Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Experience

On Friday we began this year's offering of the program called Benedictine Experience. It's a program that offers people the opportunity to come to Holy Cross and live the life of a Benedictine monk for eight days. They work and play and relax with us, and they reflect with us on their experience - and, of course, a big part of that is thinking about what all this might mean when they get home after the program is over.

Benedictine Experience was invented by our friend Esther deWaal, the author, when she was still in Canterbury, and the very first BE (as we call them) to be offered in an actual Benedictine monastery was here at Holy Cross, back in the mid-1980's. Since then we have offered this experience each year, with the exception of our Centennial year a few years ago, because we were celebrating that. Twenty-eight years is an extraordinarily long life-time for a program.

Each year we have some 'Benedictine groupies' who come (and some years ago they invented the nickname "monk camp" for the BE) and make this week their annual retreat. Each year there are new people, of all ages, and quite a mixture of social status, race and even nationality. Some people who come to Holy Cross to experience the Benedictine Life decide they really want this life for themselves on a permanent basis and are now brothers in our community. Some years the group is large (I think 27 is the most we have had) and some years it's small (6-8) but on it goes. This year the group is small and all but one are men, which is very unusual. Two of them come from outside the United States. More than half are priests. One of them was a member of the very first Benedictine Experience at Holy Cross all those years ago. So all of this makes for a different group than the usual one. For one thing, they talk a lot more, and they are comfortable communicating in groups.

Of course, the main thing the group does is to follow our liturgical schedule. They have seats in the Church that are arranged choir-wise, facing each other, like the monks' seats in Choir. They take turns reading the lessons at Matins and at Vespers (which produces the usual crises when there are Hebrew or Greek words to be pronounced). They get some idea what it is to live a life that is framed by prayer, and this is one of the chief reasons that they come.

But all of the rest of the elements of our life are there as well. Each morning they spend time in meditation together, with instructional sessions led by one of the brothers. Then there is a class, which is always on some aspect of the Benedictine life, and this year is about the Rule of Benedict and how it applies to our - and to their - life. During the afternoons they do manual work - outside, when the weather permits, and inside at other times. They will typically work in our flower gardens, in the library, in the church and sacristy (applying a coat of oil to our wooden life-sized crucifix in the Church is one of the yearly features), at house cleaning or sometimes in the kitchen. When possible we have them work together in small groups, so they get to know each other as the week goes on.

One day of the week that they are here, they have a 24 hour period of silence, for retreat and prayer and reflection.

At the end of each day they gather with members of the community to reflect on what the day has been like, what joys or difficulties it brought them, and what they may be taking home from this experience. It's in this gathering that we come to know how the Benedictine life has been working on them. Though they don't always report that their experience has been one of uninterrupted joy, it is almost always a creative and satisfying time for them. Last night, one of them said that the thing he valued most was that "this place is alive". That certainly made my heart glad, because that's my experience, too.

Each year I feel that this is one of the best things that we do all year long. It's also one of the most natural things we do. We are just sharing - sharing who we are, how we live, what we think, what our life is like. That is a very natural thing for the members of Holy Cross to do. It also takes quite a large amount of energy. To live this closely with people who aren't an actual part of our community, and to live with the intensity that this week demands uses a lot of our capacities to the full. Also we don't get our usual Monday day off, which interrupts our usual pattern of living, and there is a price to pay for that. When next Saturday comes and they have departed, most of us will be exhausted.

Over the years, Benedictine Experience has spread far and wide. It has especially taken root in this country. There is a group called The Friends of St Benedict, and they sponsor Benedictine Experiences in a number of places in the United States, with a variety of formats. I have conducted a BE for them in North Carolina and next spring I will be doing one in Virginia. Other of our brothers have done these programs in California and in Texas. They are wonderful experiences, and in each place a real community develops as a result of living the Benedictine pattern of life. But we still offer the longest of the BE's, and we do it in the context of the actual living of the Benedictine life in a monastery, and that makes our offering unique.

And BE expresses the overflowing of the Benedictine life that Holy Cross is particularly devoted to. We are always trying to figure out how this life can be offered to others. In BE, and in the Quiet Days that we offer to poor people with AIDS, and in our series of Bach Vespers, and in the retreat we did some time ago for formerly homeless people, and in the space we offer for the Ulster County Mental Health Coalition to come together to reflect on their lives and their work, in the countless parish groups that come here for weekends and in the gatherings with local clergy that meet here, Benedict's "little way" comes alive again and works God's love in this world.

What a nice thing for monks to be doing!

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