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.

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