weekend, and even occasionally for several weeks or months. In the course of a normal year there are between 2,000 and 3,000 of them.

Then there are the casual drop-ins: people who come down the drive to see what is going on here. They have seen our sign on the road or they have seen our buildings from across the river while visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion or they have seen our web site or a friend has told them about us. They want to see around, or buy a book, or look at the view, or to talk to someone about some deeply painful dilemma in their lives. God knows how many of them there are - we don't even try to keep count.

Sounds like a real haven of refuge from the human race, doesn't it?

This past weekend about 35 of our Associates met with about half of our resident community for a time of reflection on how the Associates are related to us and what we can do to intensify those bonds. We worked hard and we laughed a lot. We talked about how people can share the work of this place, and how the Internet can help us create some virtual community, and how the Associates can help make this place better known in the Episcopal Church and beyond. We talked, in short, about how we can be a 21st Century version of the traditional Benedictine monastery - a place right at the center of people's life, living a life of prayer and welcome.

Holy Cross is known as a place of hospitality, and this conversation is right in line with this part of our life. Prayer is central to our life, but no more central than people are. We continue to discern how we can be like the Celtic village or the Monastic Cathedral: living at the center of things, open to the currents of life in our time and ready to help with the perspective that being dedicated to prayer gives us. This really isn't about withdrawal. Yes, we do have to talk about how to maintain the boundaries that enable us to have a healthy community (family) life and to protect the time needed for our life of prayer. We also have to continually evaluate the ways in which this life can be offered to those who come to us.

There's a lot of richness here. And not a little excitement. Stay tuned for the results as time goes on.

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