Sunday, July 29, 2007

Retreat

No usual post this week. We are in the midst of the our annual 10-day retreat. It's quiet (silent, actually) and needs to be that way. I plan to be back with you next week.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ah, the Quiet!

This is one of the pivotal days of the year for us. This is the day that our Guesthouse closes for a month.

This occasion dates back a bit more than 20 years, to the time that the Guesthouse ministry really began to take off. It was beginning to be apparent then that the number of guests was going to be large, and this was not going to be a temporary thing. And having recognized that, we recognized something else: we couldn't do it 7 days a week, 365 days a year without causing serious problems for our vocations and our sanity. We had to have some breaks.

It is not the practice of this community to live completely separate lives from our guests. We do have our own quarters in a separate monastery building, but all of us are in the Guesthouse several times a day. Most of us work there at least part of the time, and all of us share our meals with the guests, so a lot of our social time is shared with those who come to be with us in the Guesthouse. This is a wonderful opportunity, and brings a great richness to our lives. It also brings a good deal of pressure, and back in the early 80's we began to realize that if we were going to sustain this pace of ministry, we needed some time off. So we made two decisions: The Guesthouse would be closed every Monday, and we would also close for a month in the late summer. Later this was extended to include a few additional days of "down time" right after New Year's and just after Easter. All of these times were chosen because the number of guests was usually very small during those times, and our closing would deny very few people the opportunity of being here.

And so we have this rhythm: the greater part of the week and of the year is for our guests and our work with them, and some time is for ourselves. This rhythm has become part of the fabric of our lives here. It's like breathing in and breathing out: both times feed each other, and both are crucial to the way that we live the monastic life.

So what do we do with this time?

First, we party. Most often on the Sunday that we close, we have Vespers a bit early and then we go to the home of our dear friends and co-workers Jim and Toni Taylor (she is our Bookkeeper, he is our Plumber). We spend some fine hours around their pool having good drinks, wonderful food and as much swimming as any of us wants. By the time we leave we are relaxed, happy, beginning to feel how tired we are, and ready to let down for a while.

But this year we can't do that. This year Toni and Jim are having construction done at their place and partying at their pool isn't in the cards. Fear not! We have decided to go to New Paltz, our local town, and play miniature golf. This is going to be a real kick! A dozen or so monks descending on the miniature golf course on the edge of town! New Paltz may never forget it.

Next, we take two days of real time off. All is quiet. Prayer is entirely on our own, not corporate. We sleep, we read, we go to movies, we visit friends in the area, we sit and look at the river. We have, in a word, a Sabbath.

And then we move more deeply into this quiet time with our yearly Long Retreat. On Wednesday things will fall even more deeply silent as we enter our ten-day period of retreat. This is for a more intense time of walking our spiritual path: time for meditation, time for spiritual reading, time to just be. Usually I am really thirsting for this retreat by the time we arrive at late summer, and this year is no exception to that rule. I really need this time. I need to go inside and have a look around and see what needs to be honored and what needs to be repaired and what plans need to be made for the living of my life after this.

Then for the rest of the month we take advantage of this time and this place. I always notice my surroundings more during August than at any other time of the year. I have time to watch the lightening bugs in the evenings. I have time to watch what the river is doing, I can get to some projects that have been put off for a long time, I can go to concerts in the area, of which there are many at this time of the year, and I can see friends for some leisurely dinners. Each year several of us take some vacation time during these weeks. I'm going to Minneapolis to see a friend later in the month. Br Bernard is going home to see his family in Belgium. Several other of the brothers will be away. The chef has his vacation, so we do our own cooking. Our schedule is relaxed and the number of services in the church is reduced.

And it is quiet.

We have chosen well in choosing to take this 'sabbatical' time each summer. It's a really good and important alternative way of living this life of ours. Each year some people wish us a "good vacation". But this time isn't really a vacation. In some ways it is more intense than the rest of the year, even while there is some relaxation and an increased peacefulness. It is just a time that honors the parts of ourselves that need attention that they sometimes don't get during the rest of the year.

By the end of four weeks we are refreshed and beginning to be a bit tired of having the place all to ourselves and we are involved in planning for retreats and programs that we will be giving, and waiting for the Guesthouse to open up again and for our lives to expand to include many, many other people once again. It will be time to breathe in, after having four good weeks to breathe out.

So think of us while we are repairing our souls and our spirits. If you are the praying sort, say a prayer for us while we are having our retreat, beginning this Wednesday. We love our ministry and our guests - they are a major part of our life. But we need some time and some quiet, and it feels so good today to be just on the edge of entering into that peaceful time.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Of Flutes and Monasteries

I've never thought of a flute as anything but a solo instrument. I know they are played in orchestras, but when I think of a flute I mostly think of either classical or folk flutes making their haunting, alluring sound all by themselves. I had never even considered the possibilities of 2 dozen flutes playing together (a Flute Choir). Nor did I know about the varieties of flutes - of ordinary flutes, and soprano flutes (piccolos) and alto flutes and even bass flutes, whose columns are so long that they have to be bent back on themselves so that the instrument will be compact enough to hold. Nor have I ever thought of silver flutes, gold flutes, platinum flutes, or flutes made of crystal, and that each of them have a very distinctive sound. I didn't know that there were people who have collections of flutes and who savor the different sound of each one.

All of this I have learned since Gary Schocker, one of the world's most renowned flutists, began having Master's classes here. For several summers now, it has become one of the features of our life to have several weeks when the Guesthouse is filled with flutists - mostly young, but representing all ages. There is music around the place at all hours, lessons and practicing, and there are concerts, both planned and impromptu. There is a special feeling to those weeks, knowing and hearing that some of the finest music on earth is under our roof for these few days.

And during these days I spend some time reflecting on the role of the Church, and specifically of Monasteries, in bringing beauty into the world, and offering it freely to all who come. Beauty is a hard thing to reason about or to even think about doing scientific research on, since matters of taste and people's feelings about what is beautiful vary so widely. But the small amount of research that I am aware of indicates that beauty is one of the basic needs of life. People can be well fed, and well educated, and well brought up, but a part of them never flourishes if beauty is not a part of their surroundings. People who grow up in surroundings of unrelenting ugliness always try to find some way to relieve the misery of their situation with some small - or not so small - beautiful touch.

I remember some years ago when the feeding program sponsored by the Cathedral in San Francisco began offering Croissants on Sunday mornings. There was a good deal of ridicule that accompanied that news: "Leave it to the Episcopalians. Who else would think of serving croissants in a soup kitchen!" And I remember thinking: "Well, hooray for our side!!!!!" Some kind and imaginative soul had said inside themselves: "It's not enough just to give food to the poor. We have to give something really nice." As far as I'm concerned the still small voice that made that suggestion was the voice of God. Through the centuries, churches have often been the place of quiet and of beauty for people who were hard pressed by the conditions of their lives. Just to be able to step aside into a beautiful place offers a respite that is sometimes crucial.

Often enough it has been the monasteries that have offered beauty to the world around them. We are part of that tradition. People come here specifically for the beauty of the grounds and of the view of the Hudson Valley and for the beauty of simplicity represented by our Church. All kinds of people come here for that beauty, not just society's more fortunate classes. A retreat for formerly homeless women has been part of our offering recently, and we are planning a retreat for currently homeless people and one for people working on housing for the poor. Recently we hosted the Social Workers who work for Ulster County Mental Health. People on the verge of mental breakdown, and in the midst of deep personal crises come here. Countless ordinary people living difficult times or difficult lives find their way here. They get help in many different ways, but when they talk about their experience they speak principally of two things: the peace, and the beauty. Often enough they have little of either one in their lives, and some instinct tells them that if they are to heal this is what they need to find.

I really rejoice in a house filled with flute music. I am so glad we have a fine choral group as Artists in Residence and that we have developed a series of Vespers services that feature Bach Cantatas. I'm glad that we are installing a fine new organ this fall. I delight in having a Church that is so beautiful that I am moved by it almost every time I enter it (and I have entered it up to a dozen times every day for the past 40 years). I also have joy in those who help with the maintenance of our gardens, and the group who came this week to refurbish our Labyrinth.

I am convinced that none of this is an optional 'extra'. In helping beauty to exist in this place we are offering one of the things without which people's lives tend not to flourish. We are enabling the very presence of God - who, after all, is the ultimate Beauty - to have a welcome place here, and to be a welcoming part of our lives and our ministry. This is taking human need most seriously and meeting it at a very deep level.

Appropriately enough for monks, this is a task of quiet and humility. You have to offer it and then get out of the way so that people can encounter it on their own. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Monastery Is .........

For a good number of years I held the position of Director of Admissions for the Order of the Holy Cross. I was the one who "guarded the gates". I decided who got to join the community, or at least to give it a try.

During that time I regularly got letters from people that went something like this: "My therapist tells me that if I can get into a monastery and not have to deal with people I will probably be all right. Please tell me how I can join." I had to reply: "Your therapist has a rather different idea of the monastic life than we do."

Almost everyone who comes to enter this community has had someone among his family or friends tell him that he was "wasting his life" or "hiding from the realities of living" or some other such phrase that indicates that the persistent image of a monastery is that we are a place where the normal stresses of life and the challenges of dealing with people don't apply. And the reaction to our way of life is often quite ambiguous: many people find the thought of this fantasy state of freedom very attractive, and just as many (often the same people) think it's a bad idea.

Where this image of our life comes from is something of a mystery to me. For hundreds of years Benedictine monasteries were the centers of society's spiritual and social life. A few communities chose to live in remote locations but a lot more of them were right in the middle of things, and this was certainly true in Britain, where the Anglican tradition of Christianity was formed. Though a lot of the details remain to be discovered, it seems clear now that Celtic "monasteries" were gatherings of men or women (or in some cases men and women) who lived lives of prayer among the ordinary village and city life of their times. It often is not possible to tell from the remains of these villages which buildings were for the 'monastery' and which for the ordinary residents - they all look the same. Pretty clearly the "monks" lived as part of the local society, and the people who were not monks lived up against, and presumably also as a sort of part of, the monastic community.

Later in England the institution of the Monastic Cathedral set the pattern for a Benedictine community to be the center of City and Town and Village life. Here the architecture is much more developed: a discernible monastery was built, right at the center of things, not on the fringes. And we know from contemporary documents that the monks did a lot more than offer spiritual advice. They were at the center of the economic, agricultural and social life of their times. They were often the "glue" that held the fabric of society together. This is what made it possible for the monasteries to be the institutions that got European society through the long Dark Ages.

And so for us. Holy Cross is in a fairly rural location, but people are a lot more mobile in this age, and we are still at the center of a sizable population. At the core is the community of the monks and residents, numbering just about 20, sharing prayer and meals and work and meetings and the common joys and sorrows of life.

Then there are our Associates - people who look to us for support in the living of their lives, especially their spiritual lives. The Associates bind themselves to the living of a disciplined spiritual path. Many of them are frequent visitors here. They are definitely part of our extended family and we are in touch with them in many ways. There are about 600 of them.

Then there are our guests. They come for programs. They come for rest. They come for quiet. They come to be with us and share our time, our work and our leisure, and to converse with us at meals. They come for a day or a weekend, and even occasionally for several weeks or months. In the course of a normal year there are between 2,000 and 3,000 of them.

Then there are the casual drop-ins: people who come down the drive to see what is going on here. They have seen our sign on the road or they have seen our buildings from across the river while visiting the Vanderbilt Mansion or they have seen our web site or a friend has told them about us. They want to see around, or buy a book, or look at the view, or to talk to someone about some deeply painful dilemma in their lives. God knows how many of them there are - we don't even try to keep count.

Sounds like a real haven of refuge from the human race, doesn't it?

This past weekend about 35 of our Associates met with about half of our resident community for a time of reflection on how the Associates are related to us and what we can do to intensify those bonds. We worked hard and we laughed a lot. We talked about how people can share the work of this place, and how the Internet can help us create some virtual community, and how the Associates can help make this place better known in the Episcopal Church and beyond. We talked, in short, about how we can be a 21st Century version of the traditional Benedictine monastery - a place right at the center of people's life, living a life of prayer and welcome.

Holy Cross is known as a place of hospitality, and this conversation is right in line with this part of our life. Prayer is central to our life, but no more central than people are. We continue to discern how we can be like the Celtic village or the Monastic Cathedral: living at the center of things, open to the currents of life in our time and ready to help with the perspective that being dedicated to prayer gives us. This really isn't about withdrawal. Yes, we do have to talk about how to maintain the boundaries that enable us to have a healthy community (family) life and to protect the time needed for our life of prayer. We also have to continually evaluate the ways in which this life can be offered to those who come to us.

There's a lot of richness here. And not a little excitement. Stay tuned for the results as time goes on.

Monday, July 2, 2007

How Do You Pray When It's Too Hot To Pray?

By and large, in this part of the world the summer has been unusually idyllic so far. There have been a few brief stretches of hot weather in the Northeast, but there have also been long stretches of weather in the 70's (occasionally even in the 60's) with nights in the 40's, sparkling clear days and nights full of twinkling lightning bugs with the sky full of stars. Certainly unusual, and wonderfully enjoyable.

Then come the hot interludes: and the loud complaining begins. We're so uncomfortable. We find it hard to take. It's too hot to work. And it's too difficult to pray when the weather is like this.

I'll be the first to admit that the advent of cheap air-conditioning has made life a lot easier, and being able to sleep in a cool room does make the next day a whole lot easier to manage. And I'm glad that my office can be at least reasonably comfortable when I go there to work. But I also know that I'm very old-fashioned for this present age: I tend to assume that in summer it will be hot and in the winter it will be cold. I know that's impossibly archaic for lots of people, but there it is. It's the way I am. When I was growing up the only places I knew that were air-conditioned were the movie theatre and the most expensive department store, and central heating was no where as sophisticated as it is now. We tended to get through things one way or another, and complain a lot.

It's the complaining that interests me right now, or rather the root from which the complaining comes. I've come to see what an important issue this is for me, especially in living my life in gratitude.

The crucial turning point in my thinking about this happened one hot September day about 17 or 18 years ago. I was living at a monastery that we had at the time in the Low Country of South Carolina. Having grown up in Kentucky I knew something about hot summers, but when I went to South Carolina I discovered that I was only beginning to explore the area of heat and my response to it. There were days and days - even months and months - of blasting hot weather, during which it was hard even to breathe. We got up quite early for Matins at Holy Savior Priory, so we needed to be in bed at a fairly early hour. In mid-summer at about 9:00 pm when I wanted to be settling down it was still quite light and the temperature was still over 100 degrees. No matter how good your air-conditioning is, in conditions like that the walls of the buildings are hot and radiate a blanket of discomfort over everything. It was, in a word, awful.

The climax of it for me was September. Where I grew up summer could be extremely hot, but by September it was beginning to moderate and so my body always expects cooler weather in September. And my body's expectations weren't met in South Carolina. The heat went on. And on. The blasting discomfort continued. It was unending.

And one searing hot day I was crossing the lawn between two of our buildings, suffering a tremendous lot from the heat and feeling unjustly treated by the universe because here it was in mid-September and the weather was still like this. I remember the dialogue that ensued as clearly as if it were yesterday: I said to myself: "Isn't this ever going to end?" And from somewhere in my mind came the answer: "No."

And that small simplistic dialogue proved to turn a lot of my life, or at least of my thinking process, upside down. After that things had changed. I no longer expected the weather to be any different than it was. It was still terribly hot, and that still had its unpleasant aspects. But I was no longer expecting that my discomfort would change anything, and to my astonishment that made my experience of the heat altogether different. There was still lots of heat, still lots of sweat, it still felt like I was breathing through a wet blanket, but somehow I was no longer wishing for something else. And that was what made the difference. It took me some time to figure out what had happened. In some senses I am still working on that. But I knew in that instant that something had changed.

In the years that have gone by since that September day, I have explored that moment a number of times. I've thought about it and reexperienced it in my memory. I've been fascinated by it because I've so seldom encountered such a dramatic and sudden change. Along with that, meditation, in its slow and persistent way, has been sharpening those abilities with which I abide in the present moment. In simply sitting on my cushion and making the constant effort to return to the focus of my meditation over and over I seem to have learned something about my mind: I've learned how much energy I use up wishing that things were different.

Wishing for a reality different than the one I've got exhausts a considerable amount of my energy, I discover. And in doing that I am robbed of a good deal of the present moment. Most of this process is nearly unconscious. I had to work for a long time to see - no, to experience - how much I give up in the constant desire to have things be different. What happened in my encounter with myself on that lawn in South Carolina on that impossibly hot day was that I turned that energy loose. I decided, mostly unconsciously, not to use my energy that way any more. That gave me quite an unexpected reservoir from which to live my life in the present, and I've been unpacking the results of that moment for years since. In some ways nothing changed: it was still hot, it was still uncomfortable, it still robbed me of desire to work or pray. But in other ways everything changed: I was simply no longer fighting the way my life was at that moment. That turned out to have big consequences.

I can't tell you a recipe for getting this to happen. I couldn't give instructions to someone who wanted this experience for themselves. The Buddhists would say that you have to experience how much suffering you are carrying around and finally make the decision to just drop it because you no longer want the weight of that burden. Christians talk about these experiences as moments of Grace. Because of the artistic bent of my family, I have always treasured the beauty of what was before me in the present moment. Maybe, at some level of my awareness, I just got to the point where I knew how much of that awareness I was robbing myself of and decided not to do that to myself any longer. But it wasn't something I consciously decided to do: it was, in Christian terms, a moment of pure Gift.

And these moments, which we all experience in smaller or greater ways from time to time, are what Christians mean by the Experience of God. They open our experience to deeper and more vast levels. They show us the majesty of the life we have been given to live. They are what transfiguration is about.

Is this why the Church chose to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in the summertime?

I'll have to think about that for a while.