Sunday, April 29, 2007

Faith and the Bell Tower

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Our bell tower is beautiful to behold. This week the scaffolding finally came down. After ten long months of construction work, the tower now stands free again and looks almost completely new.

It ought to. It very nearly is completely new. Along with repointing, every brick in the tower has been replaced, and thereby hangs a not very pleasant tale.

We expected that this would be a minor project. We needed to have some repointing done, we thought, and that was it. The job would take about one month and cost about $30,000. It was well within what was possible for us, given the fact that we are just completing a very successful Capital Funds Drive to celebrate the Centennial of the monastery buildings. It was, in fact, one of the smaller projects that the Centennial Fund would provide and we didn't give a lot of thought to it. Until last June, that is.

Last June the scaffold went up. The masons arrived and began their work. Not long after they began we heard from the masons, the architect and the construction engineer. They presented us with what the engineer referred to as "a very interesting example of structural failure." Translated, that means the tower was not far from beginning to fall down. In fact, a few bricks had already come loose and begun to fall. We had gotten there just in time. And our one month job ended up taking ten months.

Ten months later we have a practically new tower. It is beautiful. It also cost $250,000. Our Fund Drive was successful, but it didn't have that much extra in it. This project has now left us at the bottom of the funds barrel with another major project staring us in the face: the replacement of the ancient elevator in our guesthouse and the consequent construction of a shaft and the remodeling of several rooms in order to make this possible. Cost? Just about $250,000 - the same amount as the overage from the work on the tower. How interesting! And of course there is a question: Where do we go from here?

"Have Faith" some voices say to us. "God will provide." I have no doubt of that. We have plenty of examples in our history. Not too many years ago we took a deep breath and signed a contract for a generator that would provide electricity for us during the power failures that the snow and ice storms of winter and spring are likely to give us - some lasting several days. This is important because we run a guesthouse and we can't have guests, some of whom may be sick or elderly, stranded in the cold and the dark. We didn't really have the money, but the work had to be done. So we signed a contract for $40,000 and commended ourselves to faith. The next week a dear friend died and left us $40,000. We do know about God providing.

We also know that sometimes God provides rather differently. Actually, it is certainly conceivable that God may have provided just this crisis. "Get off your rear ends" God sometimes says to us. "Go to work and find the money for the elevator." "I gave you good minds and common sense. Get busy and use them."

Which is the right voice to pay attention to? As is so often the case, I am convinced that both of them are correct and that really having faith means heeding both voices. The Christian spiritual tradition has an old saying about this dilemma: "Pray as though everything depends on your prayer, and work as though everything depends on your work." The teacher of the Buddhist meditation group that I have attended for many years puts it slightly differently: "We bow down before what is, and then we get up and do what has to be done." Same insight.

And of course this is a tricky thing to manage. To go to one extreme or the other is a lot easier. But we are meant to be people of faith and of action. Both are crucial to the living of a healthy Christianity, not to mention a healthy humanity. To live in a real and deep dependence on God, knowing that what comes will likely be beyond our abilities and beyond our imagining, is part of the journey of faith. And the other part is taking the joy and the serenity that comes from that faith and using it as the energy to inspire our response of work to get the job done. And not letting go of either side of this equation is the critical part, and also the tricky one. I'm always falling off one side or the other of this see-saw. I want to see God as my divine benefactor, and myself as the dependant, compliant recipient. I also want to see myself as the competent, talented fund raiser, securing the means to solve our problems by my hard work. But only when both of these responses leaven each other do I have real faith - or real work, for that matter. And that's where balance comes in.

So when will we get the money to install our new elevator and how will it be raised? I don't know. I see a lot of work and a lot of prayer ahead. I suspect that the answer, whatever it is, will be something of a surprise. I'll let you know when I find out.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Greed & Refreshment

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

Some years ago I was told a story that has stuck with me and provided me with a guideline that I've thought about over and over again. It's about an executive in New York who apparently had a special talent for self care. When he was feeling hard-pressed and had a small amount of time that could be freed up, he would leave his office, go to one of the New York museums, and look at one work of art. He took the time for just that: out of the thousands of items he might have explored and the special exhibitions he could have selected, he chose one work of art and looked at that. And he came back refreshed and ready for the rest of the day.

Over the years I've thought a lot about how different that is from my own approach to museums. When I get to one I tend to try to devour everything I can see. I go from gallery to gallery. Sometimes I actually speed from gallery to gallery, desperately (and "desperate" is often the accurate word) trying to make sure I see everything. Often I come out exhausted - looking at that much art really is hard work.

But occasionally I've wondered if I might look at another way of operating. The story about the man in New York has gone deeply enough in me that I haven't ever forgotten it, and I have gone so far enough as to actually think about trying out his technique.

When I am at Cornell University to work with the ministry of the Episcopal Church at Cornell, I have made a point of taking advantage of some of the mass of opportunities that such a campus offers: I have heard a fascinating lecture on Peace Groups in Islam, attended a concert of the Women's Glee Club, and sat in on an impromptu talk on Bach and the Art of Fugue given by a world-class pianist. This time I noticed that the campus museum had a small exhibit of Japanese lacquer pieces - one of my favorites. So when some time presented itself I went off to the Johnson Museum, determined to take in this one exhibit. This one exhibit and no more.

And on the way to the museum I experienced something of a miracle. When I arrived in Ithaca on Wednesday there were 15 inches of snow on the ground. It was a perfect mid-winter scene. It was also pretty depressing: here it was in mid to late April and it looked like winter wasn't ever going to end. But by Friday the scene was quite different. The sun was warm, the weather was balmy, the snow was gone and the lawns were emerald. And in a totally unexpected burst of spring gifts, several of the lawns were full of wild flowers. There was the blue of Scilla, the purple of early Violets, the yellow of False Celandine, and a white flower that I didn't recognize. And in one lawn there was an unlikely treat: three tiny daisies in a perfect triangle.

I did have the grace to stop and contemplate this wonderful spring gift. And it did just cross my mind that there might be an opportunity here. I had a flash of insight in which I considered that this moment held the stuff that some Zen stories are made of: on his way to the museum, the Master finds a lawn full of beautiful flowers. He examines the wonder of them, takes the time to let them fill his heart, and then instead of continuing to the museum, he turns back, completely filled and refreshed. The unexpected moment has given him all he needed. Zen devotees delight in stories like this.

I, alas, am not an enlightened master. I did let the miracle of the flowers speak to me. At least I had that much grace. And then I put that moment aside and continued on to the museum, in search of more to see.

And it was wonderful to see. It was a small exhibit: a couple of dozen exquisite pieces, mostly done in black and gold, with occasional silver or red works. They were boxes - writing boxes, picnic boxes, boxes for storing cosmetics and for storing sweets and for documents. They were decorated with images of flowers and of birds and of lakes. They were exquisite, and they filled my sense of beauty and of wonder as I drank in that loveliness.

And I felt the tug of my greed, too. There was a gallery just beyond the one I was in that had lovely paintings of Japanese women. An exhibition of American Indian art called out. There was a small room with several massive pieces by a Scandinavian artist who was completely unfamiliar to me. All of them beckoned me to set aside my purpose and come and spend some lovely time with them.

And that might have been all right. No doubt I would have enjoyed them. But that wasn't my purpose on this one afternoon. Instead I took all the time that I had and that I needed and stayed with the lacquer boxes, limiting the range of my exploration, drinking in the beauty before me, and just being with those few small pieces.

And I went home refreshed.

It actually worked. If I will recognize my greed for what it is and set it aside, it is within my gasp to get a greater gift: the gift of the loveliness of small things and the miracle of the present moment. Those 45 minutes have renewed in me a lesson that I hope I won't forget. I'll probably continue to use my museum time in a number of different ways. But the way I explored last Friday afternoon was deeply enriching, and I don't want to ever forget that it is always available to me, in whatever moment I find myself.

And perhaps one afternoon I actually will stop to look at flowers and then go home, refreshed.

Monday, April 16, 2007

An Interior Guest House

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

This past weekend I conducted a Meditation Retreat here in our guesthouse, together with my friend and co-worker Mary Gates. It was a very good time: the silence was deep, the participants worked diligently on their meditative skills, and their questions were thoughtful and perceptive. It is Mary's habit to begin many of the meditation sessions with a verse of scripture or a poem, and this weekend she used a poem from Rumi, the Sufi mystic:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I have been certain of the power and the truth of those words since the moment I first encountered them years ago. I knew that this poem was speaking something important to me in spite of the fact that it ran counter to most of the lessons that I had absorbed about how to live my life. I knew that painful and difficult situations were to be avoided or denied or analyzed away, and painful physical symptoms were to be medicated. Even though I felt the wisdom of Rumi's words, I had no idea how to put this wisdom into practice, or even how to think about it.

But it continued to gnaw at me. At the time I was suffering from a very debilitating condition involving a host of food allergies and some damage to my intestines. Many doctors had expressed their puzzlement. Many alternate health care providers had worked dilligiently on me. Still the condition continued and at one point I was pretty much disabled by it.

Could this poem hold a way forward? It seemed unlikely, but it also seemed important. So, with the help of a skilled meditation teacher I decided to try it out. "Welcome sickness!" " Whatever you have to show me, let me know." "I want to know more about this illness; what do you have to show me?"

What happened? Nothing. Nothing whatever. Except I kept asking the question, and feeling more and more frustrated at my body's refusal to answer. Everything was as it had been. My openness as answered by silence.

"No problem" my teacher said. "These things take time." "Just like any relationship, the relationship with your body takes time to develop." Not a welcome message. I didn't want it to take time. I wanted an answer NOW. "Just keep at it." he said. "Crap" I thought. Why did I go on? I guess it was mostly because I trusted my advisers and my teacher and because some little part of me kept whispering that there was wisdom here.

When the answer came it arrived from a completely different direction than I expected. I've since learned that this is characteristic of intuitive work like this: you work and work and work at a problem and in the end a different problem is answered than the one you were working on.

In this case, I was sitting at my computer one morning, working against a deadline on a document that had to be done. I noticed that I was beginning to develop a headache. I'm not sure to this day why I decided to practice the technique at that moment. I suppose it was some combination of interior prompting and habit. But I turned the new technique on the pain: "Welcome headache. What are you here to tell me?" I was completely astounded to get an answer: "You are pushing yourself too hard. Close down the document and take a nap." "Ridiculous" I responded. "This has to be finished." Silence was my answer. Again, I can't tell you why I decided to actually pay attention, but I did. I got up from the desk, went to my room and lay down. The headache vanished almost immediately. I rested. When I got up, refreshed, it took only a short time to finish my work, and I felt like my life had turned a corner.

Then the next time I had a headache I ignored the message. This time the work was too important. I couldn't let it go. I had to get it finished. In this case the answer was also immediate. The answer was revenge: a monstrous headache that took hours to banish with the help of some powerful pain killers. I learned that I had opened up a sensitive part of my interior, and you don't do that without consequences.

Many years later I wish that I could tell you that it is always clear to me what is going on when I have a headache and that I always make a response that leads to healing. I wish I could tell you that I have been completely healed of my intestinal illness. But I can't tell you that. What I can say is that I have started a relationship with my body and my interior being that goes on growing and flourishing in the curious twisted paths that relationships do. I'm not compltely cured, but I have a much greater sense of wholeness. My headaces are often still a mystery, but my body has responded to my willingness to ask the question and to be open to what is going on. I am more well than I have been in years, and I am joyful about the path that has brought me to where I am.

I also know that part of my path must be to directly face whatever guest appears at the door of my perception: whether "a joy, a depression, a meanness" or "some momentary awareness" and to do my best to welcome this new guest. Many strange guests have appeared a the door of my awareness and the task of welcoming them has challenged me on every level of my being. It has also deepend my interior freedom and my sense of peace.

Rumi is right.

Monday, April 9, 2007

April 9, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

The educational process that most of us go through in school at this time in history seems to leave us with a life-long conviction that learning is a matter of having things explained intellectually. I always find that Holy Week is a really important corrective to this view. In a monastery the Great Three Days are lived in the context of several dramatic worship services which are very stylized and very formal. They are in a word, liturgical. One of the things that I meet each year is the truth that liturgical worship coveys deep learnings and experiences, and the learning is mostly at an intutive level. For me, this is a deeper learning.

On Maundy Thursday I kneel in the midst of our community and our guests and wash the feet of many of them. Before the ceremony we read the account of Jesus doing this foot-washing, but during the ceremony itself there is silence, or sometimes some music. As I wash the feet of the people I live with day in and day out, and of friends whom I have known for years, and of complete strangers, I am once again confronted with what I am supposed to be doing with my life. That confrontation takes place at a level far deeper than words. Washing those feet, drying them with a towel, and bending over to kiss them may be highly ritualized, but it is also deeply personal. I know that offering your foot to someone for this ceremony is an act of trust, so much so that many people don't feel comfortable with it. But to be trusted in that way always makes clear to me once again what my life is to be about. Serving in that formal way teaches me how my whole life needs to be lived in that pattern of offering tender care. And as I look up at each person at the end of washing their feet often enough they whisper 'Thank you". In that whisper I know that accepting that ministry is as powerful as offerning it. Someone could explain to me in a long and very erudite way the necessity for leaders in a Christian community to be servants just as Jesus was. But just kneeling there and accepting those feet offered to me for washing does more to transform my attitude to my life than any lecture or sermon ever could.

Good Friday brings another sort of enounter with intuitive learning for me. Because I am usually one of the leaders of the ceremonies I am one of the first to participate in the Veneration of the Cross. So I get to stand at the side and watch that long line of people who come forward to the stark, bare cross that is held out for them. And one by one they kneel and kiss that cross, or press their forehead to it, or reach out and touch it, and the passion with which people approach this symbol of injustice and suffering always brings me to tears. The depth of peoples' efforts to understand the suffering of their lives and to offer that depth of struggle to God is very visible as that long line of people approaches the Cross. I'm so glad we do this ceremony in silence. Any other vehicle - including words or explanations - would just diminish the power of that moment. And each year I understand again that my suffering and the suffering of those people is not meaningless. With that part of my life I am moving towards God, and the Communion which we share at the end of the Service assures me that in that pilgrimage we are met by God.

The climax, of course is Easter Day, at the Great Vigil, and for me the supreme encounter of this season is the Easter cry of Resurrection. A story is said to have circulated in Russia during their long years of religious repression, that in one small town in Siberia the local Commissar of Atheism appeared on Easter Day and ordered the village church shut. He brought all the people together in the town square and delivered a long and very astute lecture on the failings of Christianity and the values of the athiest life. At the end of his talk he asked if there were any questions or if anyone wanted to try to prove the existence of God. It is said that the village priest stepped forward and turned to the people and said loudly: "Christ is Risen" and the whole village got to their feet and yelled: "He is risen indeed". And the priest turned to the Commissar and said: "There you are, Comrade. That's all the proof you need."

Each year as I stand at the back of our darkened church on Easter morning and shout into that darkness: "Christ is Risen!" and hear the response of the people gathered there, and the bells begin to ring and the candles are lit and everyone starts to sing, something resonates deep inside me. That cry touches me at a level much more profound than proof. It speaks to a part of me that knows the reality that lies below all of the proofs and counter-proofs that this world has to offer. Proof is a valuable tool. More deeply felt, at least in my life, is the cry that lies beyond proof: "Christ is Risen".

Each year I come out of these three days knowing that I have been encountered at a level much deeper than proof or explanation or words. I also come out exhausted and in need of some sleep and recovery. Living on that level is demanding. As formal and inflexible as liturgy sometimes can seem to be, I know of nothing else that takes me to that level so effectively. Once more, the transformation that I seek has been offered to me. My hope is that, once again, I have been able to accept that offering.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

April 3, 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

I'm a couple of days late with with this week's offering because I was away from the Monastery most of last week. I was on the Cornell University campus, doing my regular ministry with the Episcopal Church at Cornell, and didn't have the time to write.

During the fall and spring semesters I spend several days each month at Cornell. My work is a mixture of things: I often celebrate the Eucharist on Wednesday evenings and preach a short homily. Many times there is a meal following that service at the Chaplain's home and I participate in that and in the meetings that follow. Sometimes I lead those meetings or teach at them, sometimes I participate in the meeting and join in any conversation that follows them. During those days I also usually see people for spiritual direction or for more informal conversations, and I share meals with students and faculty who are members of ECC. There are social events, sometimes lectures and/or concerts and all sorts of other informal contacts. Once a semester I stay through a Sunday so that I can be at the Eucharist and I usually preach and sometimes celebrate that service. For me it is a really invigorating time.

It all came about sort of accidentally. Suzanne Guthrie, the Episcopal Chaplain, is an old friend of Holy Cross and of mine. She lived in this area for many years and worked as administrator and receptionist in our Guesthouse for a time. She was always a part of our extended family even when she was working elsewhere and so was Bill Consiglio whom she married during that time. For a long time Suzanne and I have worked together giving retreats and conferences, and we almost always team up each year to do the Advent Retreat in our Guesthouse. When I was Novice Master I had Suzanne teach classes to the novices about the spiritual life.

When Suzanne became the Cornell Chaplain she asked me if I would preach at her installation. I was delighted to do it and for more than one reason - since I am a Cornell alumnus, having graduated in 1960 with degree in Chemistry.

I've always been proud of being a Cornell alum, and my years there were very happy and fulfilling ones. And I've never thought much more about it all than that. I have some friends and contacts from those years, and because of some Cornell/Holy Cross contacts in the early 1970's I led a couple of retreats on the campus in those years, and I hadn't been back to Cornell since that time - more than 30 years. I have never felt any urge to attend reunions or to hang around the campus. The alumni association in this area writes me several times a year and I have almost never done anything about that. I have never thought of myself as particularly connected to my university by anything but some pleasant memories.

So what happened when I preached at Suzanne's Installation came as a complete surprise to me, one that I was altogether unprepared for. It was, simply, one of the most overwhelming emotional experiences of my life. Something about standing in that Chapel, where I made my first tentative moves towards an adult relationship with God, and offering back some of the perspective that I have achieved in the years since then, reached town all the way to the bottom of my being. The circle completed itself: I wasn't a student any more, I was a mentor. It was as though something inside me had been waiting all those years to fall into place. I came away more whole than I had ever felt, and it was months before my emotional life settled down again.

What is this about? I've been reflecting on this in the four years that have passed since that day and I'm still not completely sure. But college was certainly the first time I lived life on my own terms. At Cornell I chose friends who would be with me for the rest of my life. I made my first decisions as an adult about my studies, my future, my life. I guess, though I wasn't completely aware of the process at the time, that I became a person in a way that I can own during those years. And to reach out and touch all of that from the perspective of a life lived as a Benedtine monk, and to offer some ofwhat I have learned as a man and a monk to people who are themselves beginning their adult lives was an amazing experience.

After that, getting involved in the ministry with the Episcopal Church at Cornell was a matter of inevitability. It just revealed itself, or at least that's what it feels like. If, in the 80's, or 90's you had told me how deeply I was molded by my years in Ithaca I would have had trouble believing you. Now, going back seems the most natural thing that could have happened.

I'm sure that each person who reads this has a similar place in their lives, a place where they were formed and started to become who they are. And it's been my experience that reaching out and touching that place is a very important thing to do. Offering something back also seems to be pretty crucial. It's something us old folks need to do to complete the circle of life.