Sunday, January 6, 2008

When Empty is not Empty

Everything here is now quite different from the past several weeks. On New Year’s Day we finished our big Advent/Christmas push and closed the Guesthouse for two weeks, as we do each year. Now it is just us. We also have a reduced liturgical schedule so there is more open space in the course of each day than there usually is.

Having this set of buildings all to ourselves is very different from the way we live most of the time. It seems, well, vast. I’ve been told by those who delight in measurement that this set of buildings is 1/10 of a mile long. What I do know is that it accommodates our community and 50 guests without trouble. Now there is just us – 14 of us, to be exact, and soon to be less, as various community members take short vacations or other trips.

Having the Guesthouse closed also changes nearly every experience of the day. Many communities that run large guesthouses separate themselves from the guests to a good degree, but we don’t. With the exception of Mondays, when we are usually closed, there are always people in the Monastery Church praying with us, people in the common spaces talking with us, people in the conference rooms conferring with us, people in the refectory eating with us. The guests are a major part of the fabric of our lives, and this is a big part of the ministry of this place. It gives the place its feel. Now it feels completely different.

During this time a few people from the neighborhood will occasionally stop by for one of the Offices, and 5 people were here to celebrate Epiphany Mass with us this morning. Only very close friends will be here for a meal, but that will happen now and then. Mostly, though, it’s us. The melodies of Gregorian Chant fill a largely empty church. The common rooms have no people in them. Meals are often much more spacious: the chef is on vacation so we cook for each other, and we often spend much longer over a meal, relaxing and talking with each other.

Of course, the feeling of everything changes during this time. A major dimension of it for me is actually feeling how exhausting the Christmas time has been. Yes, we have a measured and simple approach to Advent, about which I have been writing, and yes, we have years of experience in how to take care of ourselves in a situation like this. But it is still an American Christmas, and this time of guests coming and going for two weeks with no break for us has worn out almost all of us. We need to sleep; we need to be quiet; we need a less demanding schedule. I feel in my bones just how much I need this time.

The pace of work is different, too. There’s time to spend doing things in the incense workshop that have been neglected, and building up the stores of incense after the Christmas rush. There is a lot of desk work connected with the end of the year and the financial part of the year-end time. There are lots (and I do mean lots) of thank-you’s to be written and end of the year notes to be acknowledged and responded to. There’s not a lot of leisure to this time, but it has a different pace and a different focus.

And of course, one of the things that can’t be ignored is that much of the place is empty.

And what is empty like? Well, first of all, there’s a heck of a lot of space that isn’t filled, so it resonates and echoes. And there are people and occasions that I miss. Right now I’m relieved that we have the place to ourselves, but I know that by the middle of the month when we open again I’ll be glad that time has come. I will look forward to the return of our guests.

But this week I’ve been listening to the emptiness and reflecting on what I’m noticing and what I seem to see is that this emptiness isn’t – well, it isn’t empty. When there are so few people around it is a lot easier to really notice, an immerse myself in, the fullness that fills the people-less halls.

I notice it most clearly when I go into our Church, (and I have to note that I notice it not only when it is empty but also when it is full of people.) Our Church is narrow and high, and it is so high that it always has a cavernous dimension. Lots of empty space there. But that space never feels empty to me. There is a presence there. And to me it’s one of the most noticeable things about this place. That presence penetrates all of our space: it penetrates all of our lives. When the place empties out like it does in early January each year, it is easier to notice that presence in every part of our buildings. Fr. James Hungtington, our founder, talked about “the quiet that ever broods within our walls” and I hear the same brooding quiet that he did. Over the decades the silence in which that brooding flourishes, and the presence that lives within that silence, has soaked into the plaster and between the stones. It has its own voice. It is not unusual for people who have never been here to encounter this particular aspect of this place on their way down the driveway on their first visit. They get about halfway down the drive when they first think: "Whoa." They may not know what it is at first, but they notice it. And they tell us about it, either at the time or years later. What is this that lives here in the emptiness and the spaces? I guess its years and years of prayer.

Once when someone asked me what it was like during these times I said: “It’s just us and the angels”. I wouldn’t want to push that too far, but it does express something of what I experience in this time and ultimately what monasteries are for. We are here to be a place where we have opened to another dimension of human life. We are one of what the Celts call “the thin places”, where the division between the physical and the spiritual almost doesn’t hold. It’s why I never enter our Church without feeling moved and it’s part of why I have wanted to be here for more than 4 decades. It’s a big part of why a couple of thousand guests come here each year. Many, many people have found that when they step into our space they step into a space that is full of God. And they don’t just believe it; they feel it.

Me too. In this first two weeks of January our emptiness isn't just empty. Not at all. What a privilege to live with the fullness of this time.

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