Sunday, December 30, 2007

Giving and/or Receiving

Last week I alluded to our Christmas gift-giving in a short paragraph towards the end of my column. This week I find that I have to expand on that paragraph because it was such a wonderful part of our Christmas.

For many years now we have had a gift exchange in the community. Each person has been allotted some money and towards the beginning of Advent we have had a drawing in which each of us got a name. Then began the work of finding out, or guessing, what that person might like to have and shopping and wrapping. The usual. On Christmas afternoon we had a community gathering and one of us played Santa and distributed the gifts that had been wrapped and were under the tree. It was great fun and there were lots of laughs and usually some touching moments.

But over time this event began to lose its energy. For one thing, monks don't really need very much, no matter how consumerist we try to be at least once a year. And the longer you live in community the more you discover that when you don't need very much the amount that you want also decreases. By last year we had gotten to the point where almost everyone was getting gift cards to Barnes & Noble or L L Bean (or even to our own Gift Shoppe!). Something needed to be done.

So we got a committee together - the great American solution for dilemmas - to decide what we wanted to do about Christmas.

And they came up with quite a good idea. We would have a Community gathering as usual and we would have gifts, but we weren't going to give gifts to each other. We would make the same amount of money available to each person, and we were going to give the money away, and each of us got to decide where we would like to our money to go. Furthermore, when we looked at our finances carefully we discovered that the Monastery would even be able to match these funds, so that what we would give away could be a bit larger. This sounded good to us all, and so we latched onto the project.

A week before Christmas the list went up - we had to put down where we wanted our gift to go so that the checks could be written. Slowly the list filled up. It began to look as though this might be very interesting.

"Interesting" turned out to be a mild word for it. In the midst of Christmas afternoon I went past one of our business offices and there was the community's Bursar actually writing the checks for our Community gathering. He was really simmering with joy at what he was doing, looking at the variety of the community's concerns and making it possible to do something to meet the needs of those we are concerned about.

And so we gathered. Each person got his check, and as he got it he got to tell where it was going to go and who it would help. It was a deeply moving time. One brother has admired the work of the Heifer International Project for many years. This year he got not only to admire their work, but to buy a goat for a farmer in Asia. Another brother has been a supporter of the cause of micro-lending. This a policy followed by a few international banks who make very small loans to women in Third World countries so that they can start businesses or have projects that will make their lives more bearable. A number of us decided to pool some of our gifts so that we could give a really nice gift to the drop-in center for homeless people at which one of the brothers works each week. Some money went to help with drug and alcohol treatment for teens. And on it went. To see the breadth of our concerns and to feel the light in the room as we each got to do something about those we pray for gave a dimension to Christmas that I think none of us will not forget any time soon.

So - it's just a small amount of money. We're not going to change the world. Or maybe we are. At least one man in Southeast Asia will have a goat to help on his small farm and with the feeding of his children. A woman in Brazil will have a sewing machine to start a small business and be able to begin lifting her family out of poverty. Some people in Newburgh will have a warm place to go and some food to eat instead of spending their winter days on the streets. Some teenagers will begin to learn what it means to live in freedom instead of the slavery of addiction. Maybe we aren't changing the world, but we'll be changing some of the world.

And me, you ask. What did I do with my money? Well, I had a very private wish fulfilled. Regular readers of this column will know that I graduated from Cornell University many, many years ago, and that in recent years I have returned to Cornell to work with the Episcopal chaplaincy there, and that this reconnection with my school has been a very powerful moment in my life. Another part of the story is that nearly all my adult life I have been a monk, and I have never had money to give away. I have never had anything to send to Cornell. Now, while they are having a Capital Funds Campaign, I get to contribute. It's not much, except to me. Cornell is raising 4 Billion Dollars to assure their future as a fine institution of learning. People come there from all over the world, including not a few poor people who are able to come because of the generosity of those who believe in the place. In the larger scheme of things my little contribution will scarcely be noticed. But knowing that after all these years my small gift will be there in the fund that is securing the future of my school means more to me that I can easily say. I learned a lot of stuff at Cornell; I got a degree in Chemistry. And I learned about being a man, and about being a human being and about loving and about living. Now someone else will get to learn those things, too. How wonderful!

On Wednesday I shared our Christmas with the small meditation group across the River that I sit with each week. "Oh yes," the teacher said: "this is another form of Practice. You are practicing being generous. Very important." Of course! One of the themes of the past couple of years here at Holy Cross has been the ways in which we want to be more generous - to become a community of generosity. So of course we are finding ways to practice that. And it is important: if you want to change something, you have to practice the new way that will take the place of the old.

So this Christmas we Practiced. It was a wonderful Feast.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Monk Celebrating Christmas

On Friday I had an appointment with an Acupuncturist whose office is up near Woodstock, and it's something of a journey to get there. I started out with a big surprise: the roads were completely empty. I drove all the way to Port Ewen, the seat of our Town government - about 8 miles away - without encountering a single other vehicle. I have never seen the roads so deserted. I couldn't imagine where everyone had gone. I was expecting a fair amount of holiday shopping traffic and there was nothing. "What?" I thought. "Has everyone suddenly developed some sense?"

I should have known.

Normally I take a back road around Kingston to avoid the traffic congestion of the shopping area, but Friday I decided I'd go the shorter way through the city, since the roads were so lightly traveled. Big mistake. When I got near the Hudson Valley Mall and all the stores around it, I discovered where all the people were who are normally on the highways had gone. Route 9-W past the mall was practically a parking lot 2 miles long. Jammed with cars. Horns blowing. People shouting. Nothing moving. By the time I got through that mess I was very late for my appointment, but of course everyone understood. Everyone but me knew what would be going on in Kingston on the Friday before Christmas.

This happens to me every few years, and it serves as a very useful reminder to me of just how differently we observe this whole season than almost everyone else. We celebrate what are now called "The Holidays" by slowing down instead of speeding up. We have less traveling outside the monastery than at other times. We have a rich liturgical celebration of Advent which focuses on the longing of the human race for God. "O Come" we sing, over and over. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". "O King of Nations, Come" "Come, O Lord in Peace."

In the week before Christmas we have a 3-day retreat. The guesthouse is shut. The whole place is silent. The liturgical schedule is pared down. We have a vast quiet with snow and the river to keep us company. We try to make it possible to be really refreshed and ready for the celebration of Christmas. One of our friends who was rector of one of the parishes in Kingston said that one of the delights of the season for her was to come down here during the busiest shopping days of the year and see the sign on the door of our Gift Shop: "Closed for Retreat".

A great cultural festival goes on in this country from Thanksgiving until December 25. It's a winter festival and it is found in nearly every culture and religion in the Northern Hemisphere. Its hallmarks are good cheer and good consumption. Parties. Gifts. So much celebrating and so much busy-ness that everyone is worn out. It used to be called "Christmas". It's now widely referred to as "The Holidays". I'm not one of those people who lament the detachment of the American cultural feast from the vestiges of the Christian religion. I think, in fact, it's quite useful to be clear that two different things are going on here.

Both things are good. At Holy Cross we aren't a group who are opposed to celebration. We are rather opposed to excess and we do insist that what we do always make room for quiet and for the inward journey, but we also like partying. We are going to celebrate Christmas in grand style and there will be a lot of people here to celebrate with us. We will decorate splendidly. We'll have a huge tree which we will decorate on Christmas Eve (are we the last people in the United States who don't put their tree up until Christmas Eve?) We will have a Midnight Mass that is solemn and stately and will have wonderful singing and preaching and rejoicing. We'll have a good reception afterwards and it will be ridiculously late when we get to bed. Edward, our chef, has been thinking for weeks about how he can make our Christmas dinner more splendid that it was last year. He will probably succeed, and our waistlines will show it. Again, lots of people will be here to share this with us, and will be here for a week. Our guesthouse will be open continuously now until January 1, and a good large supply of people will come and go all during the next 10 days. At the end of it we will be exhausted with celebrating and being hospitable. We'll be ready for a few days off, which we will proceed to have after New Year's Day.

There will be gifts, too. Many friends remember us at this time, and for that we are very grateful. And our own gift giving is going to be pretty special, too. Everyone in our community will have a certain amount of money available, and each of us gets to decide who - or what cause - they would like to give it to. At a community gathering on Christmas Day we will have a time to relax with each other. We will open the presents that people have sent. Then - the most important part - we will share with each other where each of our personal gifts will be going and why these people and ministries we have chosen to support are important to us. We are really looking forward to it.

So all in all I'm pretty satisfied to be out of step with most people at this time of the year. I really love the way we choose to celebrate Advent and Christmas. I'm glad not to be captive to The Holidays. I like keeping our focus and our care for the season. I think we celebrate well, and I don't feel in the least deprived.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Silence Before the Dawn

I was up really early this morning.

Last night I was quite tired, after a day that included digging one of our cars out of a snow bank and an afternoon fighting my way through the mobs in the Poughkeepsie stores. Faced with exhaustion, I managed to get myself into bed earlier than I usually do, which is a feat in itself, and which I found myself very glad to have done. And one of the results of this remarkable feat was that I woke up before 5 this morning, having had 7 hours of sleep and feeling rested and as though I had had my fill of sleep for the time being.

So there I was. I had an hour and a half before I needed to get my shower. I don't often have a nice stretch of time that is completely free and available for whatever I want. What to do? There is always meditation, of course, or Lectio, or study - things I don't usually get nearly as much time for as I would like. The only complication there was that I didn't want anything that felt even a little bit like work. I didn't want another task. December is a very busy time for us; sometimes it's almost completely crazy, what with guesthouse programs and people coming and going and needing to have time with one of us to reflect on their lives before Christmas, and Incense sales going through the roof and thank-you notes to be started on and so much else. And I do often get meditation and reading confused in my mind with just one more task that has to be done. I know better, but knowing better and reacting that way emotionally are, I have discovered, two different things.

So I didn't want a job, even (or especially) the job of praying. I wanted something that would feel like I had this lovely hour of free time to luxuriate in. It took a while, but not too long, to figure out what I was going to do. I threw on my robe and went down to the Common Room to make the morning coffee. All was quiet. No one else was up yet, at least no one who wanted coffee. So I made a carafe of good strong coffee, and filled my favorite mug with it and went back to my room, put my coffee mug on a little mug-sized heater that I have to keep it warm, and got back into bed.

It felt wonderful. The coffee was delicious. I lit a couple of candles (I am a real fan of beautiful candles) and they were lovely in the darkness. Everything was still; there wasn't a sound in the house. Outside were the sounds of the storm that we are in the midst of, principally the sound of sleet beating against my window. It was dark, with not a sign of dawn yet. And I felt the comfort of the pre-dawn hours that I really love.
Like a lot of people who pray a good deal, I am attracted to the night, especially to praying in the night. Keeping vigil is one of the most constant elements of monastic spirituality. There is something about getting up to pray before it is light that really nourishes my soul. I have never found it particularly easy to explain this attraction to those who think that this behavior is crazy, but it has always been true for me. This is the time I love to be awake and to pray. One of the happiest times in my life were the year that I lived with a monastic community in England that got up at 2:00 a.m. each morning to pray the Night Office. I know that most people find this outrageous, but I felt like I had been given a year-long wonderful present - I got to get up at 2:00 to pray. Even now in mid- summer I find myself quite out of sorts because no matter how early you get up, it's light, and that's not what my soul longs for.

So back to the darkness of this morning: this most interesting thing happened. This morning, having successfully arranged things so I wasn't feeling "on duty" or "at work" meditating and praying, I found myself praying and meditating. There was plenty of stuff to attend to: there was the sound of the sleet relentlessly whispering at the window; there were the candles across the room, giving out their message of beauty and the deeply symbolic gift of light; there was the silence of the early morning, waiting there to be savored. Gradually all of that took over. The simplicity that is supposed to characterize meditation came and carried me when I gave it just a little encouragement. I went 'in' and 'down', whatever those words may actually mean when it comes to describing these states. I was where I needed to be, comforted by my flannel sheets and my early morning coffee, and deeply present to the moment where I was. The Spirit seemed very close.

And I was more ready for the rest of the morning that I am accustomed to being. Matins was a real joy. Almost all of our guests have fled in advance of the storm, and the very few who are still with us did not choose to get up in time for Matins. So it was just us, and the weak dawn light and the Psalms and chants that have sustained this community for more than 100 years. The singing resonated around the Church, as it has been doing since the 1920's, when the building was put up, and it seemed completely right. And so the morning has continued to be: breakfast, with a nice quiche that our chef made before he went home last night in case he wasn't able to get in this morning (which he wasn't); and then mass with the chant and hymns that bring us back to this time in Advent and a very nice sermon that took us on a walk through the Scripture passages for the day and let us play with them as we would.

The day will continue like this. The service of Lessons and Carols planned for this afternoon has been moved to next week. We won't be going anywhere, because getting out of our driveway just now might not be impossible, but most of us will probably want to postpone that effort until the storm has passed. We'll enjoy the quietness and freedom of a Sunday to ourselves.

And I want to guard this day. I'd like to go on celebrating the freedom of that pre-dawn hour as long as I can. I want to play with the open space and love the whiteness that surrounds us and enjoy the stillness and let the Spirit be near.

Sometimes I learn more about meditation when I decide not to meditate than I do when I work at it really hard. Funny, isn't it?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Gift For Advent

On Friday of this week I set off on a two-hour drive to a Connecticut hospital for a visit I was dreading in a situation that I could only describe as tragic. I went to see a dear friend of many years whose life is drawing to a close. She is a woman who has lived by words. She has been a successful author and also a publisher, a woman of deep prayer and an equally deep commitment to the ministry of healing. Her words have brought hope and enlightenment to countless people. But time, and her body, have robbed her of her words.

About ten years ago she had a serious stroke, from which she recovered quite well. But since then there have been other strokes, large and small, and gradually the words departed from her, first because she could no longer write, and now after last week's stroke and seizures, because she can no longer speak. She has been mostly paralyzed for months now, and her ability to manage ordinary communication has grown more and more limited.

It's a terrible situation - the sort of condition that causes people to doubt the existence of God or the worth of ideals, and to pray fervently for a different sort of journey at the close of their lives. Very few of us would want to live the end of our life like this; but very few of us have a choice about that. I remember with clarity a conversation about death with this dear friend in which she said: "There are very few easy ways out of this life."

Of course I needed to be there, and I had to move a bunch of appointments to clear the time, but everyone understood. And so I set off. To say that I wasn't looking forward to the journey would be understating things a very great deal.

If you follow this blog at all regularly and are used to my writing style, you know already that I'm about to say that it turned out differently than I had expected. When I walked into the hospital room, my friend was sleeping. Her children, whom I know, were sitting about the room in the usual attitudes of a long wearying bedside watch. They smiled and welcomed me, and one of them shook her and when she opened her eyes said: "Mom, Bede's here."

What happened next was totally unexpected. Her body stretched and moved. Her face lit up. With the few facial muscles that still work she broke what I can only describe as a radiant smile. She glowed. She might not have much access to her bodily functioning any more, but with all that she had she was welcoming me. From a corner of the room one of the family members said: "Look at that!", and someone went in search of a camera. I just hugged her gently and gave thanks.

So I sat beside her and held the one hand that still works and talked to her. I started with doing what one usually does - telling her the news, who is doing what, what's going on at the monastery. That was OK, but it became clear very soon that it wasn't what she really wanted, so I stopped. What she really wanted was me, and that's what I needed to give her.

So we spent the afternoon together while I held her hand, and the time felt very full, and quite enough. She is having small seizures at frequent intervals and after each one she needs to take a little nap. The afternoon was marked by periods of silence and companionship and then by one of her small naps, after which she would awake and find me there all over again, and smile her radiant smile of welcome.

It was an afternoon of comfortable being together, punctuated with little bursts of joy. It all happened in silence. She was completely there. I had access to a part of her that was not limited by her physical condition. She was wholly my friend and my companion on the spiritual quest. We didn't talk much, and nothing was missing from our visit because of that. We had what both of us needed.

Then the end of the afternoon came. It was growing dark. Some snow threatened to make the return journey difficult. She was tired and needing rest. I had to go. So I rose and laid her hand down and told her I was leaving. And I can only describe what happened then by saying that she grabbed me. She didn't do it with her hands, because they hardly work any more. She did it with her eyes. She pierced me with a deep and intense gaze. She looked straight down to the bottom of my soul, and opened herself to me. And for many minutes we gazed at each other, and I was as open as I have ever been.

I felt completely welcomed, completely loved, completely accepted. She offered me all of herself, and received everything I had to give. It was all done in silence, of course, but it was so intensely private that the other people in the room quietly stole out to leave us alone, because even though not a word was spoken it was clear to anyone there that we were having a very personal time. I can't tell you how long it lasted. It lasted a long time, or a short time. It lasted forever. It was beyond time. Love conquers all our boundaries.

And then I drove home in a Friday evening rush hour of people leaving Manhattan for a weekend in Connecticut or upstate New York. I drove bumper to bumper at an average speed of 17 miles an hour and the trip that usually takes 2 hours took 5. It seemed like a few minutes. Through the whole time I explored the corners of my heart that had been seized and touched through the wonders of the afternoon.

I was sad, of course, and not wanting to go through what comes next. I was even more open than I had been before to the awful aspects of her situation. And I was filled to overflowing with love and gratitude and joy. A most remarkable transformation has been working in my old friend in these past few months. God has taken the gift of her soul, which she has so steadfastly offered over the years, and made it into gold. And I got to see that. This inner transformation is no longer an article of faith for me - I have seen it with my own eyes.

When I arrived home the members of the community wanted to know, of course, how it had gone. What I found myself saying was that I went expecting to see a tragedy, and what I found was very, very different from that. I found something about the depth of life.

This morning's Eucharist reading from Romans urges us to "abound in hope." That reading gave words to my experience on the way home from the hospital. I was abounding in hope. And the hope I have been abounding in is not an empty experience, hoping for some fulfillment that I don't have yet. It is a fulfilled, wondrous experience of what we look forward to. Life does flourish in the midst of dying and in the midst of death. I have seen that directly now, and in my own way have been transformed by it.

What a perfect Advent gift, as we wait for the coming of Christ. Thank you so much, dear friend, for your gift.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Jake the Dental Dog

My new dentist has an office dog.

Well, the dentist isn’t all that new: I’ve been seeing him for a year now. But I had, after all, been seeing the former one for nearly 20 years, until a medical condition forced his retirement. So the present dentist still seems new. A year ago I started with the new dentist on the project of a major interior renovation of my mouth that has occupied all of the time since then. This has involved frequent appointments which have often been quite prolonged.

Not long after I started this process I was in the midst of one of my first long sessions – about two and a half hours of probing and drilling, as I recall. In this midst of this ordeal the dentist, compassionate soul that he is, had given me a 10 minute respite. I was stretched out nearly flat in the chair with my arms leaning on the arm rests and my hands dropping down to the sides, thinking of nothing and trying to take advantage of the time between drillings. I was drifting half way between consciousness and sleep. And then, all of a sudden I felt something cold and wet in the palm of my right hand.

I started up and looked down to my right and there was a medium sized quite pudgy yellow dog, who had the most beguiling look in his eyes and who was wagging his long tail so vigorously that his whole body shook back and forth with the effort. All of him was wagging. He looked so perfectly delighted to have found a new person to love, and perhaps to get a scratch from in return. I obliged, and through half-closed eyes he let me know that I had given him the best gift that life affords. I was his friend for life, that was clear. “That’s Jake” the dental assistant said.

Jake’s job is to love people. He obviously likes his job quite a lot. He’s not always there when I go to the office, but when he is he roams from treatment room to treatment room spreading love wherever he goes. He delights people and delights in people. He eases the tension that always goes with dental treatment. In between times of wandering through the office he lies in a corner of the reception area, napping. But he’s always glad to interrupt his nap when the call of love arises. He is a real treasure.

Since the day I met him, Jake has held up a mirror before me. “Why” I think, “can’t I be more like Jake?” Why can’t I be given to love like that? The living out of the life of love is one of the most obvious demands of the Christian call. What is it that keeps me from doing it the way Jake does, simply, whole-heartedly, completely.transparently. Why don’t I wiggle with delight at the appearance of a new person to love?

Now I know dogs pretty well. I’m not naive about their foibles, their needs and their tricks. I know some of what Jake is up to in his doggie way. I also know myself, at least a bit, and I am not entirely clueless about the answer to the question that I just posed. I know some of the shadows and scars that keep me from that open-hearted loving response that Jake is able to offer.

This past weekend, as happens each year at this time, my dear friend Suzanne Guthrie and I conducted the annual Advent Retreat here at the monastery. In the course of one of her addresses, Suzanne raised exactly this issue in a particularly realistic and pointed way. She said:

“…….. for compassion to flourish, so much of me has to change and die. So much selfishness must be purified, tried in the refiner’s fire: the ever-accumulating dross of fear and pride, sloth and weakness, ignorance and craving and anger, all those things that make me so lovable! …… must be transformed. What a thankless, yea verily, what a hopeless task!

“Okay, okay, I get it.

“I’ve been working up to this my whole life. like the young Augustine writing about mere lust, “Make me chaste, but not yet…” I have been saying, “Make me compassionate, but … not yet.”

“Well then, when?

“Why not this Advent?”

And I look at Jake and say, why not? Can I look at him and give it a try? I have some motivation, at least, because I do know, down in the depths of my being, how important this can be.

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and across the street from us in an ancient house was an old lady who came as close to being pure love as I have ever known. Her name was Miss Nettie Robinson. She had lived most of her life with her sister Maude, whom I only barely remembered, and since Maude’s death she had lived alone. She loved everyone, and almost everyone returned the favor. She was pure goodness, as far as I could tell, and the people in our town honored this. The local grocery store delivered her groceries long after they had stopped doing it for anyone else. She drove a 1932 Ford coupe (which she always referred to as The Machine) and people flew to the right and left when she came down the street, but no one ever thought of telling her that she couldn’t drive any longer – not for a long time. People protected and cared for her so that she could go on loving everyone.

One of the people Nettie loved most was me. She looked across the street and saw the trouble that was in our house and looked at me and saw the weight of that burden in my life and how heavy it was for me to carry. She knew what to do about a small child sinking under a heavy burden, and she responded as she knew best: she loved me with all her heart. That’s what saved me. I'm not exaggerating: it really did save me, and much of what I have of balance and stability and just plain sanity is due to the love of Miss Nettie Robinson (and also to my Aunt Sarah, another great lover of people) I know how important it can be to love people.

So this Advent, can I take up this vocation? Can I love in the mold of Miss Nettie Robinson, and of my Aunt Sarah? Can I love, just because love is what I am called to as a Christian and as a monk? Couldn’t I be just a bit like Jake, in the ways it would be proper for me to be like Jake? Could I wiggle with all my heart when someone comes along?

I would like to try, and this is the best time that I know to start.