Sunday, December 28, 2008

There's Always a Holiday Surprise Waiting

Someone - or something - doesn't want me to clean my room. (And you thought I was going to write about Christmas, didn't you?) I've been trying for weeks to free up the necessary time to do a really good and thorough clean-up, which is more than badly needed. Other stuff kept getting in the way, but finally last Monday it was going to happen. I had the time set aside; a nice free late afternoon on my day off. The timing was perfect - right before Christmas. I had nothing else planned and nothing that couldn't wait. I had my cloths, sprays, mops and dusters assembled. I was ready to go. Right after lunch.

So I was sitting in our small dining room having a sandwich and thinking about my fortune in finally getting to this long-desired project, when Mike, the young man who keeps our grounds, came in. He'd been looking around, just seeing what was what and at the back of the monastery building, near the site of our generator, he said he smelled gas. Well, that seemed possible. Our generator runs on natural gas and it had been in use recently, during a prolonged power outage, so a leak could have developed. Obviously the only thing to do was call Central Hudson, our gas and electric supplier.

It took a while to get connected with the Gas Odor Service Agent, but after calling three different numbers I did someone who as courteous, fast and concerned. She said someone would be here within 45 minutes. In fact it was about a half hour when the service man arrived. He walked around, determined that the odor was coming, not from the generator at all but from a large vent in the ground next to the monastery; a vent, he said, that probably came from our boiler room.

So into the boiler room we went, and sure enough, there was a strong smell of gas there. Right away he had some suspicions, but didn't want to say anything out loud until he had his sensor on, so it was fetched and used for testing the air and sure enough, there wasn't much gas, but there was carbon monoxide - lots of carbon monoxide. The legal limit on the presence of carbon monoxide in dwelling spaces is 5 ppm. The level in the boiler room was over 150.

So a call was put out for a fire truck with an exhaust fan. Sirens started sounding almost immediately. A fire truck arrived. Another fire truck. Another one. Every fire truck in the area seemed to feel it necessary to respond. In the end there were five of them, but as it turned out none of them had brought the requested exhaust fan, so that had to be sent for separately. In the meantime we opened the door to the boiler room, and with an excellent exhaust system functioning quite well, the room was almost free of CO fumes before the fan actually arrived. But the fan had to be set up, of course, and put into action.

In the meantime the monastery building was ordered evacuated, so I organized a small squad of brothers to make sure everyone was out of the monastery and into the guesthouse. Several brothers arrived home from an afternoon out about this time and found the driveway full of fire trucks, emergency personnel and brothers wandering about and assumed the worst, so they had to be filled in.

In the meantime the plumber arrived and shortly afterward the boiler burner repair man whom he had called. "Oh yes," he said, "when it gets cold like this the gas company increases the pressure in their lines, and lots of big boilers have incomplete combustion and you'll get carbon monoxide from that. We'll fix that right up." And he set to work, mostly adjusting valves and openings so that the burner on the boilers was getting more air to cope with the increased gas that we'd had. And then there was the testing process, which took a lot longer that the work on the burner did.

But finally the monastery was declared safe again, everyone moved back from the guesthouse and the gas company man went off saying that he would come back in the morning. If everything was still all right, he'd certify us as clear. If not, he would order the gas lines shut down. The plumber departed. So did the fire trucks. Last of all the man who was repairing the burner and testing the air went home, promising to come back in the morning. By the time everyone was gone it was 7 hours since the smell of gas had first been noticed, and it was time for bed.

You have probably heard that carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless. So had I. But the Gas Odor man says that in his experience CO from incomplete combustion is always accompanied by a distinct smell - which is why he reached for his sensors so quickly after poking his head into our boiler room. An interesting thing to think about. The smell, I guess, is from other incompletely burned ingredients in the natural gas supply.

So we will have carbon monoxide detectors installed in the boiler rooms and in one or two other spots, though given how isolated the boiler rooms are it's entirely possible that the smell of incompletely burned gas may be the first thing we notice if this happens again. Our heat is hot water, not forced air, so the danger to us on the upper floors isn't great, but it is there, so we need to be warned if this happens again. Once again I marveled at how much in the way of trucks and equipment appears every time something happens. And I, whose sense of smell is almost absent, feel grateful to Mike for his sensitive nose and quick response. Now we know something about our systems that we didn't know before, and we have some alertness that we didn't have. We are very grateful for being preserved for another day.

And my room still hasn't been cleaned.

Do you have days like this? Not surprising that this post comes right after the one about our Advent Retreat is it?

I have another day off coming on Wednesday. I wonder if cleaning is in the cards for that?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ever Tried to be Quiet in Advent?

I have a deep and abiding love for Advent. The texts for the monastic offices pick up my interior longing for God and sing it to the most beautiful of Gregorian melodies. And though we have a fairly modern adaptation of monastic style in this community, this is one of the places in which we are unabashedly old fashioned: we celebrate Advent while it's Advent and we don't get around to celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas. The tree didn't go up until this morning, and it won't get decorated until Tuesday and Wednesday. We party very merrily on Christmas and the days afterward, but not until then. We're implacably reactionary about this time of the year. Whatever may be the cultural situation, we devote the four weeks before Christmas to the longing for the appearance of the One on whom all history is focused. Oh come, Oh, come Emmanuel.

And one of our most treasured customs, at least as far as I'm concerned, is taking 3 days for retreat towards the end of Advent, usually Tuesday through Thursday of the week before Christmas. The guesthouse is closed, the buildings are quiet and silence reigns. One of our friends who used to be rector of a local parish said that she delighted in coming in for services during the busiest shopping days of the year and seeing the sign on our Bookstore: "Closed for Retreat". This is one of the ways in which our counter-cultural identity most delights me.

If you read this column regularly, you will know that the second part of this year has been a difficult and stressful time: the reconfiguration of the household, with some brothers leaving and others arriving to take their place, the deaths of 3 members of our community in about 7 months, and the destruction by fire of our monastery in Santa Barbara, all with the international financial crisis looming over us, as it is over many, many people. So I have been looking forward to this retreat even more this year. I really craved the quiet and the time to savor it. The Advent Retreat really called to me.

It wasn't easy getting into the retreat, nor had I expected it to be. The change-over was too great to do suddenly. But I was working away at it, relaxing as best I could and trying to be patient with myself while my body and soul discovered that yes, I really could take it easy, and I really could be quiet.

And then................................. on Wednesday all hell broke loose in the Incense Department. Normally I expect to have to cope with last-minute orders during this retreat, and because I love the incense work so much, it just adds to the joy of the retreat - packaging the last of the stray orders for people who have forgotten to do their ordering earlier and really need to get incense for the Christmas services. I can do it leisurely and enjoy all of the process, and get incense off to those who have asked us to rush it along.

But this surpassed anything I have ever seen in all the years I have been running the Incense business. They faxed from Seattle and from Florida. They left voice mail messages from Maryland and Georgia and North Carolina. They wrote notes from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and New Jersey. No corner of the United States was left unheard from. They needed incense for their services and copies of St Augustine's Prayer Book for presents. AND THEY NEEDED IT NOW !!!!!

What to do? This is one of those times when I have to figure out how the observance of the Advent Retreat and the compliance with the demands of business can possibly go together. So I set to work. "Take your time. Be mindful. Pay attention to each detail. Remember how much you enjoy this. Pray the Jesus Prayer over each order. Keep going, and keep your awareness in gear. Be alert. Use your meditation skills. Come back to the center every time you need to."

All very true. All very important. All worth paying attention to. And, when it's 9:30 at night and you're still at it, having been going strong all day long, it begins to wear a bit thin.

But I got it done. At 10:00 pm I wheeled the last of the packages to the UPS pick-up dock and dragged myself to bed. I forebore (is there such a word? The spell check doesn't think so) to question myself about how faithful I had been to the spirit of silence.

Then on Thursday, I went back to the retreat. And it was there waiting for me. I had to work at getting into it again, and though I can't claim three uninterrupted days of bliss, I can say that I was really into it by the end of the retreat. Advent was really Advent for me at that point and I was rejoicing in the quiet of anticipation. I don't know if Wednesday was an interruption or not. It certainly wasn't what I had hoped for in a retreat. But then, it didn't drag me away from the retreat either, at least altogether. I did apparently emerge from Wednesday with some shreds of my recollection and my longing for God intact.

Also, there hasn't been an incense order since then. Hooray!

And I think that I may have been more successful in how I practiced during the frenzy of Wednesday than I was aware of. I slipped into the closing hours of the retreat with surprising ease, even if it took some concentrated effort. And the effect of the retreat has lasted through the days since then, and that doesn't always happen when a retreat ends. This has been helped along by the winter's first major snow storm and the fact that most of our scheduled guests canceled out, so it has been very low-key, even after the retreat finished. I really have been free to enjoy the closing days of this season.

Could it be that things sometimes happen just so that we can learn the lessons we need to learn? Or maybe there's just always something that needs to be learned, if we look for it.

Happy Advent! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cookies From Mother

So there I was yesterday morning, on a beautiful crisp day, in a car with Robert and Adam, headed to New Jersey for an ordination, this time the ordination to the priesthood of Sister Eleanor Francis of the Community of St John Baptist in Mendham, NJ. I've written here before of an ordination in New Jersey a good many years ago - one of the first ordinations of a woman to the priesthood, and of all of the emotions that were part of that occasion for me. Now, a long time afterwards, in another era, in another packed church, there I was, reflecting on the years that have gone by.

The service was really glorious; the music was splendid, the congregation more than enthusiastic - indeed somewhat raucous at points - the sermon was tender and moving, and the bishop has a natural talent for inspiring enthusiasm. And more than coincidentally, a lot of the people who filled the Convent Church were priests who happened to be women. I was just a few miles from that other church of years ago, and I had a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings, not just about yesterday's occasion, but about all the years that have passed and of my gratitude for the women priests who have been part of my journey.

The sense of import surrounding this occasion of an ordination was as fresh yesterday as it has ever been for me. There were two points in the service that were particularly notable for me. The first was at the beginning when the group of people presenting the candidate for ordination stood before the bishop and said: "...on behalf of the clergy and people of the Diocese of Newark, we present to you Sister Eleanor Francis Reynolds to be ordained a priest in Christ's holy catholic Church". The second point was just before the ordination itself, when the bishop turned to the congregation and asked: "Is it your will that Sister Eleanor Francis be ordained a priest?", and the congregation responded (actually they shouted): "It is!" Which caused the bishop to make an aside by saying: "There isn't much doubt about that, is there?"

At both of these points I had a shiver up and down my spine. And this time that shiver had not a shred of doubt or hesitation in it. It was a response to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a sense of the depth of this moment.

There was obviously a tremendous affection for Sr Eleanor Francis and for her community in that room, and it was expressed in the participation in the service, in the singing, in the wonderful chaos of the exchange of the Peace, and in the moments of drumming and dancing with which the service closed. It really was a glorious day and a magnificent celebration, and it was a great privilege to be there.

And there's a lot of history behind the special feelings there are for a Holy Cross monk to be participating in the ordination of a Sister of St John Baptist, because that community helped to give birth to the Order of the Holy Cross. At the very start of our community, in the early 1880's, the Community of St John Baptist shared with us in the ministry at Holy Cross Church in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And it was from that Church and that ministry that we got our name: people would see the early members of the Order on the streets in their habits and say: "Oh, those are the Holy Cross fathers", and the name and the dedication stuck and became our own.

The CSJB community nurtured us and supported us and encouraged us all through those difficult first years. And when our Founder, Fr Huntington, came to the time when he made his vows as the first member of our community, he did it in the chapel of the Sisters of St John Baptist on 17th Street at Stuyvesant Square.

It's hard to even enter the chapel of the sisters in Mendham without feeling surrounded by those days. The seven lamps that hang before their altar are from the old Holy Cross Church in Manhattan, and they have the cross from the Church in their Lady Chapel. The altar before which Sr Eleanor Francis was ordained yesterday is the same altar which our Founder knelt before to make his vows as the first monk of an American monastic community in the Episcopal Church.

The St John Baptist community even gave us the cross that we wear. As the story survives, on the day of his profession, Fr Huntington was waiting in the sacristy for the service to begin when the Mother Superior of CSJB, making sure he was all ready for the liturgy, said to him: "Where is your cross?" And he said: "What cross?" And she replied: "You can't be professed in the Religious Life without a cross!" And she turned to a closet and took out one of the black wooden crosses that the novices of CSJB wear to this day. And since then the identifying mark of professed monks of the Order of the Holy Cross has been that same black wooden cross. I've always thought it was a great symbol that the sign of our profession is the novice cross of another community. This life is really about giving ourselves away.

So here we are, 125 years later, in a time when the relationship between Holy Cross and the Community of St John Baptist is particularly rich. We really are good friends. The sisters come here for retreats, and we have supplied confessors and spiritual directors for them in recent years. We visit with each other on important occasions, and continue our relationship of mutual support. And, for Holy Cross, the relationship is always full of the years that have gone by since Fr Huntington made his vows in the presence of those sisters and started the remarkable journey that has been that of OHC.

At the reception after the ordination yesterday Adam and I were standing with one of the sisters and we reflected a little on all this, and he said: "Coming here is really sort of like coming home to mother." And she, without a hitch, turned to the serving table next to us and took up a plate and said: "And here are the cookies."

I have no doubt at all that we are going to be partners in this mysterious life for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Late and Short

This weekend I was conducting the annual Advent Retreat, together with Suzanne Guthrie and Sr Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit, and that took all my time and energy for the weekend. But there's some news that we're happy about, so I'll rush it to you:

This week, Br Robert (the Superior), Br James and I were at Hyde Park to accept two awards. Holy Cross was given the 2008 Ryan White Community Organization Award and the Dedication and Commitment Award from the Dutchess County HIV Health Services Planning Council and the Dutchess County Department of Health. Both of these awards are for the ministry of St Raphael's Place, which provides retreat opportunities for poor people with AIDS and which I wrote about just a few weeks ago. We are so pleased to receive this recognition and it was obvious in being at the awards luncheon that Holy Cross is held in great affection by the public health organizations of this area, and that they are well aware of our efforts on behalf of people with AIDS, both now and over the years past. All of James' devotion and hard work in getting this ministry off the ground is now very justly rewarded, to our great delight.

We also report that James was in New York just a few days previous to this to receive a grant from Episcopal AIDS Response at their annual awards banquet,which will support the continuation of this ministry and will enable us to provide transportation for those who want to come here for the St Raphael events. All of this recognition, so soon after the ministry began, is a very great encouragement to us.

The retreat this weekend centered on the theme of Pilgrimage, and was designed to highlight the ways in which our bodies as well as our minds participate in our life of prayer. We processed the participants all over the monastery on journeys of exploration. It was a rich and very engaging experience, for those of us who conducted the retreat no less that for the participants. It also required a great deal of labor in the set-up department! I'm very happy with the way it turned out and feeling very fulfilled and very exhausted.

Happy Advent!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Ending, A Beginning and a Thanksgiving

It has come to the point that there is not much left to be said about Mt Calvary in Santa Barbara except "We're working on it." So I expect that after today I won't be devoting this space to that part of our lives, at least for a while. But the voices are being raised wanting (and sometimes demanding) to know what the future is going to be: When will the reconstruction begin? How long will it take? Is it going to look just the same as before? So here's what we know at the present.

For now, the brothers are housed at St Mary's Retreat House in Santa Barbara, with the gracious welcome of the Holy Nativity Sisters. We anticipate that they will be there at least until the first of February. In the meantime we are exploring longer-term options for their housing. Several possibilities have emerged and we need to see what will work best for our life, our ministry and not least, for our now much-reduced finances.

The Mt Calvary site is now fenced off, as the law and the insurance companies require. When the insurance people tell us to go ahead it will be leveled. We are deeply appreciative of the many generous offers to help in the clean-up, but because of the nature of the fire, there really isn't anything left to clean up. The site will be bulldozed, and that is all that will happen for now.

In mid-January the Order's Council will meet with the Superior in Santa Barbara. The Council is an elected body of 5 life-professed brothers who assist the Superior in decision-making, and whose consent is required for most major decisions that are made between the yearly meetings of our Chapter (which is our annual business meeting). At the January meeting we expect to focus on the immediate needs of the Santa Barbara brothers and on issues concerning on-going housing and ministry for them. We expect to know more at that point about the terms of our insurance settlement and the implications of that. We also expect to make plans for the discussions that will take place at Chapter.

In June, Chapter will meet, probably here at West Park, though that isn't quite nailed down yet. Most of the brothers in the Order will be here, including the brothers from Canada and South Africa. At that point we are going to talk seriously about our future. You'll note that I didn't say "the future of Mt Calvary". We are going to need to talk about our whole community and what this fire means for where we are headed and how we want to get there. The future of our ministry on the West Coast and the use of our Santa Barbara property will certainly be an important focal point of the discussions, but we will have lots of wider issues to be looked at; things like who we are and what we want for the living of the monastic life in the future. It is beginning to dawn on us that we are not just at the end of something, but also at an important beginning, or at least at a major transition. I'm told that Rahm Emmanuel says: "You never want to waste a crisis." And we want to use this one well.

We are so grateful for all of the expressions of concern and offers of help. Right now, if you want to do something really important for us, you can pray for us in the next 6 months as we discern the meaning of this event and where God is calling us to be and what we are to do.

And of course this week we had Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day which we shared, as always, with a nice group of friends and guests. Jim and Scott crafted a liturgy for the day and it included nice singing, a touch of incense, and a time for offering thanks, which was a very moving time when each of the brothers offered the thanks that was in his heart, and then the guests joined us in offering their thanks. Bernard said that he felt about a foot taller when it was over.

Then came the Thanksgiving meal. We told Edward, our chef, to cut back on it somewhat, because we, like so many people at this time, are having to cut back significantly on our expenses. And, as we could have predicted, Edward cut back in the most elegant way imaginable, and the feast was a triumph. Afterwards one of our guests said to me: "I have never in my whole life gone back for a second helping of Brussels Sprouts until today."

But the best moment of Thanksgiving for me was in the evening, after supper, when I walked around outside for a bit and experienced a few moments of the intense and almost magical silence that sometimes comes to this spot on major civil holidays. It was so still: there was no traffic on the highways on either side of the river, no boat traffic, either. It was between the tides and the Hudson River had stilled as well, and its surface was a mirror that reflected not only the lights from the buildings on the other side but also the most brilliant of the stars, and that's something we don't often see. In that profound quiet and beauty was the promise not only of peace but of deep and vigorous life. It was a moment of knowing that God never forsakes us and that God's comfort and strength is there just in reaching out for it.

That is what I will take into the next few months as we begin to discover the path that we are now beginning to walk.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Week Afterwards

The issue behind, above, below and around everything this week has been, of course, the loss of Mt Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara in the fires there, which occurred (is there anyone left who doesn't know?) a week ago last Friday. Here at West Park we received guests as we always do - and the first thing they all said to us were words of encouragement or grief. We conducted retreats - and thought of the fire. We joined our guests for meals, and spoke of the times we had all had at "The Mount". And during all of the days, we carried this loss in bruised hearts as we went about our work and our prayer.

If we had any doubts about how widely known Mt Calvary was and how many people valued it, those doubts are now laid to rest. I have often said that I have never been anywhere in the world where I put on my habit that someone didn't come up to me and say: "You must be from Holy Cross". This week the truth behind that came to visit us. Emails came by the hundreds - by now by the thousands. Phone calls. Letters. It was all over the Internet: all of the Holy Cross blogs at least doubled their readership, and sometimes more. One day Br Randy's picture site had over 7,000 hits. And friends who had mentioned it in their own blogs report a great increase in readership as well.

Of course, one expects that the Santa Barbara paper would want to cover it, even Los Angeles. But the New York Times had a major article, which for a short period was on Page 1 of their Internet Edition. Most of the articles have a picture of the surviving pieces of the front door and some of the mural that surrounded it, and that picture has become an icon for the whole story of the Tea Fire of Santa Barbara (named for the site near which it started). The news has spread all over the world, because Mount Calvary is remembered with affection by people everywhere on the globe. One man wrote to tell of a Time Capsule he saw put into the garden wall in the late 1960's. Almost everyone in the community has either never heard of this or had forgotten its existence, so Nick, the Prior, will ask our contractor if anything is known about it, and whether it could have survived.

Robert, the Superior, has been in Santa Barbara all week, being a pastor to the community and to many others, and beginning the process of planning for the immediate future. Many of you will already know that the brothers are safe and well cared for at St Mary's Retreat House at the bottom of the hill where Mt Calvary was, and which is operated by the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. The brethren are, of course, alternating between confidence and horror, as one does when confronted with a loss of this magnitude. They are also being treated with great kindness and affection wherever they go in town, and have encountered generosity and discounts on everything they have had to purchase while they put their lives and their clothing stock back together. People have been so kind and sympathetic.

The planning for the future will take time, of course. This is a matter for consultation with the whole community. Mt Calvary belonged to the brothers living there, but more than that it belonged to the whole of the Order of the Holy Cross, and our future belongs to all of us. When Robert returns tomorrow we'll know more about the immediate future. Before long we will have a meeting of the Order's Council by telephone, and then in mid-January the Council will meet in Santa Barbara to deal with issues that are more immediate. As of now, we expect that the major decisions about the future of our work on the West Coast and the future of the property will be discussed at the next meeting of our Chapter, which will be held in June. That meeting was to have been at Mt Calvary, and will have to be relocated - probably it will be here at West Park. So the answer to all of the questions about "What are you going to do? Are you going to rebuild? When will you start construction?" is that we don't know right now, and we are working on it. There are issues of the future of the Order as well as the future of Mt Calvary to be considered and we have to do that with dispatch, but with care as well.

Now for the fire itself- as I have gathered stories from emails and phone calls from people who were there. It was unimaginable. The temperature, we are told, was over 2,000 degrees. This is responsible for the fact that almost nothing survives - no small mementos, no little things to rescue from the debris. It's not even clear how much of the structure actually burned - a lot of it will simply have evaporated. The brothers took the house cars when they evacuated and left the truck behind in the driveway. It melted. We have a neighbor who works with EMS and volunteer fire organizations and when we told him about this, he just nodded and said: "Yes, that happens." I guess the best way to convey this part of the story is to let Robert's words speak:

"We have been up to the Mount. There is nothing to be salvaged and it will be leveled. It was so eerie...quiet, hot, dusty, empty. I'm glad I saw it with my own eyes, though it breaks my heart."

And just when you can't believe the reality of it all, there, just a few feet away from where the truck was, is the little studio building that was put up a few years ago to provide space for brothers who do artistic work. And it survived quite untouched, we are told, while all of that incredible holocaust swirled around it. Joseph's icons and his paints, Roy's colors and papers for his calligraphy, Nick's cello and his music - they all made it through. How does that happen? We have an old and dear friend who lives down the road from Mt Calvary and we hear that the fire came to within 3 feet of her house, and then it stopped. It's more than anyone can fathom.

So that's the story as we know it right now. I'd like to describe it all in one fine sentence to sum up the experience. I find I can't even think what that sentence would be. I'm still stunned - we are all still stunned.

And we're going on, into the future. Pray for us as we begin to imagine what that future will be and to plan for it. God will work with us and in us, as has been the case all these many years.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Somehow You Get Through It

I'm late this week. If you've seen our web page or CNN news you know why - on Thursday night/Friday morning our Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara burned to the ground in the fires that consumed a good many homes in that area. So this won't be long, and you will understand why. But I thought I'd put a few thoughts and feelings out.

Mount Calvary has been a part of our life for more than 80 years. It has been a spiritual refuge for thousands of people. For many folks it is a fact of life - a place that will always be there for refuge and comfort. And it has been part of us, as a community, It's part of the Holy Cross identity. That beautiful place on top of a hill with an unmatched view of the Pacific coast was what many people thought of as Holy Cross, and what lots of us thought of as Holy Cross, and now it's gone.

Friday was for shock. Saturday was for grief - and at times in the early part of the day it was so intense that I wasn't sure I would be able to stand up. Today (Sunday) was for exhaustion.

And through all of this, Friday - Sunday, I was conducting a meditation retreat with my friend Mary Gates! It was lunacy to think I could even think of doing it. But I did, and it was good. There was a particularly rich, diverse and interesting group of people, and they put a lot of work and energy into their participation. It was great. When it finished at noon I was finally free to know what I was feeling, and I wondered how I had managed. I still don't know.

Monday will be for hiding out. I need to sleep. I need to rest. I need to lick some wounds. I need to look at the river.

Now we have a lot of thinking, and talking, and planning and meeting to do before we know what lies ahead. Many people assume that we will rebuild as quickly as we possibly can, but it isn't as simple as that. We need to take time to see what we want for the future of our community and where we are being led. We need to discern the way forward. We need to hear the still, small voice that will tell us where the way is.

It is very painful, but the way of God sometimes is painful. One thing I know, we are a good, solid, and very much alive community. We will know the way when we find it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Night of Change

I've been thinking about change this week. Who hasn't?

Like nearly everyone else we watched the election returns on Tuesday night. We changed our Wednesday morning schedule so that any of the brothers who wanted to could stay up as late as they wished. And a bunch of us did, right through the acceptance speech, in our TV room with snacks and drinks just like everybody else.

And some of us cried, as so many people did (it would be interesting to know what percentage of the American population was in tears on Tuesday night), and we made the noises that were appropriate to whichever candidate we were supporting. A bunch of monks in a TV room watching election returns is pretty much the same as any other group, with all of the hopes and dreads that come with the night of a big election.

For me, as for a lot of people, nothing expresses the spirit of that night so much as the pictures of the crowd in Grant Park in Chicago. It would have been hard not to be moved by those faces - Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and a whole lot more, all screaming their hearts out as they watched the world as they knew it change before their very eyes. And I got to wondering where I have ever seen anything like this before. It seemed completely unique, but deeper down it had overtones of something that somehow seemed familiar.

And then I flashed back to a night in a neighborhood Episcopal Church in New Jersey several decades ago. I was there for an ordination; the ordination of a woman who had been a member of that congregation for many long years. She was being ordained to the priesthood, and it was less than a week after priestly ordination became available to women in our Church, and I was one of the participants in the ceremony.

I wasn't a particularly happy participant, either. I was not yet clear in my own mind whether I thought that the ordination of women was something I could agree with. All the way down to New Jersey I kept thinking: "What am I doing here? I don't even know whether I can say 'Yes' when the bishop asks: ' Is it your will that this person be ordained?'" I tried to wiggle out of it several times, in fact, but she was adamant; she was an Associate of our community and a dear friend of mine and I was going to be there and I was going to be one of the participants.

I did get through it with my integrity and my identity at least mostly intact. And I left the church that night knowing that a whole lot had changed, myself included, and I knew that I could believe in the ordination of women or not believe it, but no matter what I decided or didn't decide, she really was a priest. And a good part of the reason I felt that way was a consequence of looking at the faces of the people who were there.

I was the Bishop's Chaplain that night, so I was one of the first people to receive communion, and then I had nothing to do but sit in a chair in the Sanctuary as the crowd came to the altar rail. And so I saw those people coming for communion and I was moved, and changed, by what I saw. There was a lot of joy in those faces, and I had expected that. My friend was an old and well-loved member of that parish and they were rejoicing with her at the climax of a long, long pilgrimage to ordination. But joy wasn't all there was in those faces; there was something else there that I hadn't been expecting, and that was relief. And in spite of the fact that I wasn't looking for it, that relief was so strong that it couldn't be missed. They were happy for their friend and they rejoiced in her joy, but they were also vastly relieved: relieved that we could finally do this. It was finally real. We were all free to lay down a burden that many of us didn't even know we were carrying. It was right to have this ordination, and many, many people were relieved that it had finally happened.

I saw the same thing in Grant Park. There was great exultation and a lot of celebrating with abandon, and I expected that. What this means to African-American people, I can only dimly imagine. And the faces of the black youth especially, and the old people as well, especially touched my heart. Jessie Jackson in tears. Old ladies jumping and laughing and sobbing. They were looking at a world that was different than it had ever been before. And as I watched, there it was - it was that same look - the look of relief. It was time for this to happen. We have carried this burden too long. For years it has been time to lay this part of our history down, and we had finally done it. Do major changes always come with this sense of relief? I wonder, but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that they do.

Now, what will this change mean, in the end? Without a doubt, it will not mean everything that we are hoping for. The Episcopal Church has not brought in the Kingdom of God in spite of the fact that we have women priests and bishops. But a lot has changed. Business as usual has changed its face, and as time goes on, the way we do our ministry and our worship is changing, as the voice and the presence of the feminine is more and more decisive in the decisions that we make and the lives that we lead.

And the same with our country. As time goes on, there will no doubt be a good deal of weeping to match the exultation of Grant Park on election night. But there's going to be change as well, and some of it will happen in ways that we aren't expecting. Our image of who we are has shifted, and there is no going back on that. And, though Americans don't think a lot about the rest of the world, it's still true that a lot of the world is rejoicing along with those people in Grant Park. Our brother Bernard is Belgian, and through him we get word of how our election has been received in Europe. They are rejoicing and they are relieved, and Tuesday night is going to change them, too.

So here we go, off on the next leg of our adventure. This monastery, and these monks, are looking forward to being part of the pilgrimage, wherever it leads, whatever it brings.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Friends of Raphael

Sorry for my absence last week. I was flat on my back in bed, dealing with a virus that kept coming back for another round. Sometimes when I miss writing on Sundays I am able to make it up later in the week, sometimes not. This is one of the weeks when all of the stuff that piled up while I was in bed just did not allow time for writing.

But here I am this week, and today I'm reflecting on the joys and the scariness of undertaking new ventures at a very uncertain time. But if we let uncertainty keep us from adventures, sooner or later we won't do anything, so we're going on.

I think I've mentioned before that in the past year we have been exploring ways of reaching out to the disadvantaged and the poor in this area. This has always been part of the ministry of our Order, and now we're looking in new places and in new ways. We have a really great leader in this adventure - Br James. Jim has experience and imagination and talent behind him and he has been moving us in this direction for some time. Now I've made him the Director of Outreach Ministries and he's beginning to move - and to move us - in some new directions.

One of the truisms of Guesthouse work is that the customers of retreat centers are almost entirely middle and upper-middle class people. Why? Well, to begin with, these are the people who have the money to travel and to pay for staying overnight in retreat houses. And, it is often said, retreats are primarily an agenda of those who are fairly comfortable. For these people the basics of life are not a problem, and they have time and energy to devote to an inner exploration. People for whom life is more of a struggle, according to this view, just don't think in terms of retreats.

Oh, really?

That is a truism, but is it the truth? Might reality be different from that? When Jim was talking about what we might do at a recent community meeting he reflected that when you slip into the status of being poor, almost everything is taken away. The reality of becoming poor is that you loose access to housing and food and medical care, and you also lose access to beauty, and leisure and the opportunities of the spiritual life. That doesn't mean that people don't care and don't need these things. In fact, most of the studies I've seen indicate that beauty is one of the most fundamental things that people need in order to thrive.

So a while ago we set out to see what the truth of this might be. We located an agency in Poughkeepsie that deals with poor people who have AIDS. Some of their clients are actually homeless - they live on the streets. Some live in shelters. Some live in marginal housing. All are poor - and most are very poor. We proposed to the agency that we wanted to offer what we do best; we wanted to offer their clients a beautiful place to come to for a spiritual opportunity. We would, in fact, have them here for a Quiet Day, one of the most tried and true spiritual exercises that the Episcopal Church knows. A Quiet Day for the homeless poor? Some people laughed. Their vision of a Quiet Day is polite ladies and cucumber sandwiches.

But not the agency. They didn't laugh. They nearly cried, in fact. They have people who offer money or food, but they said that no one had ever offered a spiritual opportunity. Not ever.

Would it work? Who knew? But we planned our first Quiet Day. We organized transportation - a vital part of getting people as far as the front door - and Jim planned a simple program, and for the rest of it we just offered what we have, our prayer, our place, our (wonderful) food, our life. The agency said not to count on much the first time. They estimated that maybe 4 to 6 people would come, because their clients are not adventurous, or so they said. They would wait and see. If it looked good, they might come later on. And what happened? The first time we had 25 people. And they loved it. They loved it a lot. And they came back. And so St Raphael's Place was born.


Archangel Raphael
Originally uploaded by iconguy1

We named this program for the Archangel Raphael, whose name in Hebrew means "God Heals". Br Joseph painted a breathtakingly beautiful icon of Raphael to be the symbol of this ministry. St Raphael's Place has now evolved into a monthly Quiet Day for poor people with AIDS. And they love their Quiet Days, just like suburban housewives and stock brokers love their quiet times here. And they have become our friends, just as so many of the people who come here have. They are not just the faceless poor now - they have names and faces and identities. We look forward to their being here and to the meal that we share with them. It turned out not to be hard to share our Guesthouse and its riches with people just because they are poor and homeless. All we had to do was open the door and make it possible for them to come in. That took some doing, but in the end it was quite doable.

And Jim, who supervises this program, says that they have extraordinary experiences of the Holy and of God while they are here. And they talk about their experience and about what that has meant for their lives. And they have other experiences. One couple met here, and began a relationship and fell in love and got engaged. They were looking forward to their marriage, just as any couple in love might be, and then she died. The next time that St Raphael's Place opened, the man, the survivor, said that he didn't think he could manage to come back here. And then he said that he didn't think he could manage to stay away. This after all, was the place where the two of them began the most real experience of love they had ever had. How could he not come back?

These people weren't the first people to fall in love here - not by a long shot. It happens from time to time and we expect it. Why shouldn't it happen to people who come to St Raphael's Place?

So that's where we are now. We started out determined to explore whether poor people with AIDS had any need of what we offer. The answer has been pretty clear. We are convinced of the importance of soup kitchens and social service agencies, but we aren't a soup kitchen or an agency. We're a Benedictine Monastery. We wanted to see if the Benedictine life had any relevance to these people.

It does.

Now we have to see what comes next. We're going to consult with some people who work in outreach ministry in the Hudson Valley and see what they think and what they perceive the opportunities to be. We're going to apply for grants. We're going to use our imagination. And we'll see what comes.

The founder of Holy Cross, Fr James Huntington, was a remarkable man who had a personality that combined a deep contemplative spirit with the soul of a man who loved the poor. It would be hard to me to imagine Holy Cross without both of those elements in its life. We're trying to find out how to live this out in the conditions of our own day. It's not hard to picture Fr Huntington smiling at this new venture. At his death his last words were: "I will always intercede", and I think he prays for St Raphael's Place.

As I say from time to time, stay tuned. More will be coming.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Unexpected Is Always With Us

We had just started the process of settling down, right? Almost all of those who are leaving this house for other monasteries or other locations have left and all of the brothers who were coming have arrived. People have begun settling into their jobs, the guesthouse season is in full swing, and the task of this season is now that of adjusting to each other and learning to work and pray together in new ways. Right? Right?

And then on Tuesday morning, the unexpected and the unwelcome came to be with us: Br William Sibley died. His is the 3rd death in our community in less than 5 months, and for an organization the size of the Order of the Holy Cross, that is an awful lot. And William was part of the West Park community. The other 2 deaths didn't touch us this way: Bernard had lived on the west coast for years and Michael lived either on the west coast or in a Nursing Home for the last part of his life. Their lives didn't touch us in the same way as William's did.


Br. William, OHC
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

It was sudden, but not entirely unexpected. William didn't have any current health crisis, but his health was chancy - he was in his mid-70's and had some heart problems, some lung problems some balance problems, and he was a heavy smoker, which at his age that causes big problems. Last week he caught the cold that is going around and complained about it fairly loudly, but didn't want to consider going to a doctor. In a fairly short time his fever disappeared and he was getting around again, so it seemed that he was on the road to being well again. Then Monday things turned worse. He had no fever, but seemed disoriented and was growing weaker. He still was very opposed to seeing a doctor, but when he fell in the hall and we had trouble getting him up again and his breathing began to become labored something obviously had to be done, so we called 911 and Robert went off with him to the hospital. They said it was Congestive Heart Failure with perhaps a touch of Pneumonia, and admitted him. Because they had sent Robert home before his admission, we were not aware that they had admitted him to Intensive Care.

We weren't worrying. We had just had another Brother, just about his age, go into the hospital with a bit of pneumonia and a bit of CHF and he was in the hospital for 2 days and then home again and in good shape. So it seemed that it was just a touch of what Sam had. Only in this case it wasn't, and at about 7:30 am on Tuesday the hospital called to say that he had suddenly taken a downward turn and had died. We were stunned.

But we had to go on and now we were going to have to bury William and to tend to ourselves and care for a house full of guests. When you have to do it, you do it, and most folks do it largely by telling stories and by observing the family rituals.

The Stories:

William was one of Holy Cross' Larger Than Life characters. He was a man of great talents and great energy and he was always at the center of things in the Order's life. He was, for a time, a tireless missioner, going from parish to parish preaching, teaching and counseling. He served for a number of years as the Prior of the monastery in Toronto and became widely known throughout the Canadian Church. Then he was the Superior of the Order, the first of our non-ordained brothers to be elected to that post, and he served for 9 years.

After being Superior William had a number of years when finding his place was really hard for him. He lived for a while at the monastery in Santa Barbara and then in a retirement home in Toronto. Then about three years ago he came here. His adjustment here, after having lived away from the community for a number of years, was not easy, but he and we worked at it and came through to a really good place. I think that the last couple of years he was happier than I have known him to be in a long time. He loved to cook and he took over the job of providing a meal on Tuesday evenings, when Edward our chef isn't here. He truly reveled in that job, eventually extending it to preparing soup for the clients of the homeless shelter where some of our brothers volunteer and to fixing dinner even on Tuesday nights when there weren't any guests and we didn't need a meal. He loved the whole process of getting the ingredients together, going out to shop and of spending a day in the kitchen. It gave him a place in the community that he hadn't had in a long time, and he became gentler and happier.

William was a born politician and loved everything that was political. Whether it was the politics of our nation or of the world or of the church, whenever a political conversation started, William was there. He knew political figures everywhere, particularly in the church, and rarely could a bishop be mentioned that William didn't know, and he counted many of them as his friends. He knew all of the crises and transitions that the Episcopal Church has been through in the past half-century, and he and other old "veterans" of those battles often reminisced together in the guesthouse.

He was also a much-loved counsellor. We have had many, many messages in the days since his death telling us how much his presence and his words meant to peoples' lives. It was part of William's lot to have an alcohol addiction which he struggled with for many years, and he used the gift of that struggle to be a real wounded healer. A large portion of the messages than came to us speak of how many people feel that they owe their sobriety to Williams counsel, companionship and love. His wisdom and his experience were often transformative to people whose lives he touched, and we have been fortunate to hear from a number of them and to listen to their stories of how William helped them find meaning and recovery in their lives.

Telling the stories renews our knowledge of our Brother, and some of the stories that have come to us from around the world revealed things about him that we never knew at all.

The family rituals:

We did a version of a practice that we began a number of years ago when one of our brothers died unexpectedly. On Tuesday when we heard of his death we began immediately to sing the Office of the Departed, and that continued throughout the day. That Office, with its texts full of gentle and firm reassurance and its Gregorian melodies that utter a sound of deep lament, is so full and expressive that nothing more was needed. Anything else would have been too much. But on Wednesday we were ready to move forward and that is the day that William came back to us. His body lay before our altar, dressed in his Cowl (which is the garment we wear in church) and holding the cross that he received on the day he made his Life Vows. We had two hours of vigil: time to say farewell, time to pray, time just to be silent before the mystery of life and death. The Guesthouse was quite full that day, but the guests by and large left us to ourselves, so it was just us and a couple of very close friends who came to join us for those hours.

Then, when our vigil was over, we closed the casket and had a very simple Requiem Eucharist and expressed our faith and received communion together with the casket in our midst. After the mass was ended, the casket was taken to the door and put into the hearse and then we had a small ceremony that the funeral director has provided for us for many years in which the hearse drives away up our driveway very, very slowly, and I thought of all the years and all the times that I have watched that car go up the drive and disappear around that last curve.

That evening I was talking with Robert, our new Superior, who has never been here when we were having one of these community goodbyes to a brother, and he said: "This really was our funeral, wasn't it?" I hadn't thought of that, but of course it was. The public funeral, which will be in a couple of weeks, will be a grand liturgy full of processions and holy water and incense and will be the great occasion that Holy Cross is so good at. But that is largely for other people; for William's family and for Holy Cross' friends and Associates. This was ours - just for us and for William, and it was very good.

Those are our stories and our rituals. That is how we negotiated this week. It has been hard, but it has been good and it is all the stuff of our life.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Adventures With a Virus

This looked like a very ordinary week. It was, in fact, the sort of week in which I began to ask myself: "What in the world will I write about this week?" I should know by now that when I ask that, something always gets supplied. In this case what got supplied was a virus.

At least I assume that it is a virus. I suppose we'll never really know if it was viral or bacterial or something else, nor is it all that important to know. It began like an ordinary cold, but it has ended with that very enervating weakness that sometimes accompanies the flu or other viruses. At first I just pushed on, of course: "I need to get my jobs done - can't leave them for other people who are already busy enough." Then on Friday morning (or maybe it was even Thursday), while I was getting breakfast set out for a large group, I all of a sudden couldn't go any further. I was completely out of energy, and I couldn't force myself one more step. So I left the job with a generous Junior, and went to bed.

Now you have to know that being in bed with a cold has been a real source of difficulty for me for a long time. When I'm feeling well, I sometimes even long for a nice gentle cold, so that I can go to bed for a while. I think of the wonderful hours available to meditate, for quiet contemplation, for spiritual reading. At times when my schedule is so pressed that I'm having trouble with finding any time for prayer I do yearn for a convenient virus.

But the reality is quite different. When I actually have my longed-for virus, do I meditate for endless hours? Do I consult learned books on the Spiritual Path? Do I strive to enter the Cloud of Unknowing? Are you kidding? I look at the ceiling. I listen to PBS. I read useless novels (and I choose the word 'useless' deliberately). The time goes by without my doing any of the things that I yearn for. It's been like this for years. I beat myself up internally because of it. I have this ideal of having endless hours for prayer; why can't I do something about it?

It finally got uncomfortable enough that I asked Jose, my meditation teacher, about it. I did this at the Inquiry period at the end of our Wednesday night Meditation session, and I didn't miss the appreciative chuckles from the group which means that I'm not the only person for whom this is an issue. I had stumbled onto a Common Problem.

Jose is wise. He is genuinely wise. And he frequently says something that I wouldn't have predicted in a million years. Many, many times in the decade that I've been part of his circle I've been amazed and stimulated by his unexpected response to what I thought was a question that I knew the answer to: in this case I expected something like: "Take it seriously - get to work - you're not being dedicated enough." And that wasn't the answer. At least it wasn't Jose's answer. He said that of course that was my experience. I was, in fact, experiencing the reality that I didn't have the energy to pursue my ideals. Most of my energy was going into being sick. We weren't talking about lack of moral fiber or a failure of the will. We were talking about how much energy is available when one is sick. And then he said: "You can, of course, use what energy you have to attend to what is happening. And that is worth dong. Just attend to your illness. Befriend it. Follow its path. But don't expect any great insights. It's not the time for that."

Thomas Merton said that at times when he met with answers like this one he felt like he'd missed a train.

But even if I thought I'd really missed the point for a long time, I did remember that conversation. I don't get many colds; this is the first one in two or three years, so I haven't had the opportunity to practice this particular line of inquiry. But I did keep it in mind, and when I took to bed this time I left my ideals at the door, but I did take my mind with me. And I just observed what was occurring. I followed it with the sort of attention that I've learned through years of meditation: I looked at what was happening, and what it felt like. I observed it with such openness as I could manage, and without judgment - when I could manage that. I just followed my cold through the sore throat, into the running nose and on into the coughing and chest part of it, and the nights when my head and chest were so active that I couldn't sleep. The pattern is very familiar - a day for the throat, a day for the nose, a day for the chest. That, I assumed would be the end of it, but it wasn't. I woke up this morning feeling very much better, but also with a very great weakness that seems to come from the center of me, the kind of weakness that warns that there is not much left in the way of reserves. "Be careful" it says, "don't push this too far." It the kind of weakness that sometimes comes at the end of a bout of flu, which makes me think 'virus'.

Now I'll have to be honest and tell you that I was not doing this exploration in the hopes of any great Spiritual Experience. I was just doing it because it seemed like the thing to do. I've pursued meditation long enough to know that, for whatever long-term spiritual benefits it may have, it is also a good thing in and of itself. It's a good path to walk, and it's a good way to approach a day - any day. I did it mostly on blind instinct, and because of that conversation with my teacher.

I describe the result as remarkable because it was unexpected. It was also so plain and so obvious. I found that this illness was simply my path for these few days. It wasn't an interruption, it wasn't a failure, it wasn't an inconvenience. It was simply where I was, and I was having the grace to be where I was. I can't tell you what a difference this makes. I seem to have dropped a whole layer of baggage about the task of being sick and being in bed. It's where I belong right now. It's what life has given me to be lived. It is a full experience all on its own, some of it unpleasant and some of it less so. It isn't to be judged from the point of view of 'what I could be doing if I wasn't in this damn bed'. It's where I am, and it is good to be where I am, because God is where I am, not in some fantasy of where I should be.

And I found that the ability to be in that space really did feel like meditating. In spite of the warning that Jose gave me about having expectations, I really did have some insight. I learned that being where I am, even if it's in bed with a virus, is the task of my life for now, and it actually feels much better to be doing my task than longing for another one.

I hate - I really hate - using the word "Spiritual" for every little revelation that happens to come along. But this does feel like learning something about the spiritual life. Or maybe I need just to take seriously the advice I gave to someone years ago, and which she keeps reminding me of from time to time: "There really isn't any such thing as a 'Spiritual Life' ", I apparently said to her, "you just have your Life, and you need to pay attention to how to live it."

In any case, life with a virus has helped to wake me up.

And, I have to add a small PS, just to show you how ambiguous these things are. I am very weak this morning, but I did go to Mass. After all, it's Sunday. You have to understand that I come from a time and a place when Sunday Church was regarded as one of the facts of life. Not an obligation, mind you: after all, you never asked the sun if it had an obligation to come up every morning, it was just a fact of the universe. And so was Sunday Mass. If you knew the world was going to end at 10:30 on Sunday morning and there was Mass at 9:00, at 9:00 you went to Mass. You just did. So I just did. And it was fine. I'm a bit weaker, maybe, but it's ok. To be there, to have the Sacrament, that's mostly what I'm about, anyway.

And of course I'm doing this writing, and that's ok too. This gives me energy, and feels like what today is about, just as much as it's about the closing part of this viral journey.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Big Change

Ever since early summer the monastery has been in the midst of a major set of changes that will be taking about six months to bring to pass and for the last month, while I've been regaling you with Tales of the Aegean Sea, it has all been creeping up on us.

Regular readers of this blog will know that it all began in June with the election of a new Superior for the Order of the Holy Cross. The Superior has general oversight, both pastoral and administrative, of the four monasteries that make up the Order, located here in West Park, in Santa Barbara, California, Toronto in Canada and Grahamstown, South Africa. The Superior can live in any of the houses of the Order, and Robert Sevensky, our new Superior, has chosen to make this his home. He is from this part of the country, having been raised in Scranton, and lived and worked in the Northeast before he came to Holy Cross. He has a doctorate in the field of Ethics and taught for some time before deciding that monastic vocation was his place in life. He brings a gentle and caring presence to his job, as well as an incisive mind. Robert arrived just this week to take up his job.

In any organization of our (quite limited) size, such an election always sets in place a series of changes that ripple through the whole of the community. To begin with, the new Superior replaces the old one, and the former Superior moves on somewhere, usually after a period of sabbatical for rest and recuperation. Robert replaces our former Superior, David Bryan Hoopes, who plans to spend his sabbatical in parish ministry in New York City, as an interim rector. He's not quite moved out yet, but he's been away a good deal, so we're getting used to living without his presence.

Then Reginald Martin Crenshaw, who has been Novice Master, has also come to the end of his term and while I was in Greece he moved to his new stationing in Toronto. Reg is also a learned man, having a Doctor of Education degree, and teaching and the educational field is his real passion. He also has training in various consulting fields and has worked as a parish consultant both here and in the Diocese of Chicago before he came to West Park. He's busy exploring the possibilities for his ministry in Toronto, and he's confidant that he'll find something exciting.

Reg's replacement is Adam McCoy, who is another of our "doctors", holding his degree in Early Medieval English. He may be known to you through his book "Holy Cross" which is our centennial history. For a number of years he has been in parish ministry, first in Orange County, California, where he created a very large Hispanic Ministry, and more recently as Rector of the Church of St Edward the Martyr in East Harlem in New York City. St Edward's has both African American and Hispanic congregations and is a lively and welcoming place, and is also the parish where David is going to be Interim. Adam moved in here about a month ago, also while I was away, and has been settling in together with our new Postulant, Charles Mizelle, who comes to us from the Los Angeles area, where he worked in the Resort Spa industry. He's working his way through the considerable challenges of adjusting to living in a monastic community.

One more person is coming - our Novice James Dowd. Jim began his community life here, and has been in Santa Barbara for the past 7 months, having an experience of how our life is lived in another of our monasteries. He will be here to finish the last 6 months of his novitiate and then we look forward to having him here as a Brother in vows. Jim has a background in theatre and staging and was for several years the chief organizer of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He has been responsible for the organization of our growing ministry to the disadvantaged of the Mid-Hudson region, and we anticipate that he will be expanding that work.

(You may be noticing at this point how many different paths there have been to vocation in our community - it's one of the hallmarks of Holy Cross and I'll have to write about that some day).

And then we are anticipating the departure of our beloved Tony and Suzette Cayless, who have been Residents of our Monastery for nearly 8 years. They came to be part of our community at their retirement. Tony was a parish priest for all his working life, first in Barbados in the West Indies and then in Long Island, and Suzette is a teacher, spiritual director, and consultant. She has worked in the Guesthouse office during their time here and both she and Tony have conducted retreats and Guesthouse programs and exercised a ministry of Spiritual Direction. Tony has also been an Interim Pastor in two parishes in this area. Nor must I fail to mention the splendid Sunday evening parties which Tony and Suzettte have provided in their home on occasion and which have given us so much relaxation and enjoyment at stressful times of the year. They have decided that the time has come to move closer to their son and his family in North Carolina.

Br Scott Borden, the Guesthouse Director, isn't going anywhere, but he has become the Assistant Superior, and that brings its own set of changes.

That's a lot of details, and I've put all that stuff in deliberately in the hopes that you, like me, are thinking at this point: "That's an awful lot of change for a monastery of 10 monks."

Any change in personnel in a small community creates ripples that affect the lives of everyone else in the community, and in this case the changes will mean a significant reconstruction of our life together. A good deal of the leadership of the house is changing, and a lot of the fabric of our community relationships will be in flux as well. A lot of our life is up for change.

Of course the basic structure of monastic living continues: we will sing the Office four times a day and the Eucharist is offered daily. We will welcome scores of guests each week, and share our meals with them. We will provide programs, and counselling and direction and friendship to people almost without number.

At the same time, a lot is going to be different. Relationships are in transition - both the way we relate to individuals and the way the whole community "feels". New people have new ideas, and will expect that their perspectives will be made part of our life and of our decisions. I expect that, when all of the changes have been made, the Change will just be beginning. Holy Cross will still be recognizably Holy Cross, and it will also be different. Life, with all its twists and turns, carries us along as we seek to offer a place of peace and stimulation to those who come here. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Vision in White

One final post from my Aegean trip. Or at least that's my intention - one never knows.

At the last minute before I left for my trip I put my habit into my suitcase, motivated more than anything by the fact that I was all packed and my suitcase only weighed 30 pounds. I have a light-weight summer habit, and I thought: "Why not?" I had no intention of wearing it on a regular basis during the trip. After all, we don't wear it at home except for worship and for meals on Sundays and feasts. But one never knows what may come up. I did know that we were to have two special dinners on the ship; the Captain's Welcome Dinner at the beginning and the Farewell Dinner at the end. It seemed likely, or at least possible, that I would want to trot it out on one of those occasions.

We had several days in a hotel in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip, so we were 5 days into our adventure before we boarded the Corinthian II. By this time the group who had come for the time in Istanbul (about 45 of us - half the total number who would be on the ship) had gotten to know each other pretty well, and most people knew who I was. If they hadn't met me, the talk had gotten around. The news had spread: There's a Monk Among Us!

The second night out was the Captain's welcoming dinner. And on the first morning there lying on my bed was my invitation to be seated at the Captain's table. This clearly was to be An Occasion. If I was going to wear The Outfit, this was the time.

So I got dressed and made my entrance, right in the middle of the pre-dinner cocktail reception. Now there's no way to walk into a cocktail reception quietly if you're dressed in a white Benedictine habit. You have to endure the reality that you are going to be the center everything, at least for a few minutes. After 45 years, I'm used to it.

And so it was. The buzz of conversation nearly stopped. Every head turned. People I had gotten to know pretty well smiled and seemed pleased. For the rest, it was the usual mixture of things, ranging from pleasure through curiosity to distaste. The conversation began again. I was explained to everyone who didn't know. I was certainly a Presence.

All of this I was anticipating. What I wasn't prepared for was the reaction of the crew. Our crew was mostly Eastern Europeans (Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, etc.) with a smattering of Western Europeans. They didn't know who I was. They weren't prepared at all. And, to my great surprise, they were thrilled. I was rather startled when the Maitre d kissed my hand. He explained: "This is the way we greet the monks." He is a Bulgarian named Bogdan, which he proudly told me means "Gift of God". (I don't know if the Bulgarian word for God is 'Bog' or 'Dan' - both are rather disquieting to my American ear). The Captain is Greek, though a naturalized American citizen since his wife is American. He was clearly terribly pleased that I was gracing his table in all my monastic splendor. All through the meal, the serving staff whispered in my ear how happy they were that I was there. And as I left people appeared from the kitchen and who knows where else to greet me, kiss my hand, and say how wonderful it was that I was there. In all my long monastic life I can't recall anything like that dinner.

I've thought a lot about that evening. I don't usually enjoy being a Symbol. It makes people uncomfortable more often than not. Americans prefer their religious symbols in church, and certainly not at fancy dinners. But the delight that the crew took in my presence was not the false sort of "How lovely to see you" sort of thing. It was real joy. And it didn't put me off at all, which quite surprised me.

As it happens, this is not the first time I have encountered something like this in Europe. I was in Germany three years ago to perform a wedding for some friends, one of whom is German. I know enough German to conduct the ceremony with a certain amount of grace, so it went fine. We had a great party afterwards and it broke up about 2:00 am. Then we went back to the bride's family home where I was staying and we were followed by some of the guests. We settled down in the living room, poured some more drinks and talked away the night, exploring, of all things, issues of Faith. Talk about unexpected! These were young people. They are the secular products of an agressively secular society. Their life is a lot less religious than that of most Americans. They have no use for the Church as they know it; it simply has no meaning for them. They can't imagine living their lives and trying to fit into what they know of institutional Christianity. But though this has been the case all of their lives, their spiritual quest is right there close to their surface. They haven't found any way to practice it, but they are very much in touch with it. And they are concerned with the situation. They feel that a complete life should have some expression of spirituality in it. They don't know what to do. But they are looking. Looking hard enough that they didn't want to go to bed at 3:00 am - they wanted to talk for several hours about it. The sun was well up when we finally got into bed that morning.

And so with the crew of our ship. I had no follow-up conversation with them, but the situation seems familiar to me. They are from societies that have had most expressions of religious faith squeezed out of them since the 1950's. Most of them have grown up either quite alienated from religious practice, or just unconcerned, at least on the surface. And then I appear, all dressed in white, and something that they turn out to be deeply aware of bubbles up. Joy comes with it. The sight of someone for whom a life commitment to faith is a possibility seems to open a part of them. It's important to them.

It certainly speaks deeply to me of the depth of the spiritual level of our being. This isn't just something that is pounded into us, along with guilt, in Sunday School, to be rejected and forgotten later on. This is a part of our being. This longing for God and for the depths of ourselves comes with having a human nature - of that I remain convinced. It can't be eradicated. We who are Christians don't practice some esoteric craft unknown to the majority of humanity. We are expressing the longing that all people are born with. We are walking in Christ's footsteps to God, and knowing that we will - we must - do that comes to us along with being a human person.

And I think of all those people who feel this and have no way to do anything about it and no one to talk with. They look for a sign of hope for themselves. Usually I am not comfortable being taken for that sign, because it seems to imply so many inauthentic ways of behaving that I am not willing to represent. But I felt none of that in this encounter with the crew of the Corinthian II. I only felt joy. I wish the trip had permitted some unfolding of that with some of them, and clearly some of them would have been more than happy to do it. But neither our schedule or theirs permitted it. I can only hope, and pray, that they will find a way to live what their hearts so clearly desire. And I trust what so many of the spiritual masters have said: "The desire for God is itself a way of knowing God".

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Of Tea and Boundaries

I'm here early this week. I'll be in New York City on Sunday seeing a friend who is in for the weekend, so I wanted to get this post done before I left. As I write, I'm sitting at my computer, having blackberry sage tea out of a painted mug that I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I haggled over the price of the mug, too. (Well, I didn't haggle a lot - what can you argue about when it comes to the price of a mug?)

My trip to the Aegean was not a pilgrimage. At least it wasn't designed or advertised as a spiritual journey. But day by day as I review where we were and what happened, the spiritual part of it gets clearer and clearer. You can't stop spiritual stuff from happening, after all, no matter where you are or how your trip is advertised.

In my case, one of the major things that has happened is that I keep stumbling over moments when my relationship to Time has changed. I have the good modern western concept that the past is "then" and the present is "now". But I'm having some experiences that were tripped off by this trip to the Aegean that indicate to me that the good modern concept is not all there is to be said. I'm having experiences of time as much less defined than that.

I first began noticing it in meditation. Meditation is an old and familiar experience to me, and the technique is part of my ordinary consciousness: attend to your breath (or whatever you're using), when you notice that you've drifted away, bring yourself back to the present, and do that as many times as necessary, with a gentle but firm touch. So if I'm sitting there meditating and find a thought of, say, the city of Sardis in Turkey coming into my mind, I just label it as "thinking", and bring myself back to the present. The trouble is that I'm no longer sure that Sardis is part of the past. What if that ancient city, those ancient ruins, are actually part of my present? This isn't anything that I'm thinking my way into. It's just happening. I can't seem to muster up the energy necessary to regard Sardis as a "distraction", because it seems very much a part of now.

Sardis Bath complex - picture by Dick Osseman

I think the stage was set by having those Turkish and Greek cities presented as a foundation of the Western Christian world; very much of what we presently are and how we think and what the world means to us has its origins in those walls, those streets, and the people who walked those streets and prayed and taught in those buildings. This found a ready audience in me, because I've always been interested in history, particularly in local history, and I've explored the archives of Holy Cross and the annals of the towns in Ulster County, New York for many years. New novices notice and comment on the fact that when talking about the history of the community I will say: "and then we began this ministry" or: "and then we opened a monastery in......." when I'm describing things the community did long before I was born.

So the stage was set interiorly and what has happened is that now the fabric of time is much less solid for me. The people of Sardis, the streets of Ephesus, the stones of Priene aren't "there" or "then" for me. They are here and now. They are my present. It's kind of disorienting, but also deeply real and satisfying.

This is, in fact, a fairly common spiritual experience. though the form I had it in isn't the most frequent one. More commonly it is experienced in terms of other people. It is described as the experience of how we are really all one, and there is no barrier between us. Thomas Merton's famous experience on the street corner in Louisville is one example. All of a sudden the boundaries that we assumed were there between us and other people, or us and other places, just seem to dissolve and we discover that the truth of the world is that there's a lot about those boundaries that is unreal. We- all people - really are one, nothing real separates us, and these experiences seem to also convey an urgency to live that reality. This seems to have struck me in terms of Time and my awakening to the reality that we are one with all the people, and the places, who went before us. In a powerful way there is no "then". Sardis is now.

I also had the great privilege of being in on a similar discovery made by one of my fellow travellers. We were in Thessaloniki in Greece, being shown through the Church of the Holy Wisdom which is a church so ancient that no one knows when it was put up - sometime between the 5th and the 8th centuries, probably, maybe earlier. It definitely has mosaics that were put there in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the church was already very old. We were sitting in the nave, hearing about all of the wonders of the architecture when the youngest member of the group appeared at my side. He's a teenager - a really great guy, and very bright. He's an ordinary teen in many ways, including the fact that he has found a real passion for his life. Unlike most teens, however, his passion is ancient Greece. He's read the Illiad and the Odyssey and much else. He knows the history, he knows the people. His grandmother takes his passion seriously and brought him on this trip. It was great having him with us.

Anyhow, he had wandered off during that talk, as kids often do (actually, as I often do, for that matter) and he appeared again while the talk was still going on, looking a touch disoriented and said quietly and urgently: "Bede, what's that room over there on the right? What is that? I've never felt anything like that in my whole entire life." From my years of working with young people I have the gift of recognizing an Issue when it appears, so I got up and went over to the room he was pointing at.

It was an ordinary square room with a couple of windows on the right side. It had a number of icons - no surprise, this is a Greek Orthodox Church. It had a large plain Cross in a stand. And it had two rows of stalls facing each other. That's all.

It was the Choir - or at least that is my interpretation. What we call "The Office" - that is, the daily recitation of the Psalms together with some hymns and prayers - is part of Church life in Orthodoxy, in parish churches as well as in monasteries, and in Greek churches, especially old ones, there is sometimes a room set aside for this purpose. I can't remember exactly, but I think that in this Church it actually connects with the Sanctuary, where the Eucharist is celebrated. In any case, what this guy had stumbled across was a room that has been prayed in most days for around 1,500 years. Prayer has soaked into the walls and it is a presence thick enough to be felt. And he felt it. And it blew a bunch of his circuits, just as my time circuits seem to have been blown.

I came back (the lecture was still going on) and quietly told him what he had found and what it meant. I also told him how much of a privilege I felt it was that he had shared that with me. He nodded, and then wandered off. During the rest of the morning he appeared at my side again a few times, and when I saw the disoriented look I put my hand on his shoulder to ground him, and when he came back to earth he would wander off again.

That's it. Even though we talked about a lot of different things during the rest of the trip, we never talked about that again. Life went on and the trip went on. I have no idea what he will make of that moment in that holy place as his life unfolds. I do think, however, that he will never forget it.

So there we are - two people, and two experiences of moments when the solidity of our lives dissolved and reality was perceived to be much more, and much different, that we thought it was.

I think these experiences are pretty common. I think, in fact, that they happen with both frequency and regularity. But in our radically secular culture we are trained to ignore them. And if they are strong enough that we have to notice them, we almost never, ever mention them to another person. People in our society don't talk about that sort of thing. You have to be someone pretty quirky, like a monk or a teen, to do that. But these experiences of awareness of the spiritual dimension of things are part of life. People who do brain research can even point to the places in the brain where they happen. They are part of the gift of our human nature; God pulling us to that place where boundaries aren't what we thought, and where we are really one with each other and with the world as it is and as it was. Quite a thing for an old man and a young man to share.

But you share it too. Yes, you do. And part of the journey is to learn to see it when it happens.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Well, I'm back from points east and beginning to integrate what has happened to me in the past 2 weeks. I'm to the point now where my body has figured out which hemisphere it's in, and what is happening now is that I am beginning to realize the richness of all that I was exposed to. When you're in it, you're just going from place and concentrating on what you are doing at the present moment. Now the sweep of the trip and the expanse of what it represented is beginning to sink in. I have had more than I even dreamed of.

The trip was entitled "Heaven and Earth in the Ancient Aegean" and it was organized by the Cornell Adult University. My friend Scott MacDonald, the Chair of the Philosophy Department, was one of the leaders and the other was Frank Rhodes, former President of Cornell and before that a Professor of Geology. They are both splendid lecturers, and I've never had a trip that was filled out and contextualized so deeply as this one was. We explored the meaning of the part of the world we were in from the point of view of what it gave to the history of ideas, and especially what it gave to the formation of the Christian religion (Heaven) and the geological forces that formed that part of the world (Earth). That's one reason I'm feeling so filled with the richness of the experience.

I began to realize what the experience was going to be like when I first entered my hotel room in Istanbul on the first morning. We arrived in the late morning, so there was a bit of a pause before our rooms were ready, but it wasn't long, and when I got my room card I went up and opened the door and there before me was a wall mostly of glass and beyond it at my feet was the City with the Bosphorus flowing through it. I was looking at Europe on the near side and Asia on the far side and had my own balcony to view it from and without even thinking about it I said "Ohhhhhh". At that moment I began to realize how much I was in for. It was a lot, as you will gather, and it won't all be told in one writing, but I'll share at least some of the adventures.

From the point of view of time, we covered about 5,000 years of history. Near the beginning of the trip we visited Troy, which was first built in about 3,000 BCE. There are 7 cities piled one on top of the other, and the last occupiers were the Romans, when the harbor finally was so silted up that the city was abandoned, like so many in this part of the world. It was a very moving experience to be there and it was the place that I realized how skilled our guide was, because without Yaman (his name) I could have wandered through those miscellaneous ruins - a foundation from the first city, a gate from the 3rd city, a temple from the last city - and not gotten any impression at all except for mixed ruins. As it was we came out of it with a feeling for all those cities and the people who lived there and the lives they lived in that spot for more than 30 centuries.

And we went to Knossos on Crete, which was abandoned about 1,500 BCE (perhaps because of the explosion of the volcano on Santorini, which we also visited) and saw a completely different civilization, who used wood for their columns instead of stone and painted them deep red and black and had an art that was different from anything else that we saw. And for the centuries following, we saw Greek and Roman buildings aplenty, many different places, many different styles, so many centuries while time flowed on.

To start in Istanbul was to have a mini tour of a lot of those centuries. We saw there a vibrant 21st century city on the move, and breathtaking ancient mosques filled with exquisite tile work, and cruised up and down the Bosphorus, seeing the land and the city and we explored what is arguably the greatest church in the history of Christianity, the Hagia Sophia, where the dome seems to float on light and to be held up by the Holy Spirit rather than by the pillars on which it rests. It was from this place that Russian envoys, looking for a religion to embrace, returned to their homeland and reported of that church that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth."

To our west (Turkey) we saw many of the cities where Christianity took its form and shape, including Ephesus, which revels in the title of "The Best Excavated City on Earth", and to our east (Greece) we saw Delphi, spiritual home of the Greek nation for many centuries, which still clings to the sides of an almost vertical mountain, and Thessalonikki, which preserves its very ancient Christian Churches, many of which have 7th and 8th century mosaics, created when the churches were already old.

We saw excavations done exactly the way they are "supposed to be", most especially in Ephesus, and there we wandered through the most recent example of this work - a hillside that contained several 2nd and 3rd century "condos" - homes of some of the wealthy Ephesians, terraced into a hillside. The mosaics and frescoes and walls and foundations have been left in place, just as they were, and a skillfully constructed walkway has been built through and above the houses, so that you can explore the whole neighborhood but not disturb it. We also saw the great theater, seating, so they say, 25,000 people where the crowd wanted to tear the Apostle Paul to pieces and shouted for hours on end: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" (see the Acts of the Apostles for the story).

We also saw excavations that defied all the rules, especially Sardis. "The Rules" specify that you aren't supposed to reconstruct excavated ruins, except perhaps to set up a column or two, because your ideas of how the site might have been could destroy evidence of what it was actually like. And you never, never, never are supposed to set out on a major reconstruction project, especially if it has to use modern materials to fill in the gaps. But the people in charge of Sardis have made several major reconstructions and all I know is that when I wandered through the immensity of those Roman walls and arches and looked up at the facades of that columned hall I felt like I knew something about those cities and what it was like to be in them that I had never imagined before. And they've restored much of a splendid synagogue and left the floor mosaics in place so you can actually walk on them, like people did at the time, so I could feel with my feet what the city was like, which I had never felt before. And when we got to the huge Temple of Artemis, which really isn't much restored, I could still feel the place and have some experience of it and carry that experience to Ephesus, where the famed Temple was destroyed by the Christians centuries later to make the Church of St John the Evangelist (which incidentally was the largest church in the world at the time.)

And we ate fresh-from-the-sea octopus and shrimp in Santorini, and meses at any number of places in Turkey (we would call them 'appetizers' - a selection of vegetables, mostly cooked, served with a variety of olive oil-based sauces) and organically raised lamb on the farm in Crete where it was raised, followed by a dessert of freshly made yogurt with toasted nuts and honey.

And we saw Thermopylae, which I've always heard of and knew nothing about, and places called Priene and Stilida and Vergina, which I never even heard of.

Everyone wants to know what the highlight was. What an impossible request! Well, if pushed I guess that really has to be two consecutive evenings. The first was in Ephesus. When we had done seeing the site, we were served a superb banquet on the terrace in front of the Library of Celsus, which is in the center of the city, and as the evening darkened all the of columns and walls of that fabled city were lit with spotlights and candles and a string quartet from the Izmir Philharmonic Orchestra played. And then at the end of the meal, just to send it over the emotional edge, all of us who had ever sung in the Cornell Glee Club (which I did for 4 years) were called forward and everyone rose to sing "Far Above Cayuga's Waters" - talk about a cultural clash!

The very next night I sat with Bob, who was the other single man on the trip, and who became a good friend, at a terrace cafe overlooking the sea from Fira - the capitol city of Santorini and built at the peak of the volcanic mountain which composes the island, and watched the sun set over the sea and then saw the lights of the city come slowly on as the evening darkened and the moon rose high over the Aegean. As they say, it doesn't get much better than this.

That's enough for one week. You get the idea. And lots of other stuff happened, too, which will come later. I haven't even begun to talk about the people stuff, which was a whole other dimension. I'll unfold some of that stuff as it unfolds in me.