So - for us this is a major week. This week (on Saturday, in fact) we will elect a new Superior for the Order of the Holy Cross.
And what, you may ask, is a Superior? Or, for that matter, what is the Order of the Holy Cross? I know that some of the readers of this column know all about this, but I also know that a good number don't. On the theory that the life and ordering of a monastic community are of some interest to lots of people, I will let you in on the private part of our life this week.
The Order of the Holy Cross is a monastic community with 5 monasteries - one in Santa Barbara, California, USA, one in Berkeley, California, USA (in the process of being closed), one in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and one in Grahamstown, South Africa, in addition, of course, to the Monastery here in West Park. In our system, the Superior is the chief executive and pastoral officer of the community. He lives in one of the houses of the Order, but he chooses which one.
The present Superior lives here at West Park, his immediate predecessor lived in Santa Barbara, and the one before him lived in Manhattan (where we had a monastery at the time) and then in Berkeley. He visits every house of the Order each year on a sort of tour of inspection, to make sure all is going well spiritually, physically and financially. He presides at the Clothings of Novices and the ceremonies that admit men to annual vows and to the life vow. He presides at funerals. He counsels and advises. He presides at our annual Chapter (the business meetings of the Order). He provides general leadership and visioning. He's the CEO, more or less.
The Superior's term of office is 6 years the first time he is elected, and should he be reelected at any point, he would then have terms of 3 years each. He appoints all of the other officers of the Order, myself included, though he normally consults with a house before appointing its Prior. All of those appointed to office are appointed for 3 years, and their terms expire half-way through his 6 year term, and again at the end of his term. So all of us in leadership are going out of office.
In short, this is a Big Deal. Everybody's life is about to change, to some degree or other.
So we mark this occasion with appropriately solemn ceremonies and procedures. Today and tomorrow the brothers from the other monasteries will be arriving here. We will start our week with discussions. For the past six months we have been engaged in a process which is essentially a nomination of candidates and of identifying issues that are likely to be of concern during the next Superior's term, and we will meet in large and small groups to talk about these issues. We will also discuss with the candidates what their ideas are and how they feel about the issues we have identified, as well as what they perceive to be their own strengths and weaknesses. When we have had plenty of time for discussion, we draw our time of talking to a close and on Friday we have a day of silence - of retreat. On Friday we think, we pray, we consider. And we give God a chance to work with the great mixture of things that has been stirred up in the days preceding.
On Saturday morning we assemble in our Monastery Church. We are seated in precedence - that is, in the order in which we entered the community, beginning with the eldest and going down to the most recently admitted novice. We start with prayer and then we begin the election. Each member of the Order, beginning with the eldest, goes from his seat to a side chapel where the ballots are waiting. He marks his ballot, indicating the candidate of his choice, and then he takes his ballot and lays it on the central altar of the Church and the next brother goes and marks his ballot. When everyone who is in life vows has voted, the ballots are taken to another room and counted by brothers who either are not in life vows or at least are not candidates for election. They then bring in the result of the balloting and announce it. If no one has received a majority of the votes another ballot is taken, and this goes on until there is an election.
In my years in the order there have never been more than 3 ballots needed, and this is just as well. I have heard stories of years in which the election was very closely contested and the ballots went on and on. A ceremonial election such as we have is profoundly moving on the first ballot. It is, of course, rather less so on the second ballot and even less than that if it goes on. Apparently the whole process gets extremely tedious if it has to go on and on. There may be wisdom here, of course. If the process gets too tiresome, it tends to force some sort of movement towards a decision, just to get the whole thing over, so it isn't a bad way to have it organized.
After the election is announced there is time for celebration and congratulating the newly elected Superior. Then the process of choosing and appointing new officers begins. During the course of the week we have also elected our Council - a group of five brothers who advise the Superior and whose permission is needed for most actions he wants to take. So the newly-elected Superior begins his meetings with the Council and that goes on until all of the needed appointments have been made and any issues that need immediate decision are dealt with. And then we begin living under new leadership.
Of course, one of the things we deal with during this week is the reality of not knowing what things are going to look like by next week and of living with the anxiety of a transition like this. Who will be the Prior of this monastery - and of all of our monasteries - by next week? If there are new appointees, who will do the work they have been doing? Who may need to move from house to house? Who will have new responsibilities? Who will suddenly have no responsibilities?
Everyone's life will change to some extent, and some will change a lot - certainly that of the new Superior, for one. All of us wait in the silence of our retreat day, and in the days afterwards, to see what the new order will look like and where our place in it will be. There's a certain amount of chaos in our feelings, and in the workings of the Order, and we wait for God's hand to move over this chaos. "Over the chaos of the empty waters, hovered the Spirit bringing forth creation" is the hymn we sing at Vespers every Sunday evening, commemorating the Creation of the world and also of the changes of our lives. It is this Spirit whose presence we seek during this week and with whom we try to cooperate in the living of this transition in our corporate life. We are caught up in the Biblical story of the creation of the world, as God - and we - recreate and reorder our lives for the next 6 years.
Next Sunday we will still be meeting. But I'll slip in a little note, at least, to let you know what has happened - or as much of it as we know by that point.