Sunday, March 25, 2007

March 25, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Last evening at Vespers we clothed a new novice.

For those of you who aren't familiar with monastic life or our ways of doing things, this means that we had a service during which a man who is entering the Order takes his next step forward. Jim has been living with us for 6 months, trying this community out. He has decided that this is a life in which he can grow and to which he wants to commit himself, and the community has agreed that this seems to be a good place for him and that he is a good person for us. So during Vespers last night he was given the white Benedictine habit (robes) that members of this community wear.

At the beginning of Vespers the Superior called Jim forward and asked him what he was seeking, and he gave the answer that Benedictines have given since the sixth century: "the mercy of God and of the Order". Then several members of the community gave readings from St Benedict's Rule and the Rule written by James Huntington, the founder of this community, to present a vision of what this life is supposed to be about. After that Jim's new white habit was blessed and given to him and he went out of the Church to change into his new garments. While he was gone the community and his family and friends sang:

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Then Jim, now Brother James Michael, came back into the Church in his white habit with the hood covering his head, looking like monks have looked for nearly 2,000 years. He was prayed over, blessed, and then he gave each of us the Peace.

This is one of the most moving moments in our community's life. The service is short but it expresses all the yearning of someone who is determined to give his life to God and thinks that this is the place to do it. I expect that each of the monks, no matter how long we have been here, are carried by this service back to the day when we received our habit, and to the longings and ideals that filled us on that day.

And of course that means we also have to reflect on what has happened to us in the days, months, years, or decades since that day. And over the years there have been times when I have had to reflect on how my first commitment sometimes seemed to have gotten buried in the administrative details, the countless small problems, the demands of fund raising and the daily pettiness that is sometimes part of my life. Where was the Call that seemed so clear on that day 43 years ago when I got my new white habit?

There have been times in those years when this questioning has been very painful for me. Have I really lost sight of the clarity with which I felt called on that day now so long gone? It has sometimes seemed so. Have the details of living this life day by day really covered over what I wanted my life to mean instead of revealing it? It has looked tempting to answer "yes". That is part of the journey, I think. The pilgrimage from the first clarity,whether it be to this life or to a relationship or to a dedication of some other kind, always seems to lead through some dark places where it seems that we have lost our way.

But those times don't last forever - or at least for me they haven't. They have been a gateway to a larger vision of what I am about. It's taken a lot of perseverence, day by day, and a lot of commitment to believing that I am somehow doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that has not always been easy. Sometimes I have wondered if it was even going to be possible. But where I find myself now is at a place where all of the details of my life, down to the tiniest administrative chore, reflect for me that early clarity with which I began this life.

A lot of the naivite and unreality that underlay my original commitment has had to go, of course, and that has had its painful moments. But in the end I am truly blessed with a sense that my call to give myself to God radiates from the tiniest task or the most repetitive of my desk jobs. Sometimes it's expressed directly, when I am engaged in spiritual direction or preaching or being with the students at Cornell, and that is easy to see. Sometimes it's less easy to see, as in adding up a column of numbers or working on the mailing list or being involved in a session of meditation that consists of nothing but distractions. But even there I catch a glimpse of what I always wanted: the making of my whole life a gift to God. What a joy it is to feel the increasing sense that all of my life really can be a response to my call to dedication and giving.

And this even includes stirring the incense (about which I will write more at a future time).

Sunday, March 18, 2007

March 18, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

On Friday of this past week there was a large Demonstration for Peace in Washington, put on by an ecumenical group of Christians to mark the 4th anniversary of the war in Iraq. It involved all the the normal marching and singing and speeches that such events have and also a large service at the National Cathedral.

A great many people from this local area made plans to go to Washington, and our community had a lot of discussion about how we were going to participate. Were we going to send some of the brothers? If so, how many? How many could be gone and still enable us to care for our weekend guests adequately? Gradually out of our discussions it evolved that what we really wanted to do was to have a vigil here at the monastery for people who couldn't go to Washington.

So we set to work and planned our vigil. We envisioned an all-day event. We were to start in the morning right after our first Office of the day and a member of the community would be in our monastery church praying for peace at all times. On each hour we planned to toll our tower bell and recite a prayer which one of the brothers wrote for the occasion. Anyone from the area was welcome to come and join in the keeping of this vigil for peace. A member of the community would be available at all times during the day to welcome those who came and to be there for any who might have emotional issues that were raised by participating in this vigil. Then in the evening we would finish with an ecumenical service involving clergy and religious from local Episcopal, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Quaker churches.

We planned extensively. We advertised widely. Our web site carried all the details. One of our postulants has a brother who works for a local paper and through his generosity all of the papers in the area carried stories about the vigil. We made up fliers and distributed them as widely as we could - I took a bunch to the meditation group that I am part of on Wednesday evenings.

The response was extremely enthusiastic. We heard from individuals and groups who were planning to participate. We had calls and emails and voice mails from people interested in participating. Everywhere I went in the local area, people seemed to have heard of what we were doing and were planning to participate in some way. We got out extra chairs for the church, we planned a reception following the evening service, and made plans for what to do with an overflow crowd.

Lots of you know what happened - we had 18 inches of snow on Friday. Almost no one could come. A person or two appeared in the morning to be part of the vigil, but fewer and fewer came as the day went on and finally no one. The driveway filled up with snow. The service was cancelled. We couldn't do any of it as we had planned.

And you know what? It was wonderful. Most of the day there was no one in the church except for the community member who was keeping the vigil, but the vigil was unbroken. We prayed deeply for peace and we prayed without ceasing. As the monks and the residents of the monastery went about their business we were constantly aware of the event taking place in the church. It had an intimate and deeply involving feel to it. It didn't feel like a failure at all - it felt like a wonderful success. It was just something very different from what we had planned.

This is very like life, of course. Our path is so often completely different from what we carefully planned. Not that things always work out in such a blissful resolution but in this case we got a wonderful gift from our sudden change of course; the gift of a sort of service that was unexpected but which touched us in a a very different way than we expected to be touched. Prayer does this. It takes odd twists and turns. It takes us to places that we never expected. It does things with us that we never asked for. And in the end it leaves us with the gift of God dwelling within us and among us, so often in ways we didn't anticipate. The savoring of the collapse of our carefully made plans is one of the capacties that we need in order to live a full spiritual life.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

March 10, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Those of us who read the Bible according to the liturgical calendar have spent the opening days of Lent with the thunderings of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is very un-Anglican. There is no gentle reasoning, no appeal to good sense, to care to see that everyone is incorporated. There is just a roar, a roar of outrage at the injustice of his society and the faithlessness of the people to whom he felt called (impelled) to speak.

It has taken me many years to be able to respond to Jeremiah with anything like profit. For a long, long time I was much more put off by Jeremiah than I was inspired by him, and that is putting it mildly. In my private scripture study I avoided the book, even though I have been studying the Bible with eagerness since I was introduced to Bible study in college. When Jeremiah was read in our services I found that I was tuning out, no matter how I tried to listen.

All of this has troubled me. And it troubled me deeply enough to try to figure out what was going on. If God was addressing me through the words of this most disagreeable prophet, why did I find it impossible to listen to his words?

Well, the answer is no puzzle at all, and at the same time it has proved to be a mystery that has occupied my thoughts for many years. It starts with a simple situation: I don't like being yelled at. I didn't grow up in a culture that admired thundering as a means of communication, and such yelling as we had in my family was always a good deal less than loving. The overtones that come to me with the words of Jeremiah are painful.

Then I have to add our old friend guilt to the picture. I don't have a healthy sense of guilt. I don't know any other American who does. I have some healthy ideas about guilt, but my emotional reactions don't mesh with my healthy ideas. I find that Jeremiah's thundering sets off the most retrograde of my guilt reactions: I feel blamed for everything, I feel like it is "all my fault", I feel that I am guilty just because I exist and that there is no way to get out of this dilemma. Given that I react the way I do, what person with any sense would want to listen to something like the Book of Jeremiah the Prophet?

Of course Jeremiah didn't grow up in our culture, and he presumably wasn't operating with my unfortunate sense of guilt. He lived in a society that communicated with very different ways than we do, and therein lies the difficulty for me. How do I listen to the words of a man who was in so much pain because he saw his people trapped in fruitless, destructive and hurtful patterns of behavior and was impelled to express what he saw with such force?

What I know for sure is that I have to find a way to listen because the problems that Jeremiah saw haven't gone away. Though I find it so difficult to listen to, it is still true that we all too easily push the problems of society and of the poor, about which Jeremiah thundered so loudly, out of sight and out of mind. I can use the very rage that I hear coming from this prophet as a reason to ignore what he is saying: who is going to pay attention to someone who yells like that?

The answer is that I must. Because, difficult as Jeremiah is to listen to, I also hear the grain of truth coming through. God's call is the same as it was 2,500 years ago. The poor, the needy, the helpless, the outcast among us are always the special focus of God's love to the human race, and have a special claim on our love as well. This is so central to our religious tradition that it can hardly be said that we are religious at all if the claims of the poor are not central to our concerns.

And like any decent ideal, the call that we hear to serve the poor has no end. It is always there, no matter how much we have accomplished. We may have done a lot, but there is much more left to be accomplished. And it is just here that I have to be careful. If I am not to be weighed down by my old friend Guilt, I have to be careful to realize that this is not necessarily blame being laid all over me like a blanket.

What my habitual reactions of guilt and pain often keep me from seeing is that Jeremiah is talking to me about love. He's speaking, he's yelling about the love of God directed to us, always filling us more deeply than we can imagine, always calling us beyond what we think our capacities are. Jeremiah calls me to put my love where my mouth is, and to let me be stretched beyond what I think is possible for me.

So one of my Lenten projects is once again to listen to Jeremiah. I need to hear the love that called him and forced him to speak, to cry out. I need to know how desperately important it is to heed the kernel of his message and how far I am from doing it. And I need to know that it is God calling me to this listening, calling me with love, calling deeply enough that it involves some shouting.

Do I find this easy, after all these years of exploring it? No, I do not. But I do need to do it. I really do.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

March 4, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

The cold front that moved through here this week produced an astonishing variety of weather: clear and beautiful, stormy and blustery, snow, rain, sleet, wind, and all capped off by a night of dense fog which was back-lit by the full moon, and then last night we had a lunar eclipse. I had planned to write this week about nature and my connection to it, which is long-standing and very important to me.

But then the same front that produced this continuously varying show for those of us in New York also roared through the South and blew down a school and killed 8 teenagers. And I find that I can't write the column I had planned; it would seem almost blasphemous to do that now. Those reflections will have to wait for another time.

God is infinite; we are finite. That's the content of a first chapter of a theology text. It's a distillation of humankind's relationship to the divine. It can be viewed as an intellectual statement that is the introduction to a dry-as-dust chapter on the Divine Nature. It can be seen as a repetition of a truth that is so familiar as to produce boredom. But this week, for me, it is the source of great pain.

I cannot fathom God. I cannot understand God. I cannot guess what God is up to. This is because the ways of God are "far above, out of our sight" as the Scripture says. I am bound by a nature that cannot grasp what God is. I am finite and God is infinite. Sometimes this is very comforting to me. The mystery that envelops the presence of the divine sometimes moves and inspires me and energizes my prayer and my times of meditation. But this week my encounter with the infinite is not at all comforting; a tornado roared through Enterprise, Alabama one day and left behind death and loss and grieving, and how this fits with the other doctrines of God (God's goodness, God's love, etc.) is beyond my ability to see at this present moment.

Yes, I know the answers that are given. God didn't directly cause that tornado. God's purposes are greater that one storm. God's purposes are larger that we can fathom. I know those answers, and I believe them. Sometimes I am comforted by them. But not right now.

I'm left with the truth of my (our) theology: God is infinite and I am finite. I do not see the whole of God's ways. I do not know the whole of what God is up to. I do not comprehend the fullness of God's purpose. Whatever answer I make for myself, and for those who ask me what I think about this, is inadequate. My answer does not, it cannot, express the fullness of God and God's will. That is beyond expressing in human language. Job discovered that the answer to his pain was beyond all the arguments than anyone could offer.

So what do I do? Well, I am a monk, and I pray the Psalms four times a day, year in and year out. And so my answer tends to be in the language of the Psalms: I complain, I rage, I speak my hurt and sing the depth of my anguish. All of those parts of the Psalms that we tend to find most problematical are the content of my prayer right now. My answers are inadequate, but my heart is very full and a lot of what is in my heart isn't very pretty, but I can sing the messages of my heart.

And in that singing I find I can approach the Infinite more adequately than in my nicely formed ideas. With the chaos in my heart I sing the Psalms, and I feel met. I am encountered by a Presence far beyond my capacity to imagine. I am still left with the inadequacy of my reasoning mind, but I am not out of contact with God. Even while living through the outrageousness of a world made like ours is, I am caught up by the Divine.

Is that an answer? Who knows. It is just my experience right now.

(And of course there is a lot more to be said than this.)