Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Leaving and a Staying

There were two events of significance in this community during the past week. Br Bernard, who has been with us a bit less than 4 years, and who is in Annual Vows, renewed his vow for another year. Br Robert, who is a novice, departed for a year's stay at our monastery in South Africa.

Holy Cross tends to believe that people integrate into the community best if they are drawn into our work life as well as our prayer life, and so both of these men are and have been central in the functioning of the house. Bernard is in charge of the application process for men from the eastern part of the United States who want to enter the novitiate of the community. As a former international banker he is also a mover and a shaker on our Finance Committee, and is serves on the Guesthouse staff as the person in charge of group reservations. Rob was a parish priest when he came to us, having spent the past 17 years in Stone Ridge, about a half-hour west of us, and for the two years before he entered he was an Oblate of the community and lived here part-time, so we've known him for a long time. In addition to his novitiate formation program he has been a key member of the Bookstore staff, and he has been in charge of most of the work in our sacristy. He also has been one of the key members of the Guesthouse staff - the person who sees to it that the guests are supplied with linens! We have used many of the gifts that these men have to offer and we have come to depend on them.

This didn't happen overnight. Entering a monastic community is not an easy business for anyone concerned - either the candidate or the community. Because most of the men entering our novitiate are middle-aged, they have had their own careers, their own relationships (sometimes their own families), their own possessions, their own lives. They are used to deciding how they want things to be, and to getting things done in their own way. They leave all of this when they come to us, and embark on the process of finding out how a community - especially this community - does things. It's fair to say that no one finds this process a continuous delight.

In a community of 15 people, no decision gets made as quickly as it would if you were making it yourself. No difficulty is addressed as smoothly as it would be if you were doing it yourself. No meal is served just the way you would have it. You are likely to find yourself doing things for which you don't have much preparation and to which you don't have much attraction. (Scott is fond of telling the story of how, when he was getting ready to come here, he told all his friends that everything would go well for him as long as he wasn't assigned to the Bookstore. And of course on the first day he was here, I, all unknowing, assigned him to the Bookstore.) (He did great.) Regardless of how prepared you think you are for this transition, no one is really prepared for it, and everyone finds it difficult. And so we know about the bewilderment, and confusion, and the consequent anger and depression that can accompany this process.

This is hard to live with. For one thing it keeps the professed members of the community in a constant state of uncertainty. Nothing we do or are goes unchallenged by those entering the community. There's no such thing as knowing that everything will remain the way it is, so long as new men are granted a share in the decision-making. No one guarantees that the new monks will think that what we are doing is the right or best way to do things, or that our goals and ideals are even acceptable, much less perfect. All of our cracks and crevices are available for inspection and comment - all the time.

This is just to say that if a man enters this community and decides to stay, both he and we have put a lot of work into the decision. There's been a lot of hard times, and sometimes a lot of conflict. It's been an up and down process, with lots of downs. No one survives this process without a lot of patience. And through it all we really do come to love each other, and people who view our community from the outside say that this is clear to them when they look at us.

So when a transition comes up it's a big deal for everyone concerned. Bernard has to decide, every year, whether this is the place that he wants to be. Does he want to go on living this life, with all of the rewards and all of the failures that are part of this very human community. What would we do if he decides to leave? That is painful to look at. Rob is going to South Africa partly because all of the novices live for a while in one of our other monasteries to get an idea of how the Holy Cross life is lived in different places and circumstances, and partly because that house has only one priest in residence, and could really use the support of another one.

Bernard's renewal of his vow was greeted with a lot of joy and affirmation. Now we can breathe out, after holding our breaths over his decision. We know we will have the benefit of his presence, his good humor, his skill and his considerable charm, caused not least by his Belgian-French accent and his occasional lapses in the use of the English language.

Rob's parting from us was certainly more difficult on both sides. His integration into the community has had its stormy passages, but his boat has sailed out into smoother waters by this time, and we have enjoyed him a lot. That means (surprise!) that we're going to miss him a lot. The separation was not easy for him, either. He rang our tower bell for the last time on his way to the car that drove him to Kennedy Airport. He let go of us with considerable ambiguity, as we did of him. It was painful.

So it's been quite a week. A time of affirmation and a time of sorrow. A time of keeping and a time of letting go - all done in the context of the bells ringing and the Psalms being chanted, the pattern of life that has governed this place for more than a hundred years.

You all have your own version of this process, of course. Keeping and letting go are part of every life. Our job is to live it as fully as we can, both the ups and the downs, and make it part of the process of our redemption - to pray it. It's what we call life, and the living of all of it is common to every human being, monks included.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Voice of God

When I was growing up we went through a time when the lives of monks and nuns were of intense interest to the public in general, and one of the manifestations of this was a rash of movies about life inside a cloister: "I Leap Over The Wall" was one of the most popular. I don't know if there is such a thing as lurid spirituality, but these movies presented the life of prayer in the most sensational way possible - which is saying quite a lot for a life that is mostly pretty ordinary. Anyway, what I am remembering this week is a scene in which a newly aspiring nun is being instructed in the monastic way by an older (actually, really old) sister, who says in the most dramatic way possible: "Heed the bells, my daughter. They are the voice of God." I don't remember if there was creepy music at that point, but it would have been a good spot for it.

Still, I remember that movie moment all these years later, and not just because of the ridiculous element in the conversation, but because there is something there I still hold on to. The old nun is presenting, in a fairly sensational way, a reality which we live out in this life, and one which has applicability far beyond this life. She's pointing to the reality that the stuff we get wrapped up in is frequently not all that important.

There is a tradition in old-fashioned monastic circles that when the bells begin to ring to summon you to church, at the the very first stroke of the bell you cease doing what you are doing at that moment. In certain texts you can find advice to go very far in this practice. If you are writing, you are advised to leave unfinished not just the word you are putting down, but the very letter your pen in on at the time. If you are talking to someone, the conversation is to be broken off in mid-sentence. If you are cooking, you stop stirring immediately. Whatever the task, it is to be stopped at the very instant the bells begin to ring, so that you can get yourself to church. God is calling, after all, and there is nothing more important.

Obviously people with outsized obsessive needs had a field day with this practice, and it has long been ridiculed because of the ways in which it has been abused. But I still remember the initial call: "Heed the bells, they are the voice of God." And I know, from my own experience, that there is wisdom there.

I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing. I have a lot of desk work to do, and there is always more of it that there is time to do it. Then I have incense to make, people to to talk to, money to raise for building projects, phone calls to make, etc., etc., etc and on to the end of time as far as I can see. It's all important, it all has to be done immediately, and the more I heed the voice that drives me into all those tasks the deeper I get in that hole.

Then the bell rings. It's time for another service. In the time that I've been in the monastery I have attended approximately 40,000 services. (Count it up - 5 a day for 40 years). What could possibly be important enough in another chanting of the Psalms to make it worth interrupting this crucial task that I am currently engaged in? This is total nonsense (my mind tells me). What I'm doing is important! It's more than important! It has to be finished!!!!!

And I have no choice. The life I have chosen calls me to chant the Psalms five times a day most of the days of the week. I don't often leave a letter unformed in the midst of a word, nor do I stop in mid-sentence when I'm talking to someone. Often enough I stumble into the monastery church just at the final minute - slightly out of breath and with no time to prepare for the chanting. But I get there. It's my life.

And, when I'm really alert to what's going on I realize that the wisdom behind this practice of ours is just that the bells challenge my obsessive nature over and over. It says to me: "Is it really all that important? Does it need to be finished as quickly as you think? What is really important to your life?"

If God is the center of my life and the bells are calling me to God's service, then the old nun is right after all; the bells are the voice of God calling. They call me to the reality of my commitment. They call me to what I said was most important to me when I decided to embrace this life. And they point out to me, over and over, how I tend to organize my time so that I would get around this commitment if I could - if only the damn bells would let me!

And here we are, right at the center of one of life's central dilemmas. As St Paul says in one of his most famous passages: "The good that I would do, I do not do............." Are my tasks, my work, my conversations, my counselling sessions, (yes, even my incense stirring) important? Yes, they are. Are they not the call of God in my life? Of course. But that isn't the point here. The point for me is how I can make any of these good things into an idol - a force that must be served to the exclusion of all else. I have to get it done! And over and over the bells sound to remind me of something deeper - the need to confront my obsessions, and to develop the freedom to walk away from them. The bells teach me, at a level far deeper that I would choose for myself, what I am really like, and what I need to do in order to be free for God.

Of course this has to be done with balance and common sense. From time to time there is a genuine emergency - one of the brothers is in the hospital, someone in a real crisis is talking to me - and I need to ignore the call of the bells. But that's rare (very rare, if I am honest about it). Mostly I need to deal, over and over again with what I am really like, and how something in me deeply resists some of the basic elements of my call to center my life in God.

And it's a lifetime task. It really is the drip of water wearing away the stone of my disordered nature. But, after a long time, I do see not just the stone but the little hollow that the drip has worn away in it. Conversion takes a long time, but it does happen. The voice of God does call me more deeply now.

And what is your version of this struggle?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spreading It Around

The biggest fascination of monastic life for most people seems to be what goes on in the monastic community - what it's like in those buildings where the guests don't go, what it's like to live a life given first of all to prayer, and what it's like to live with priorities that seem so different from the ones that most people live with. So it's these things that I write about the most. But an important part of the meaning of our life happens away from this monastery in places near to us and far away where we go to take the fruits of what we have learned and what we have become.

So it has always been for Benedictine monks. The image of a monk, of course, is of a person rooted in one spot, living quietly and simply, and never leaving the monastery. The reality of the Benedictine life is rather different, however. Those who know European history will know that a large part of that continent is Christian because of the work of Benedictine monks, and they didn't evangelize Europe by staying at home all the time. Many of the modern methods of agriculture were invented in monasteries and they didn't get spread to farmers in general by monks who didn't talk to outsiders and never left their premises. Monasteries have been the center of ideas, innovations and teaching almost from the moment of their founding, and the lives and needs of people around us are one of our primary concerns.

For Holy Cross this concern has been exercised primarily in teaching. We founded and ran two Prep Schools, the Kent School in Kent, Connecticut and St Andrew's School in Sewanee, Tennessee. Since our very beginning we have been active in teaching the Christian faith and the ways of the spiritual life in parishes all over the United States, Canada and beyond. For many years we had a large mission in rural Liberia, with schools, clinics, a leper hospital and many other works, and our present work in South Africa has a big concern with the education of children.

And so last weekend, I set off to spend a Sunday with the people of Grace Church in Elmira (that's why last week's column was posted early). I went at the invitation of Don Matthews, the Rector, who is an Associate of Holy Cross and a close friend of ours and who was going to be away for the weekend, celebrating the 21st birthday of his daughters. He wanted me to come and be with a congregation that at one time had a very strong and long-lasting connection with Holy Cross.

So off I went, driving four hours to the west. Elmira is a smallish city (a lot smaller than it used to be) close to the Pennsylvania/New York border in a part of central New York State that is struggling economically and seems never to have found its feet, or its identity, since the disappearance of the many railroads that used to cross the state.

I had the rectory to myself for the weekend, and when I opened the door, I was greeted by Sasha, the rectory cat. I had been warned by several people that she was unfriendly, and I had better not try to be affectionate with her, or I might regret it. But the minute I appeared at the kitchen door she dashed to my side, rubbed up against me, purred loudly and then followed me wherever I went for the next two days, wanting attention and wanting to be scratched. A nice surprise that was, because I love cats, and Sasha seemed to want whatever attention I would give her.

Grace Church has survived the economic difficulties of Elmira with good style. I had a marvelous time with the wonderfully friendly and thoughtful people who comprise the congregation. I enjoyed the liturgy a lot - Grace Church was nurtured by the liturgical style and the spirituality of the Anglo-Catholic movement, as was I - and the music was superb (one of the parishioners said to me: "Grace Church will tolerate poor preaching, but won't tolerate poor music for a moment.") From their response, I don't think I gave them poor preaching, and they gave me a Sunday morning of delight in their worship, their interest and curiosity, and their great friendliness.

I preached about what I always preach about: the relationship with God. I talked about prayer as giving voice to the longing for God that lives deep within each of us, and the answer that comes in knowing that deep within us is a Presence that longs for us as deeply as we long for it (him, her), and how the spiritual life rests on this foundation of the exchange of longing between God and us. They were an easy group to preach to: alert, attentive, responsive. They are obviously used to good preaching. Fr. James Huntington, the founder of Holy Cross, went regularly to Grace Church, Elmira for many years, and although that connection ceased with his death in the 1930's, it was easy to see how Holy Cross and that congregation make a very nice combination. It was a small event - two liturgies, two sermons, one Adult Education talk (on the monastic life in the Episcopal Church) and a couple of meals. It was also one of those times when you know that a message of some importance has been given and received and love exchanged. It was, to put it succinctly, Christian ministry.

I went from there to Ithaca, which is about 30 miles from Elmira. Though I no longer work regularly with the Episcopal Church at Cornell, I still do some spiritual direction with people who are connected with Cornell, and I still have friends there, so I went to make contact with both. I guess you have to be a Cornellian, as I am, to understand the depth of the emotional bond between those who went to school there and that institution. I always think I have been away long enough to not be at all emotional about it, but then I come over the Newfield Hill and there, miles and miles away is Cayuga Lake and the great valley carved out in the last Ice Age and on the hill at the foot of the Lake the Campus is spread out, and every time I see it I get teary, and inside myself the song starts that I sang for four years as a member of the Cornell Glee Club: "She Stands Upon Her Hill Serene.........." So I had that moment, and recovered from it, and for the next day and a half I gave what I could to those I saw for Direction and those I saw for friendship. And then I came home.

Well, that's monastic ministry. It is composed of quietly telling people what it's like to pray, or to believe, or to think about contemporary issues from a Christian perspective, and it's surrounded with affection and shared love, and it often goes on at a fairly slow pace for years and years, not unlike the monastic life itself. And that ministry did convert Europe at one point, and it still, according to many, many people who come here, converts people in this age. It's about offering the lessons we have learned in the hours we spend with God, and then giving time for those lessons to sink in to someone else. And it's all surrounded with love and affection shared. It's often not spectacular, as ministries go - but then, the monastic life is more the product of years and years of life lived quietly and deeply than it is a spectacular revelation, and we tend to share things the way we live them. We (try to) share love, to share what we know of God, to share our concern for peoples' suffering. Benedictines have always done it this way.

And in the past year or so, Holy Cross monks have been in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, West Virginia, and all kinds of places in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. For a little group we tend to get around. We could no more stop doing this than we could stop breathing, because it's part of the monastic life - it's deeply a part of the life we live. Fr. Lincoln Taylor OHC once said: "You can't love God the way we do without it's having results". We try to spread the results around. Over the centuries that Benedictine monasticism has been around this sort of ministry has had effects, most of which we small and unnoticed, and a few of which were really foundational for Western civilization. It's good, and it's also very moving, to be part this tradition, and to take it to Elmira and to Ithaca, and anywhere else that people ask to know about God.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A Sweet Task

For most of my life in Holy Cross I have been in authority positions: I've been Prior of several of our monasteries, I've been the Novice Master, I've been the Assistant Superior. I have spent a lot of time in the administration of monastic institutions, and like all administrators, I have learned that good administration is at base a pastoral task. So pastoring and administrating have been my life - mostly.

But as the years passed by I noticed an increasing feeling that something was missing. Leadership is a very wonderful and creative life, and it has taught me very much about people and about myself. But I needed something else. And finally after enough years had gone by I realized what that something else was. I needed a craft. I needed to use my hands. I needed to make something beautiful. I needed to be involved in shaping something, producing something, making something. I needed the grounding that physical work would provide, and I needed the spiritual involvement that working with my hands would bring. For a while I thought that carpentry was what I needed to take up, and I still think that would be wonderful if I had the time for it. But a combination of availability and need stepped in, a number of years ago, and gave me the craft that has been mine ever since.

I make incense.

For about 35 years Holy Cross has had a small business that provides liturgical incense to parishes and also to individuals who want to use a charcoal-burning incense in their homes. At one point the brother who was doing the work moved on to other work and someone was needed to make the incense, so I stepped in, and I've been doing it ever since.

Did you ever know anyone who made incense? I can testify to the fascination that the business has for our guests, and I often show off the workroom where I make Holy Cross Incense to people who oooh and aaah about the smells and the process.

It's not complicated. We use a base composed mostly of Frankincense to which a small amount of Myrrh is added. Both are resins and are made from tree saps that are imported from the Middle East. We work with a lovely bunch of people who run a fragrance importing business called Shemen Tov (which is Hebrew and might be translated roughly as "good stuff"), and they supply me with top-quality ingredients to work with . We used to deal with a company named Aphrodesia, which everyone found most amusing, but they went out of business.

To the base of Frankincense and Myrrh is added a tincture which is made of a scented oils and a resin, both dissolved in some solvent alcohol. We blend four tinctures for our incenses: they are Santiago (lemon) St Augustine (rose) Sancta Crux (rosewood) and St Benedict (a non-sweet scent whose base is Labdanum oil and which smells rather like butterscotch to me). The tinctures are stirred into the mixture of Frankincense and Myrrh and left to dry. I stir them every day, and depending on the blend I am making, it takes anywhere from 4 days to a month for the blend to dry and cure. Then it is packaged and sold.

Over the years I have developed a real sense of craftsmanship about my work. Each of our blends has its own personality. The smell changes just slightly with every new batch of ingredients and I need to work with that to make sure that what we are producing is recognizably the same from batch to batch, and that it is pleasing to smell. Each blend dries differently, and looks differently and needs to be handled differently. When I started out I thought I would learn all I needed to know about this simple process in a week or so. Now, some 20 years later, I am still learning about it. I am still making slight adjustments to the recipes. I still haunt kitchen supply stores in search of equipment that will make the measuring, stirring and drying easier and more even. Just recently I found a plastics manufacturer that has exactly the right sized container with high sides (impossible to find until now) that makes the work of stirring a lot easier and less messy. Every time that I think I have reduced the process to a matter of routine, something else comes along and the incense teaches me yet something else about the creative process.

It's an important part of my life. The workshop is in the basement - not removed from the community's life, but off to one side. It's often peaceful and very quiet. On Saturdays Kairos (the choir that is Artist in Residence here) rehearses in the room next to the workshop so I work to the melodies of several centuries of choral works. From time to time members of the community drift in and out to share the fascination with the process. Often, especially when I'm packaging a large number of our Sampler Packs, I am all alone, doing this rhythmic repetitive task, which goes very well with breathing and with meditation. So I pray my way through the manufacture of our incense and hope that some of the peaceful ingredient of prayer comes across along with the smell.

I would say that the making of incense is part of my spiritual life, but the fact is everything I do is part of my spiritual life. So I'll say that it's a special part of my spiritual life. I do feel more grounded when I deal with the earthy realities of buying, sorting, blending, packaging and selling. The workshop itself echoes the Jesus Prayer for me, because it so often has accompanied the tasks that I perform there.

It's important to me to have something to do that doesn't involve sorting papers or analyzing personal or communal problems. Certainly sorting papers and problem solving are part of the incense business, but there's always the basics - measuring, stirring, testing, waiting. There's a depth to this simple task that I don't get any other way, and I value it very greatly. It's a work that is both simple and profound. I am more whole because of it.

Censing the plaque
Originally uploaded by Randy n/OHC

Br. Bede getting you use the fruit of his labor at the inauguration of our Middle House's new entrance as the Br. Douglas Brown Memorial