Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial Day

I've been away for some holiday time over the Memorial Day weekend. I'll be back next week!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Room Enough

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

There are all kinds of ways - both positive and negative - to describe the monastic life. In the time I've been a monk I've heard our life described as the ideal life for a human being and as a total waste of time. In classical spiritual literature this life is sometimes described as "an angelic life" (meaning that it's an imitation of the continuous praise that angels are said to give to God - not that the monks are angels). There are lots of concepts, both positive and negative, used to describe what we do.

One of the most interesting descriptions that comes from the Middle Ages is that the monastic life is a "life of leisure". When I mention this to people I most often see wry smiles and can see people thinking: "suspicions confirmed", while they imagine us passing our life gazing languidly over the Hudson Valley. Or perhaps, if the people I'm talking to know us rather better, I see stark disbelief, because they've been around us enough to see how hard the monks of this community have to work.

In fact, the medieval term that is still translated as "leisure" has almost nothing to do with the current sense of the word. It is not about lazing around because we have nothing much to do. Nor is it about free time - a concept that people would have had very little understanding of at the time that this term was in use. Rather, the Latin word "otium", which is still translated as "leisure" means, I am told, something more like "living your life so that there is room in it for everything you do."

Now that is a concept that grabs people, I find. People are fascinated to think of a life that has room in it, one that is not over-busy or crammed with too many things to be done. Life in our society at the present time seems to be a search for one more thing to pack into our time, one more opportunity to take advantage of. The amazing thing to me is how many people complain about all of the advantages that their life holds. They find the search for more and more activities and things to fill their lives to be ultimately problematical and the state of being "too busy" to be more frustrating than rewarding. But it seems as though no one knows how to stop. It doesn't feel too extreme to describe our search for more and more things to cram into our days as addictive.

So perhaps the monastic life does have something to offer here. It's not uncommon for people to say that they could never consider a life that seems as limited as the monastic life, but the concept of limitation does have something for us, even if that may seem strange at first glance. The analogy of my room may help. I live in a room that is 10 x 14. That's the space that is available to me. This community does not inspect our rooms or specify what we can have. We are free to fix them up as seems most comfortable to us, and there are as many different styles of rooms as there are members of the community. But there's only so much I can get in a 10 x 14 space. I want my room to be welcoming and to provide a sense of quiet and of relaxation, and I didn't have to be in it very long before I discovered that I had to exercise continuous vigilance if that's what I am actually going to have. Stuff piles up so fast. Books accumulate, magazines proliferate, small gifts that people give me pile higher and higher, small objects of art that are in themselves very lovely gather in piles. Unless I am watchful, it's amazing how quickly my room can resemble a junk yard rather than a place of serenity. If I want a space of quiet for my soul I have to practice limitation, and I have to practice it continuously.

And so with the rest of my life. 'Otium' - the old sense of leisure - turns out to have something very life-giving to offer me. I have to be watchful so that my life really does give me the space to be alive and thriving. Lack of opportunities is not a problem for me, any more than lack of things to put in my room. But unless I'm vigilant my life ends up being so packed with activities and things that I am more frustrated than alive. I have to do the unthinkable: I have to choose not to take advantage of some of those opportunities, even, at times, most of them. And this is, at base, a genuinely ascetical task.

Asceticism - denial - is not popular in current society. We're not into denying things to ourselves, and we find the very concept to be offputting. But I find it possible to consider that there is a real vital form of asceticism for the early 21st Century, and that is the denial involved in creating a life of 'leisure'. Crafting a life in which I choose my opportunities carefully and with attention to having enough time to live those opportunities deeply and to savor them, really does call to my soul. Maybe the Middle Ages had something to say that we need to heed.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Looking Out

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

We were in retreat this week. For us that means 3 days of silence. This hasn’t always been the way it is done. For many years our custom was for everyone to have one day a month for retreat. Everyone took a day convenient to his schedule and withdrew from the parts of the community life that required verbal communication and had the day for rest, for prayer and for study. But this is, at best, a difficult way to manage a retreat and we were always subject to being pulled away by all of the things going on in the house. So we eventually decided that we would choose a day each month and the whole community would be in retreat on that day. There would be no distractions, because we'd all be in retreat together.

It didn’t take long for us to notice that this schedule wasn’t ideal either. One day wasn’t enough. It takes a while to settle into a time of silence and a relaxed schedule and one day wasn’t doing it for any of us. So after some discussion we decided that we would take our monthly days and join them together, and we settled on having 3 days of retreat once every 3 months. This has remained our custom for a number of years now, and it seems to work very well for most of us. There are very few guests, if any, during these 3 days and we have a simpler schedule of services in the church. The house is quiet and the silence does have priority. Things move more slowly, and we have time to go in and down.

It’s interesting to me what happens when we take time for retreat. Many people assume that this is a time of noticing only yourself. Taking time for meditation, for study and for quiet seems to suggest that focus on the self is the whole point, and when I talk to people about this part of our life, I often find that they are uncomfortable with the whole idea. Doesn’t following the Christian path mean having concern for others? Shouldn’t we be immersing ourselves more deeply in the problems and concerns of the world rather that fleeing to an inner sanctuary? Isn't this all just selfishness wrapped up in an aura of sanctity?

Well, if that were what was happening, I think it would be troubling. But rather the opposite seems to be the case for me. I find that taking time for silence makes me more aware of the world around me, rather than less. When I step aside from my usual preoccupation with my job and everything that I usually use to occupy my time, a curious thing happens. I find that, without any effort on my part, I start opening up to things that I usually ignore because I am “too busy” to pay attention. No focusing exercises are needed, no conscious redirection of my attention. I just begin to notice, usually quite suddenly, that there is a bigger world out there and I’ve been so wrapped up in daily tasks that I've been ignoring it.

It usually starts with the Hudson River. You would think that it would be hard to ignore the Hudson River. It’s half a mile wide here, and it occupies a large part of the view from almost everywhere on our property. It is the chief thing that gives our landscape its startling beauty. At any hour of the day or night it’s one of the main things about being in this location. But I do ignore it. Over and over again, when I get quiet enough, I discover how often I have been passing by with not even a glance.

And it isn’t as though matters of earth-shaking importance are claiming my attention. I could open myself to the beauty of this river valley at any time. Our buildings are built so that any time I want to, when walking from one place to another, I could drink in the marvel of the place where I live. And so often I don’t. Taking time for silence reveals to me how needlessly preoccupied I am with my thoughts, my obsessions and the details of my work. I am so bound up in this part of my world, that I don’t even notice the River.

And then it moves from step to step: I begin to notice the sky, I see a flower, I smell the incense curing in the workshop in the basement. Gradually the world around me opens up. And the best part is getting to the Church early before a service and watching the brothers come in to take their place in choir. Is this one bustling or slouching today? Does that one look calm and peaceful or preoccupied and distracted? What is the pain that the next one is carrying? My thoughts, my questions, and then my prayer open to each of them as they join me and together we prepare to sing our praises to God. And of course our guests become part of this process. The stream of people who have come with their own joys and burdens in order to celebrate them or lay them down at God’s feet, and whom I sometimes don’t even notice, I once again claim as part of my journey – as my family on the way to God.

That’s why I need to be in retreat. There no doubt are people for whom a time of silence is a great trial because it isolates them from the world and the people around them. But that is not the way I seem to function. What silence does for me is to enlarge the space of my life. It removes some of the barriers I erect between myself and the world through the pressures of business and busyness. It shows me that I need to look deeper in order to be in touch with the existence that is there outside my own preoccupations. Fr James Huntington, the founder of our Order, was a wise and holy man. In the Rule that he wrote for the community when we were less than 10 years old he speaks of needing to know that there are times for talking and for relationships and there are also times when we must also realize that “the mist of human conversation hides us from each other.”

This is the consciousness that I try to take back with me at the end of our retreat. I try deliberately to invent some small way in which I can be less heedless in my ordinary life. I want to be more open – to the River, to my surroundings, to my community and to all of the people who fill my life and my time. Silence shows me how much I need to do this. For me, it is a great gift.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Praying With All of Me

Monks live by prayer and like monks everywhere, the members of our community file into our Church several times each day (in our case 4 times) and sing God's praises by chanting Psalms, singing Hymns and hearing the Scripture read.

We do the same thing every day (with the exception of our Sabbath day, which is Monday). One of the first things that people notice about our life is that there is a lot of sameness to it. The times for praying are the same each day. We sing through the 150 Psalms in two weeks and after that it's the same Psalms over again. We read the Old Testament once each year and the New Testament twice. After that it's the same readings, the same Bible. The same thing, over and over.

What's it like to do the same thing over and over like that?

Actually it's quite amazingly varied. It's certainly true that the words are mostly old familiar ones, but there's a lot more to the content of the Office than the words. I bring to the Office my own feelings, thoughts and concerns and those of my fellow monks. The guests who come to pray with us are part of the content of this prayer as well. And the circle of involvement spreads out to the world around us and is constantly changing and altering my experience of our common effort of prayer.

My own moods and feelings have a lot to do with it, of course. Am I energized and joyful this morning and ready to dive into the praises of Matins? Or am I groggy, thick-headed and reluctant? Sometimes I come to the Noon Office with real enthusiasm and with gratitude for the chance to take 15 minutes out of my work and sink into the cool stream of chant. Just as often I am distracted and reluctant and my mind is rebellious at being forced off of its favorite preoccupations, and paying attention at all seems impossible. And of course at evening there are the same possibilities - sometimes I am calm and collected and eager for the gentle peace of being sent off to bed to the sounds of Gregorian Chant, and just as often I am exhausted and anxious to get the whole thing done with.

What I have come to realize through the years that I have been praying this way with my community is that none of these is "better". It's easy, of course to be judgmental about my own states of being and to label some of them as positive and some as negative. It's completely predictable that I will want things to be pleasant at the Office and to be disappointed when I am angry, out of sorts and not recollected. I'd rather have an easy time of it than struggle to pay attention to the texts and end the Office with no memory of what I have been singing and saying. I want the experience to be "good" and not "bad".

Well, that's natural enough - to want the pleasant experiences. What I have to do, however, is to go beyond what is natural enough to what is real. And what is real is that life is made up of all the stuff that I bring to the Office. My joy, my happiness, my excitement, my boredom, my restlessness, my inability to pay attention are all part of the picture, and I pray with the whole picture, not with just part of it.

I have just come from Sunday Vespers as I write this. This has been a busy and intense weekend for me and I'm glad to be settling down into the peace of a quiet evening and the anticipation of a relaxed day tomorrow. I almost always look forward to Vespers on Sunday, because for me it carries overtones of the end of a busy week, the promise of rest and the quiet of a guesthouse that is empty of people for a short time. But undistracted centeredness was not part of the picture this evening. My mind was restless. The Psalm this evening roamed through the deserts of the ancient Middle East and all the vagaries of a life lived in the desert. It is a wonderful meditation on God's care through all of the vicissitudes of human existence. And over and over again I realized that I was somewhere else than with the Psalm in that desert. Over and over again I had to pull myself back to that Psalm as it mused on God's presence and God's blessings.

And you know what? It was all right. It was fine. Here I am, distracted and restless and trying to pray. And distracted and restless prayers are fine. I bring myself back over and over again, and there's nothing problematic about that. I dip into the Psalm we're singing and it's an old friend. I know it well. I've sung it for years. This evening I had to return to the Psalm over and over again, and something wonderful happened - I met those returns with joy instead of harsh self-recrimination. I'd been away, mentally, but coming back was a happy task. I was coming back to an old friend who didn't judge me, but welcomed me home. That Psalm didn't really care that it had been 7 verses since I had paid any attention. It was glad to have me back and to give what it had for me of God's love and forgiveness and peace before I inevitably slipped away again.

It's good to be taught that I'm not engaged in a perfection contest. I'm just bringing myself over and over again into God's presence, and that's what I want to do with my life. Each time I slip away I will, sooner or later, be presented with an opportunity to come back, and there is joy in coming back. I'm having some small Prodigal Son moments.

That's tonight's experience of the Office. Tuesday will be different. It will be easy or hard, it will be pleasant or unpleasant, it will be joyful or sorrowful, distracted or focused. And it will all be my prayer. And it's good to pray with all of me and not just with some of the parts of my experience.

It takes a lifetime to learn this. And it's really worth it.