Sunday, September 30, 2007

Moonlight on my Pillow

Autumn is a wonderful time for me. Partly, of course, this is because of the weather; it's cooler and crisper, the sky is an extraordinary deep blue and the leaves have begun to turn. But I have a more private reason for looking forward to this time of the year. I don't know how many of you watch the Moon wander about the sky, but it travels about the heavens in the course of a year, and it has quite a range to its wanderings. In particular it tends to be in the South in the summer when the Sun is farther to the north and then as the Sun retreats southwards the Moon moves north. By late September or early October it has finally arrived pretty far north and at the time of the full moon it rises in the northeast. This is significant for me because my room faces northeast and so we have come to the time of the year when moonlight falls over my bed as I'm going to sleep at night.

Ever since I was very small I have been comforted by the sight of moonlight in my room at night and especially on my bed. It soothes me and awakes a lot of my senses that respond to beauty. I anticipate these nights a lot and they bring me a good deal of joy, as they have throughout my life.

But all was not so smoothly beautiful when I was small. I grew up in a place (Kentucky) and at a time (the 1940's and 50's) when having moonlight fall on the bed of a child was regarded, at least by a number of people that we knew, as problematic and even dangerous. It was part folklore and part superstition and we knew that, but the superstition was common enough and had enough hold on the common imagination that family members and friends went out of their way to make sure that I wasn't indulging my passion for moonlight. Were my shades pulled safely down? You couldn't be too careful, they said. It wasn't good for a child to have moonlight on his bed.

I never believed it - not really, but I was close enough to the feelings of the people around me that I felt some of the dread just the same. That didn't keep me from my passion, but I had to sneak my moonlight fixes by adjusting my curtains and shades so that people in the family and neighborhood wouldn't notice what I was letting into my room.

There were two other things that were also regarded as Bad For Children: tomatoes and bananas (except for tomato soup, which for some curious reason was regarded as all right, even healthy). I didn't mind about tomatoes, but I liked bananas, so the guardians of my health had trouble with me about that one. It's easy to look back on all that from the perspective of dealing with street gangs and AIDS and feel how silly it all was. But I suspect that it was deeply serious. Raising a child is a tricky and fearsome business, and those who do it always need all the reassurance they can get - so moonlight and tomatoes and bananas were out and I worked my way around the prohibitions carefully and secretly.

Funny what a change of perspective 50 or 60 years can bring. I don't know anyone who worries about moonlight or tomatoes or bananas for children these days. Lying on my bed at night and enjoying the moonlight, I think about that sort of perspective and how it plays out in some other areas as well.

There is a controversy raging in the Episcopal Church, and in the worldwide Anglican Communion at the present time - a controversy about homosexuality. One longs to look back to simpler and more placid times. I can only say there have been few placid years in my lifetime.

When I became an Episcopalian in 1961 there was a controversy raging. It was about whether women had to wear hats in church. I wonder if anyone else remembers how ferocious a controversy it was? There were nasty, even vicious, letters to the editors of the various church publications questioning the motives of people on each side of the issue, and deploring the lack of biblical standards in our church.

People left the Episcopal Church for haven in some more traditional bodies. It was no small thing. By the standards of the present controversies, it's hard not to smile when I think of it, but it was no smiling matter at the time. But I did have a bit of perspective on it even at the time, because the church I left was involved in a quarrel about card playing and dancing, and my own congregation had something of a split when it was decided to put a kitchen in the basement parish hall (worldly!) I knew something about controversies and how they seem to pick whatever issue people can get excited about.

I wonder how many people know about the great upheaval of the early 1900's when people and parishes left the Episcopal Church because General Convention voted to allow Protestant Ministers to preach in our pulpits on special occasions. Most of those who left became Roman Catholics (and a sizable percentage of them came back within 5 years) and there was quite a stir when one of the people who exited was the Reverend Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Mary. I don't know how many people at the time explored the irony involved in these people leaving because we weren't catholic enough when just 30 years before there had been a notable schism in which a bishop and a number of parishes left to form the Reformed Episcopal Church because we weren't protestant enough.

After a particularly tiresome row at our community's Annual Chapter one year I talked with the Superior about why we got into things like this, since the issue involved was not of any particular importance. He said: "It's the need of various personalities to encounter each other".

There is more than a little bit of that in the present controversies that surround us. One of the things we need to be alert about in arguments such as the present one is that it isn't all a matter of the issue itself. Some people need to encounter each other, and an issue is always hanging around to enable them to do it. As each year passes I have a deeper appreciation for the founder of Holy Cross, Fr James Huntington. One of his most memorable bits of wisdom was to tell his community that "we are to treasure up instances in which our assured judgment has proved wrong." A nice bit of wisdom for the present situation. Our assured judgment on the issue of the day seems very important to us. It really is important to keep in mind that just because it's our very own assured judgment, God is not assuring us that we are necessarily right.

All of this I ponder from time to time while lying on my bed in the moonlight (sometimes while eating a banana, just to make the point). I wonder what we'll be upset about 50 years from now?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Big Noises and Little ones

I've been thinking about noise this week, or maybe I should say loud sound.

The background to this is a couple of events. The first was the installation of our new organ. Our old pipe organ has served us well for many years, but it has been failing for quite some time and was in need of major restoration. All of the advice we got about it was that our particular instrument was probably not worth the cost that would be involved, which would have been considerable. And we also had to consider the fact that we didn't have the money for a restoration. But we did have the funds for a digital instrument and after considerable investigation and a trip to Albany to hear an organ installed in a church about the size of ours we made the decision to purchase one.

On Monday of this week the installation began and it was complete by Tuesday and we had our first little "concert". There wasn't any organist, but one of the marvels of this instrument is that a certain number of pieces are programmed into it, so it will play itself if you push the right buttons. After Vespers Br Scott skillfully pushed the right buttons and we sat pretty much enthralled by the sound that is now available to us. There were a number of different effects, of course, as with any good organ. It whispers and croons and offers a whole palate of sounds. But it was the Widor Toccata that enthralled most, with everything at full volume, loud, brassy, full-throated, shaking the floor with sound. It was very exciting. Everyone applauded at the end, even though there was no organist to applaud.

The next day I went to New York City to be part of the celebration of a friend's 70th birthday. The celebration lasted for a good part of the day, but the real feature of it was an evening game at Yankee Stadium. I would not describe myself as a baseball fan. In fact I could be a lot stronger about my feelings than that, but we will let modesty prevail. I was happy to be there to help celebrate, but I expected to be pretty bored, which was my usual experience of baseball while I was growing up and was taken every once in a while to games that the Cincinnati Reds were playing.

I got quite a surprise. It was a real cliff-hanger and one of the most exciting public events I've ever been to. The Yankees were ahead by one run for most of the game, never falling behind and never managing to get any further ahead than that one run. And as the game approached its final innings the tension got greater and greater, and people were more often on their feet and those thousands of fans got more and more expressive. And there was a classic finish - ninth inning, two out, the bases loaded and 3 balls and 2 strikes. Everything depended on the one last pitch - the whole outcome of the game was right there. And they struck the batter out and the Yankees won by one run, and, as they say: "The crowd went wild." They screamed and shouted and made that sound that only ten thousand shouting people can make and it was a moment of pure exhilaration.

And man, it was loud.

On and off over the years I've reflected on the connection we make between important events and loud sounds. I've always been an amateur astronomer and more than once I've stood outside at night and watched the Northern Lights fill the sky with sweeping sheets of colored light or seen a comet streaking across the heavens in the hours before dawn and felt that the whole thing was slightly incongruous - because there wasn't any sound. Shouldn't something that impressive be making a lot of noise? Shouldn't there be something that sounds like Beethoven to accompany that comet on its way? A lot of noise seems to be required to mark important things.

Then I stop and reflect on how often the opposite has been true for me at real turning points in my life. For me some real crucial times have been accompanied by almost no sound at all. People ask me, for instance, about my decision to become a priest. Now if I'm honest about describing it I have to say that it wasn't really a decision. It was more like a shift. It was on New Year's Eve of 1961 and I was trapped at home (which was out in the country) by a sudden storm which dumped a whole lot of snow on Cincinnati. So I couldn't get to the party I was supposed to be at, and my family couldn't get out to the house and I was alone for that New Years. I went out for a walk in the midst of the storm, which I have always loved to do. It was a gentle storm by then, still snowing quite heavily, but no wind; just lots and lots of snow falling - and almost total silence. No traffic, no voices, just quiet. And in the middle of that silence everything shifted and I knew what I was going to do with my life and knew that it involved the priesthood. It could be described as a "decision" I suppose, but my experience of that moment was that the meaning of everything had just changed. I hadn't thought it out, I hadn't considered it carefully, I hadn't made an inventory of everything that needed to be considered - all of that came later. It was just like suddenly standing on completely new ground.

And there was no sound at all, except for the silent sound of everything falling into place.

God so often moves like that. We plan and consider and debate - all quite wonderful and necessary things, of course. And we make a lot of noise to accompany our planning and the joy that comes when our plans go right. This is also quite wonderful. But there is another level to human experience, which is the level of the spirit. Sometimes it erupts into our world in ways that are sudden and unexpected, and sometimes it comes in a slowly developing consciousness. But this eruption is not accompanied by anything loud, and most usually for me has been in silence.

And so it seems only natural that God is sought principally in silence. Monks live their lives so that they will have a good deal of silence each day. This is so that we can be in that place where the spiritual dimension of life has room to speak. Not that extraordinary experiences are ever very common. Most often, if those times of silence have any quality to them at all, it is just one of simple listening - of listening, waiting, longing, and from time to time of knowing that the same listening and attention comes back to us from that space. Mother Theresa used to say, when asked about her prayer, that she listened to God. And when asked what God did at those times she said: "God listens to me." All wrapped in quiet. All in silence.

Which is more important - the exultant celebratory noise, or the quiet attention to the depths beyond our usual experience of this world? Maybe we're not supposed to be comparing things here, but just attending to the different ways in which God reaches out for us and touches different parts of us. Maybe we can give attention to all the moments of our life, the loud and the quiet, and find God reaching out in each one.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Golden Floor

Every once in a while a small moment comes along that opens up a perspective on everything - a moment I wasn't expecting and couldn't have anticipated. That happened one afternoon about a week ago when I was looking at the new floor of our church in the afternoon sunlight.

For three years we have been intensely involved in the renewal of the physical plant of the monastery and the guesthouse. We've raised money (we're going for a million and a half at this point) and an extraordinary amount of work has been done:

The first year we tackled the basic inhospitality of the buildings caused by the fact that, like a certain number of Victorian structures, our buildings were built to have steps going down so that you could also have steps going up. In our case the entrance to the original chapel (which later became the library and then the room we call the Pilgrim Hall, now the social center of the guesthouse) had three steps going down to the entrance so that there would be three steps going up to the altar - and not having those three steps going up to the altar would have been unthinkable at the time. This meant, of course, that when the next set of buildings was built, including the present monastery church, there had to be another set of steps going down so that............ you guessed it............... there could be steps going up to the altar of the new church.

People at the time oohed and aahed at the design; going up to the altar was a very important symbol in those days, and accessibility was simply nowhere on the agenda. If you got old or crippled and your mobility was limited you stayed at home. This this is another age, and people now expect to continue to move, even when they have more difficulty in getting around, and it became more and more important to address the fact that we had a ministry of hospitality and a set of very inhospitable buildings.

It took a lot of dreaming and some very skilled planning, but in the end we got it figured out - a way to make the floors level from one end of the property to the other. We began three years ago with the first stage of the project, the leveling of the main traffic-bearing floors. We did it with fear and trembling because we couldn't be sure before we saw the result that the final result would look right. We worried a lot about how the new level of the floors would relate to the windows: would it disturb the integrity of the proportions of the building? In the end we seem to have revealed a design that lay hidden in the original architect's mind. Not only did it look all right, it looked to most of us as though it should have been that way in the beginning. Almost no one who comes to the guesthouse now remembers that it has ever been any other way.

The next year two more projects were undertaken: the new entrance and the repair of the bell tower. We needed an accessible entrance to match our outside to our inside and a very handsome and functional one was designed for us and constructed in the second year. It is so successful that almost no one remembers that it too is not an original part of the building. And then there's the bell tower - our great nemesis. It was supposed to be a minor project of passing interest. We thought it needed a bit of repointing. It would be a matter of a month of so and we'd be done. Instead, when the scaffolding went up we were presented with what our engineer referred to as "a most interesting example of structural failure". Translation - it was about to fall down. It took nine months instead of one month to fix it and now it is very handsome. It ought to be - every single brick in the structure is new. It also took (a lot) more money than we had planned.

This summer we've had two projects. One is the replacing of the roof on the church, and the other is the interior floor of the church. The church roof is quite straightforward, except that the roof is Spanish tile and that isn't straightforward - each individual piece has to be lifted, inspected, repaired and either put back or replaced. Some of the tiles have had to be custom manufactured. Part of the roof in which the original tiles proved to be unworkable is also being replaced with copper. It's a good way along and we hope it will be finished before the snow flies.

And then there's the church floor. It needed to be removed, the under-structure inspected and repaired and then a radiant floor heating system installed and a new floor put down. This also raised the level of the floor and eliminated, at last, all of the up-and-down aspect of these buildings. There were, of course, some surprises. Part of the floor proved to be inadequately constructed and had to be propped up before we could proceed. And, in one of those marvelous moments that you sometimes get in work like this, we discovered a course of foundation wall just sitting there, not related to anything else. No one knew that it was there. When was it built? What was it for? Was it something the original architect changed his mind about? Was it for some structure we don't know about? We'll probably never know. It sits there, under our floor, as a mute testimony to the things we don't know about the past.

When I left for my vacation at the end of last month the new floor was just beginning to go down. When I came back it was a radiant presence: it was obviously new. A brand-new Douglas fir floor with a deep oil finish, it is a golden honey color which is quite breathtaking and sets off the deeper oak of the choir stalls very beautifully. A deep red carpet now sets off the lectern from which the Word is proclaimed day by day and the standard candle that provides a basic symbol of what we are about.

And it was there, in the church one afternoon last week, that I was sitting in the Prior's stall and looking at our new floor in the afternoon sun when I finally realized how much we have done. I knew it all, of course, but I finally felt it. I felt how much has changed, how far we have come, what we have made possible. I looked over the guest court and in my mind's eye saw the people who have been coming since we began our work and realized the number of them who are on canes, on walkers or in wheel chairs. This isn't because the guests are getting older (because, in fact, a growing number of them are younger). It's because we have made it possible for people to come who can't go up and down all those steps. The first week after we reopened this month one of our guests was wheelchair-bound, the first such person we have ever been able to accommodate, and she seemed completely happy with her time here. What we have done here is beautiful - a very talented architect and a wonderfully skilled crew of contractors have insured that. The much of the beauty is not the visible kind. It lies in our determination to be serious about our ministry - our ministry of hospitality. We've finally heard the call - and had the grace to respond - to welcome a whole group of people whom the structure of our buildings prevented from coming here until how.

There were tears in my eyes when I realized how far we have come.

There is more to do, of course. We still have an elevator to install and that is going to involve a good deal of demolishing, reconstruction and remodeling. It will be expensive. The bell tower took much more money than we had expected, so we haven't got the money to do it. But people have been amazingly generous and we are arriving at this stage of our construction with more left in our fund that we had thought we might have. So we will raise what we need. I don't know how long it will take, but we will do it. We will get there. The vision of an accessible facility is too important to leave unfinished.

And our honey-colored church floor will be there to witness to that as we go on our way.