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!

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