Sunday, July 15, 2007

Of Flutes and Monasteries

I've never thought of a flute as anything but a solo instrument. I know they are played in orchestras, but when I think of a flute I mostly think of either classical or folk flutes making their haunting, alluring sound all by themselves. I had never even considered the possibilities of 2 dozen flutes playing together (a Flute Choir). Nor did I know about the varieties of flutes - of ordinary flutes, and soprano flutes (piccolos) and alto flutes and even bass flutes, whose columns are so long that they have to be bent back on themselves so that the instrument will be compact enough to hold. Nor have I ever thought of silver flutes, gold flutes, platinum flutes, or flutes made of crystal, and that each of them have a very distinctive sound. I didn't know that there were people who have collections of flutes and who savor the different sound of each one.

All of this I have learned since Gary Schocker, one of the world's most renowned flutists, began having Master's classes here. For several summers now, it has become one of the features of our life to have several weeks when the Guesthouse is filled with flutists - mostly young, but representing all ages. There is music around the place at all hours, lessons and practicing, and there are concerts, both planned and impromptu. There is a special feeling to those weeks, knowing and hearing that some of the finest music on earth is under our roof for these few days.

And during these days I spend some time reflecting on the role of the Church, and specifically of Monasteries, in bringing beauty into the world, and offering it freely to all who come. Beauty is a hard thing to reason about or to even think about doing scientific research on, since matters of taste and people's feelings about what is beautiful vary so widely. But the small amount of research that I am aware of indicates that beauty is one of the basic needs of life. People can be well fed, and well educated, and well brought up, but a part of them never flourishes if beauty is not a part of their surroundings. People who grow up in surroundings of unrelenting ugliness always try to find some way to relieve the misery of their situation with some small - or not so small - beautiful touch.

I remember some years ago when the feeding program sponsored by the Cathedral in San Francisco began offering Croissants on Sunday mornings. There was a good deal of ridicule that accompanied that news: "Leave it to the Episcopalians. Who else would think of serving croissants in a soup kitchen!" And I remember thinking: "Well, hooray for our side!!!!!" Some kind and imaginative soul had said inside themselves: "It's not enough just to give food to the poor. We have to give something really nice." As far as I'm concerned the still small voice that made that suggestion was the voice of God. Through the centuries, churches have often been the place of quiet and of beauty for people who were hard pressed by the conditions of their lives. Just to be able to step aside into a beautiful place offers a respite that is sometimes crucial.

Often enough it has been the monasteries that have offered beauty to the world around them. We are part of that tradition. People come here specifically for the beauty of the grounds and of the view of the Hudson Valley and for the beauty of simplicity represented by our Church. All kinds of people come here for that beauty, not just society's more fortunate classes. A retreat for formerly homeless women has been part of our offering recently, and we are planning a retreat for currently homeless people and one for people working on housing for the poor. Recently we hosted the Social Workers who work for Ulster County Mental Health. People on the verge of mental breakdown, and in the midst of deep personal crises come here. Countless ordinary people living difficult times or difficult lives find their way here. They get help in many different ways, but when they talk about their experience they speak principally of two things: the peace, and the beauty. Often enough they have little of either one in their lives, and some instinct tells them that if they are to heal this is what they need to find.

I really rejoice in a house filled with flute music. I am so glad we have a fine choral group as Artists in Residence and that we have developed a series of Vespers services that feature Bach Cantatas. I'm glad that we are installing a fine new organ this fall. I delight in having a Church that is so beautiful that I am moved by it almost every time I enter it (and I have entered it up to a dozen times every day for the past 40 years). I also have joy in those who help with the maintenance of our gardens, and the group who came this week to refurbish our Labyrinth.

I am convinced that none of this is an optional 'extra'. In helping beauty to exist in this place we are offering one of the things without which people's lives tend not to flourish. We are enabling the very presence of God - who, after all, is the ultimate Beauty - to have a welcome place here, and to be a welcoming part of our lives and our ministry. This is taking human need most seriously and meeting it at a very deep level.

Appropriately enough for monks, this is a task of quiet and humility. You have to offer it and then get out of the way so that people can encounter it on their own. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do.

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