Sunday, March 30, 2008

The River Flows......................

A Zen Master whom I knew for a while used to say that some days "the River flows in a different direction than we expect". I got that today.

This morning in the shower I saw a scab on my arm that wasn't there the last time I looked. But it wasn't hard enough to be a scab. When I looked closely it was a big, fat tick busy enjoying himself (or herself) on my blood. I've had Lyme Disease once, and I don't want to do that again. The antibiotics dealt with it fine, but my ankles and knees were in pain for months afterwards, and my mobility was really limited.

So off to the phone and my doctor's answering service. The PA who responded to my page said three weeks of antibiotics (and a probiotic as well, to keep my intestines from getting very cranky). He would phone in the prescription.

So I went to breakfast and mass and then off to the Pharmacy where the prescription was waiting. So I thought. Oh yes, it was there - had been there since 8 am. But nothing had been done about it, and it was an hour and a quarter before they could produce the drug. Then off to the Natural Food Store for the probiotic, only that store was closed for Sunday so I had to go to another town to find an open one. I got back 10 minutes late for lunch.

And now I have to leave for Connecticut where friends are waiting for me. So this is what you get from me this week. Some times the River flows in another direction. I hope that strikes you as a worthy spiritual observation, because it's what I have to offer today.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


So, it's Easter Day, and I live in a monastery. What is there to talk about except what has been happening during Holy Week? I'll offer you what I have this morning - a collage of memories from the Great Three Days.

The most pointed memories of this week come from Thursday. This is because the ceremony is new to us. We have moved almost all of it into our Refectory (Dining Room), so we have the Foot-Washing, our evening meal and a simple informal Eucharist around the tables. It's very different from a High Mass in the Church: it's simpler, more informal and more intimate. We like it a lot.

Early in the meal I turned around to get some page of the Liturgy that I needed and there was the full moon - the Paschal Moon - rising over the River. I stopped and looked at it for a while. To my left was a young woman whom we have known, along with all of her family, for many years, and she said quietly: "One of my earliest memories is of seeing the full moon through that window." And I thought: "Oh, my." I have been here for a lot of years, but I was a well-formed adult when I came here. I just thought for a while what it would be like to have always had this place in your consciousness. What does it mean to a life if one of the first things you remember is the moon through the Monastery window? I had a moment of very deep gratitude for being able to carry someone through life like that.

The foot washing was quite wonderful, as it always is. For me it is a tender moment that I am always grateful for, a chance to act out for all to see what it is like to reverse my role from authority to servant. I cherish the moment when I take those feet and bathe them - feet that belong to my brothers, to friends, to guests that I have known for years, and to people I have never met. It's a moment of remarkable intimacy.

The supper was pleasant; simple and Middle Eastern-ish, and with good conversation. The Eucharist was simple. On this particular occasion the celebrant doesn't give Communion to each person, the bread and the wine are passed from person to person around the tables. We feed each other with the body and blood of our Savior. Communion transformed the atmosphere of the whole ceremony. As we came towards the end of feeding each other, I all of a sudden realized that the light cheeriness had gone. Suddenly there was something I can only describe as a deep Presence in the room. It was in us and it was beyond us at the same time. It was powerful. Once again, the Next World had broken through into this one.

After the meal and the Eucharist were ended we went in the dark to the Church where several of the brothers slowly and formally stripped the Church of all its decoration. The rugs came out, all of the candles were blown out and removed. The altar cloth went, the sacrament had already disappeared from the Tabernacle, all of the icons on the walls were covered. Everything that says "this is a place that living people use" was taken away. We were left with a cavernous and nearly empty space. It is an experience of desolation, a stripping that is both symbolic and deep. After it was over, the congregation didn't move. The silence was profound. It felt like everyone was stunned. They probably were. An hour later there were still a dozen people in the church, as still as statues.

Then we watched through the night. This year we kept the All-Night Vigil in a room by the front door. We have usually used the Crypt under the Church, which is a wonderful place for the Watch, but this year the heat isn't functioning down there so we needed an alternative spot. I never even thought about one of the great changes that made: one of our friends who is wheel-chair bound has not been able to take part in the Vigil for many years because of stairs. This year she could. I kept the Watch between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. and spent a good deal of the time in gratitude for what our accessibility project has made possible.

The Adoration of the Cross; once again, this is where I get choked up. That great long line of people coming to the foot of the Cross. All those people, so many of whose lives I have shared for a long time, coming to our plain wooden cross to kneel or to stand before it, to kiss it or to touch it or to press it to their heads, or even, in one case, to wrap themselves around it. How can one do that with such a symbol? How can one not do it?

The reading of St John's Passion: we have six people scattered around the Church who take the roles of the people in the Bible story of Christ's death. The old, familiar story, the details unfolding little by little once again. People shouting: "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!", and then pausing ever so slightly as it strikes them what they have just said.

The quiet of the day. It doesn't seem right to talk much on Good Friday.

And, of course, EASTER MORNING. The place was packed, just like Christmas. But this is a completely different crowd from Christmas. The Christmas midnight mass attracts a huge variety of people, many of whom will not be found in a church until the next Christmas. We are one of the places in this county where such people feel comfortable and know they will be welcomed. It's a great ministry.

But no one with a passing interest in religion gets up to be here at 5:45 a.m. on Easter. This crowd are the core believers: the ones who know that liturgy truly changes your life and come here to be changed. We lit the fire, we listened to all the good old stories from the Hebrew scriptures - the Creation, the Flood, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Dead Sea,the Valley of Dry Bones. And as the stories ended the sun rose over the hills beyond the River and we paused for a moment and gazed at that ancient and primary symbol of the Resurrection of Christ - the rising sun (or Son, as some of the ancient texts have it).

When we renew our Baptismal vows we bless a large bowl of water and we all get to splash in it, and of course some of us are more vigorous splashers than others. My sharpest memory of the Vigil is the feel of cold water over my head, refreshing me, and reminding me of that big tank I was baptised in more than 50 years ago.

And we rang bells, and we shouted "Christ is Risen" and we sang "Jesus Christ is Risen Today". And we went to breakfast, everyone full of joy, every one with their own memories of these three days, everyone changed in their own way. These are the most powerful three days in the year around here, and it is such a privilege to share them with all of those who come to be touched and transformed along with us.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

3rd Thoughts on the Present Moment

Last week's post on the Present Moment and our Flood had a particular slant - at least for me. The basic assumption underlying that bit of reflection was that it is the unpredictable and difficult, even painful, events of life that pull you away from living in the present. True enough, as far as it goes, but some things have happened this week that have made me look at the other side of this particular dilemma.

To begin with, there is a sense in which I was, in fact, really focused on the present moment while I stood there watching rain water pour into the Church and soak into our hardwood floors. Standing there with mop and cloths, I had to be completely present to what the water was going to do next. I wasn't having any spiritual reflections, but I was certainly right there. And I watched this process with anger and exasperation and some grief, and I was completely aware of the emotions flowing through me, even though I wasn't really liking them.

It makes me think that I need to broaden my notion of what Awareness is, not to mention what Spirituality is. But is this not related to the power that some people find in difficult and dangerous tasks? I'm thinking of firefighting, and soldiering and EMS work to start with. These tasks require complete engagement and permit no drifting away. A moment's carelessness with our thought processes could mean the difference between life and death for them or for someone in their care. That kind of task requires a particular rootedness in the present moment. And when people who love doing these things talk about them, they often speak of an expanded sense of life, which certainly seems related to the spiritual dimension of things.

I was also aware this week of a quite different issue here, and that is the way in which pleasant stuff, or the memory of pleasant stuff, drags us away from the present moment. The Buddha, in fact, said that it was the pleasant things that were much more difficult to deal with than the unpleasant ones, because there is not much danger that we will want painful stuff to occupy our attention continuously, but there is a considerable risk that we will use pleasant experiences to insulate ourselves from what is going on around us.

I met this situation on Wednesday. This is a big week for me; yesterday was my 70th birthday. So of course there has been and will continue to be some celebrating. One of the big pieces of the celebration is going to be a trip: this summer I will be taking a journey to Greece and Turkey with some friends, and it is going to be a splendid time. On Wednesday two things about the trip happened. The first was that, after 6 months of poking, prodding, writing, calling, emailing, etc., I finally got official notification that I can be provided with gluten-free meals, which is a big part of knowing I can do this trip safely. So with one small email, the whole journey suddenly became more real. Then hard on the heels of that, I got in the mail a detailed itinerary of the journey, complete with photographs and enticing descriptions.

And I was off. I was not here at all, I was in the Aegean. I lived in next summer for quite a while and savored every instant of it. I got particularly aware of that on Wednesday night, because I went to my meditation group, and I spent the 45 minutes of our Sitting lost in ruminations of the coming travel delights. And this sort of distraction had, I discovered, a power that painful stuff doesn't usually have. I wasn't even slightly interested in the present moment, and not because I didn't want to be, either. I was just powerless before the distractive power of these rapturous feelings. I couldn't bring myself to the present, no matter how I tried, and I didn't even try very hard because I couldn't even manage to want to. I was gone. And I was delighted to be gone.

I've had some other moments, too. Reminiscing about the birthday dinner that our chef Edward fixed was another one. He is an artist in what he does, and his careful attention to the combination of flavors and foods in that meal made it a really grand experience that I've lived over again more than once. And more than once I lived it while I thought I should be doing something more related to the moment I was actually in. And there were other moments I was aware of chasing after the pleasant memories rather than being where I was.

Is this really such a problem? Shouldn't I be eagerly anticipating my trip. And what's wrong with grateful memories for a wonderful celebratory meal?

On the face of it, nothing is wrong with that. It's a wonderful part of life, and I am deliberately engaging in anticipating my journey, and in deepening my gratitude for Edward and his gifts. But there is an addictive edge here, too, and I met that edge very clearly on Wednesday evening when, not only did I not come back to the present from my pleasant reveries, I couldn't even make myself want to come back. My willingness to be present to my life was completely hijacked by the pleasure of memory and expectation.

Is this serious? Not this particular experience, no. We all laughed about it when I spoke to the meditation group about what was happening to me, and Jose, the teacher, spoke helpfully and wisely about the sorts of pleasure involved and the deeper and more subtle pleasure to be found in being where I am instead of where I am not. It was a learning experience.

But it is also true that this country is in serious economic straits right now because of a similar attraction - the attraction of the very pleasant fantasies of the easy money to be made in the housing market, to the detriment of our ability to pay attention to all the very clear warning signs that were there for a long time before the housing and mortgage bubble burst. People involved in Alcoholics Anonymous know this dynamic very, very well, and also know the ruin it can cause when pleasurable fantasy replaces the demands of the present moment.

I don't feel like moralizing about all of this. I am just saying what I have experienced this week. I watched my mind play its games and watched the results in my life, and my knowledge of my task in living is now larger than it was when I wrote my reflection last week. I'm no less involved with the recall of the pleasant moments of my life. But my conviction of the importance of living in the moment that I have right now is deeper than it was one week ago.

And after all, if I'm involved in spiritual exploration I have to hold at the center of my pilgrimage that it is the present moment where God lives. God isn't really found in my fantasy recalls, God is found where I am. So that really is the point of it all, anyway. I'd better be where I am.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

2nd Thoughts on the Present Moment

The Power of the Present Moment is the current remedy for a whole list of ills, most especially stress. Slow down, notice what's in front of your nose. Hear the sounds of this moment, smell the scents that you're not noticing, notice the songs of the birds, the shapes of the clouds, the sensations of your body. Bring yourself to the present and the power of many of your inner conflicts will melt away.

Yes. I know that. I teach it. It practice it. I get great benefit from it.

But what if the present moment is a flood?

Tuesday night it started to rain here, and it rained hard most of the night. I delighted in the Present Moment while I laid in bed, because I love the sound of rain on a roof, and have ever since I was a child and we lived in a house with a metal roof. I lay there, warm and toasty under my comforter while the storm raged outside, and I drifted off to sleep feeling peaceful.

Wednesday morning I came into the Church just before Matins to find nearly the whole community in a group by the outside door of the Church, wielding mops and towels and brooms. Just outside the door was an enormous pool of water and it had reached the bottom of the door and was streaming through. There was a pool not only outside but inside as well, and it had been lying there for who knows now many hours on the hardwood floor, soaking and warping it. (For those of you who know us well - no - it didn't reach as far as the new floor in the body of the Church).

The presenting problem seemed to be that in the recent storms the man who plows the snow had pushed the drifts so that they covered the drains outside the church door, and they were covered with about 4 feet of partly melted snow and ice. So Scott went out into the storm with a large shovel to uncover the drains, and the rest of us mopped and toweled the best we could and then settled down to say Matins - after which we mopped again.

The rain stopped, the sun came out. We had a beautiful day. And if part of our floor is showing significant warping, at least the Present Moment was beautiful and restful. This was dampened somewhat by the discovery that the monastery roof had leaked all over the elevator and shorted out the control board. The elderly brothers now can't get from floor to floor and it will probably cost $1,000 to fix. Who knows what the damage to the floors was or what it will take to repair them.

Saturday morning the rain started again. I could feel the tension building between my shoulders. By the afternoon the rain was torrential and it went on and on. The work Scott did on the drains carried us for quite a while and then in mid-afternoon, the pool redeveloped. We had built a dike of towels around the bottom of the door, but that held only for so long, and then the water began to stream in again. Off I went to find the wet/dry vacuum and the mop and the bucket, and an extension cord to connect the vacuum to an outlet that was safely out of the water. And off Scott went into the teeth of the storm to uncover some more of the drains. This time we were prompt enough. Charles and I mopped and vacuumed and Scott dug through the snow drifts and in an hour the pool in front of the door began to go down and we were dry (or at least merely damp) again.

And this morning it is clear and sunny and bright. The Present Moment is back in all its loveliness.

I don't want to make too much of this. We weren't in great danger, our lives were not threatened, and many of the large number of guests in the house never even knew anything was going on. But there still is an issue here: what is the Power of the Present Moment when the present moment is difficult, dangerous or painful? I feel the touch of God's Spirit often enough in that Church. Why should I not sense the same power and comfort in the midst of a flood?

This is just one instance of how we all - myself included - tend to use spirituality, if we're not careful. We cultivate the pleasant, uplifting, revealing moments, and very subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) push the not so pleasant moments back out of the way. It's a perfectly natural reaction, and one that all of the spiritual masters warn against. Spirituality is not supposed to be a method for eliminating half of human experience.

So if, in retrospect, I go back to that moment, what can I recover? What was the Present Moment, if I had been willing to be there? Well, there was a lot of frantic dashing about, some of which was useful and some of which was merely using up excess energy. There was the feeling of tension and anxiety. There was some feeling of hopelessness while the powers of nature roared outside our door and we couldn't do anything about it. And, if I'm right, there was a rather cosmic chuckle behind things at the thought that we could build a Church on this hillside and forever escape the powers that govern the law that says that water flows downhill. And there is also that freedom that does come with practicing the present moment: the sense that the best and most lasting things about life are behind and beyond and within all that is going on in this present moment. The present moment in fact can liberate or bind us, and sometimes it does both. But, as the old hymn says: "Underneath are the everlasting arms."

And of course I have had the experience, as many of you have had as well, of turning to experience parts of my reality that I have found so painful and difficult that I have shoved them away out of awareness. And of course it was painful, sometimes extremely so, but I have found liberation in facing that stuff at last, and finding that life is larger and more embracing than even the most difficult of my inner hidden stuff. The Power of the Present Moment is right there, in the midst of the worst of it. It's harder to practice. Sometimes it's a great deal harder, and feels nearly impossible. But with persistence and faith it is possible.

If you have experience of staying with the present moment in difficult situations, even small ones, and if you feel like sharing your experience, I expect we will all benefit.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Monk(s) and the College Student(s)

There are few places in our aggressively secular society that are quite so secular as college and university campuses these days. The great tradition of Christian scholarship and Christian Humanism in an academic context is rather in eclipse right now. At least this is so as far as public knowledge goes, though both of those traditions continue to have their influence here and there. But even if religions other than Christianity have a certain popularity at the present time in academic circles, it isn't always easy for those in either faculty or student bodies to be a publicly professing Christian.

However, the recent emphasis in the Episcopal Church and in other Christian bodies on ministry within higher education is having some effect, and it isn't until I sit down and reckon the groups who come here for retreat or just stop in for the singing of an Office that I realize how much contact we actually do have with that world, and how grateful those people are for it.

This year we have already had retreat groups from Princeton Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Princeton University. A week or so ago a group from Swarthmore College was here. While I was working on the Cornell campus groups from there came to us from time to time and people continue to come from that ministry. The Episcopal Chaplaincy of New York University in Manhattan brings groups regularly for quiet weekends and students from Yale and the Yale Divinity School are regular visitors. In the local area, we have regular contact with student groups from Marist College and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, and a new Episcopal ministry is beginning at the local campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and we will have contact with them through the chaplain, who is a friend of ours and an Associate of Holy Cross. A group of campus chaplains from throughout the Northeast had several days of retreat and conference here recently. Those are just the ones I think of offhand, and there are certainly students from other campuses who come and go without identifying themselves (just this afternoon I learned that several Princeton students were here last weekend).

This is on my mind because this weekend was the annual retreat of the Episcopal Church at Princeton. The Holy Cross/Princeton connection is the oldest and longest enduring one we have between us and the academic world so far as I am aware. It stretches back into the 1920's, and though it has waxed and waned over the years, it is now a strong and vital link. Every January the Princeton Theological Seminary has a retreat here, and this time is valued immensely by the students who come. As these things always do, it goes up and down from year to year, but this year there was a particularly large (about 30 students) and particularly enthusiastic group. What they tell us is that the opportunity to have unstructured time in a spiritual atmosphere is extremely enriching for them, and they really need it.

And this weekend we had the undergrads and graduate students from the University itself. Of course, they are extremely bright. They are also very curious and they follow their curiosity wherever it leads them. When it leads to us, the results are often very rewarding.

Last night after Compline we had a discussion with the group in which they could ask anything they wanted to about our life. After Compline is not my best time. I'm tired. I want my room. I want my bed. I want my novel. I don't want in depth conversations with people. But (sigh) there it was - and I have a long connection with this group and they wanted me to be involved. So at 8 pm off I went to the conference room where we were meeting. At 10 pm we finally had to call a halt. The time flew. The conversation was entirely engrossing. It was a fascinating time, and no matter how I was dragging this morning, I felt privileged to have been there.

They started by asking the usual: "What drew you to this life?" I was struck by the unanimity of the responses of the 3 community members who were there. We didn't talk much about an experience of "call" or of a reasoned gradual approach to getting into the monastery, we all said that, in one way or another, when we got here it felt like home. When the group learned that we were going to be open and honest with them, the questions got more interesting: What do we miss? What does the life develop in us that we never expected? How do we get along? In short, they picked up on the fact that we experience Holy Cross as a place of challenge and growth, and they pushed and proded at that, sometimes expecting startling honesty from us, which we did our best to respond to. It was engrossing and rewarding. And it happened completely without the usual sort of stuff: "Isn't this a waste of time?" "Shouldn't you be involved in the world?" "Don't you want to live a more normal life?" They were willing to take us at face value, and be open to what we had to say about why we are here and why we stay committed to this life.

Over the years I've been involved in dozens of these conversations with college students. It's one of our specialties, and we try to make an opportunity for one of these events for every college group that comes here. Almost always I come away refreshed and renewed; these conversations renew my commitment to my monastic vocation and deepen my joy in the depth of exploration that the students are willing to commit themselves to.

A lot of people would say that the monastery/university connection is a curious and unlikely one. My experience after these years is that it is the most natural thing in the world. It's the meeting of young minds and hearts with the experience of those who have opted for an adventurous approach to living their lives. It seems perfectly natural to them: they may not want to elect this for their own life, but they respect and value what we represent and what we offer.

And my experience tells me that years from now, when I am long gone, some of these people are going to remember last night. They may not remember the details of the questions, but they will remember that they encountered us, and that the encounter was good. And that will be our ongoing ministry to a group of college students, who spent one evening encountering monastic wisdom and discovered that it was worth exploring.

And, oh yes, one other thing this weekend brought was a concert by one of the students of a solo work for cello by Bach, which she presented Sunday morning. It was amazing. She is a musician of unusual maturity and authority. What a gift!