Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wednesday is Coming!

On Wednesday I fly to Istanbul.

That sounds like a sentence to begin a Victorian novel with. Or perhaps something more recent like: "I had a farm in Africa".

But it's true - it really is. After all of the months of planning and anticipation I really do fly to Istanbul on Wednesday. I know it's going to happen, but even though I'm preparing as thoroughly as I can, it's not quite real yet. I suppose that arriving at the Delta terminal at JFK Airport on Wednesday afternoon will bring reality to bear.

It will be a long flight - nearly 11 hours, and since they will only feed us once, I'm going to have to pack food, so my hypoglycemic body will stand a chance of surviving well. As for luggage, I'm going to try to pack lightly and wash as I go along: I practiced my washing techniques yesterday, and they look pretty good. Am I going to take my habit? I haven't decided yet.

The names and places are floating through my mind day and night: Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus. And then, after we've set sail there will be, among others, Troy, Sardis, Thessalonika, Delphi, Ephesos, Santorini, Crete and Milos. It's a wonderful mix of places I have been to and places I have never seen, and that's one reason I chose this particular trip. What more could you ask of a 70th birthday trip?

The leaders of this journey are a philosopher and a geologist - the title of the voyage is "Heaven and Earth in the Ancient Aegean." I've been doing my reading, though less than I would like to have done. I've read a book on the Archeology of Ephesos, and I'm nearly finished with an excellent history of the Byzantine Empire. I will take with me a book on Christianity's emergence in the urban centers of the ancient world. I have even perused some of the Dialogues of Plato, and found them both fascinating and bewildering. I haven't any idea how much of the details of all this reading will survive in my mind, but it has opened up my perception of these places to an extent that surprises me. I feel ready to actually experience the places I will be in a way that I hadn't fully expected.

Am I ready? No, not really. But more than I thought I would be. Now I have to get my Turkish Visa in my passport and make sure of the small things: pen light, pills, do I have my credit card? In the end I'll just have to decide that I've done enough and leave. No, I am not going to take a camera. I've done that, and I decided that I don't want to spend this trip framing pictures - I just want to be there. And I have plenty of experience of how much I actually look at those pictures once I get home.

I will certainly forget something; I always do. No doubt if it's really important I can buy it in Istanbul.

So that's where I am this week. Think of me voyaging through the Eastern Mediterranean for the next couple of weeks, while I'm out of touch. I am of the generation that doesn't feel a need to take a computer or cell phone with me. I want to be out of touch, except in thought and in prayer. In mid-September I'll let you know what it was like.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Peaceful Garden

Our sabbatical time continues. It has been a particularly quiet time this year, partly because there aren't a lot of brothers in the house this summer, and a number of those who are here are on vacation right now. In the course of the early fall that will begin to change, and by mid-October we will be back at our normal strength - about a dozen. In the meantime things are quiet, except for the men who are remodeling the bathrooms in the guesthouse.

This week's sabbatical adventure was a bit farther away - in New York City. I went to spend a few days with Br Adam, who has been the rector of a parish in Spanish Harlem for the past 7 years and who is moving to West Park at the end of this month to become the Novice Master. I have known Adam for a long time, since he was a graduate student at Cornell and I was doing retreats and programs there, back in the 70's. We needed to do some talking about how we want things to be arranged and how things are done here, and we wanted just to have some time to relax together.

We spent one day going to the Chinese Scholars' Garden on Staten Island. I've wanted to see it for a long time, ever since I learned of its existence. Just getting there is a considerable adventure - by subway to the tip of Manhattan, then the Ferry to Staten Island (which, to my surprise is now free! - how much public transportation comes free these days?) and then by bus to Snug Harbor. Snug Harbor was a home for retired sailors for many years and when that institution cease to function it was bought by the City of New York and became a public park, museum, garden, etc.

The Scholars Garden was designed after similar places of respite in Chinese cities. Originally they were for the use of government officials and public servants of high rank. In classic Chinese culture, these people were expected to be 'scholars' - that is, learned men who continued to have an interest in scholarly study while serving as public officials. The garden were places they could go to to refresh their spirits. They were places of beauty in the midst of cities, where one could take a bit of time and meet friends for relaxation and what used to be called "improving conversations", that kept one's academic interests and philosophical skills alive and well.

The Staten Island version is very beautiful indeed. It is an enclosed space whose walls are built to resemble mountains - or at least the spires and peaks that remind the Chinese of mountains - if you have seen Chinese art, especially scroll paintings, you will recognize these shapes. Inside the walls are the sorts of beautiful spaces that classical Chinese (and also Japanese) architects gloried in creating. A path wanders around the perimeter of the walls and there are streams, waterfalls, pools with carp of varied colors, plantings of decorative trees and bushes and many spots to sit and admire the beauty. There are several pavilions made of fragrant woods, and since the garden is just about 10 years old, these structures still perfume their interiors. Each one has several wonderful decorative windows designed to catch particular features of the garden and to frame lovely views. In the pavilions you could meet your friends and enjoy the beauty together and have philosophical conversations. There is a terrace for viewing the moon, and any number of little nooks and crannies that beckon you aside from the path to admire some beautiful planting or just rest for a while.

It is an exquisite place of peace and beauty. Classical Chinese society had just as many difficulties and injustices as any other society, our own included, but it had many fine points as well, and you have to admire a culture that expects its public officials to be people who explore the nature of human existence in beautiful surroundings, and provides those spaces.

The Staten Island garden is a relatively unknown place and the number of people there was small. The atmosphere of peace and recollection is easy to maintain. The ticket-seller suggests that we take at least an hour to see the place and holds out the possibility that we might want to stay all day. I can easily imagine doing that. The only other place like this that I know in New York City is another Chinese scholars' garden in the Metropolitan Museum which has been a place of calm and joy for me for many years, and I have rested my soul there many times over the decades.

We all need an oasis of beauty where we can get away, and it seems to be a pretty basic human need. Early in Holy Cross' history one of our important ministries was summer retreats for poor people, which provided a way to escape the heat of the city for a while and to relax in a setting of green and of loveliness. And Holy Cross is still such a place - it is the garden (sometimes the scholars' garden) that several thousand people come to in the course of each year to refresh the deeper parts of themselves and to talk with other people about the things that are most important. There is nothing optional about having such a place in your life. Without it the spirit withers. It is our privilege to maintain a place where people can realize the completeness of their humanity - where you can come an explore beauty and truth and leave a more complete person. We are here to make such a place available, and we continue to explore how this place can be made available to a greater number of people of all sorts. This offers both peace and beauty to the monks as well, and our ministry to so many different people keeps us alive and vigorous.

Everyone needs to find their scholars' garden. Where is yours?

PS - we finished that day with a really wonderful Indian Dinner and then by seeing 'Gypsy' on Broadway. Quite a sabbatical day!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Relaxed August

(Note: Br Bernard is on vacation at the present time, and he normally provides the link between this blog and the Holy Cross Monastery web page. During the time that link may not always be up to date - it may have an introduction to a post that is out of date. But I will be posting regularly and if you come to this space by the link from the HCM web site, just click on the link and you'll get the most recent post - even if it isn't always described accurately).

We're now in a lovely place in our yearly cycle: the pressure is almost completely off. The retreat is over, and while it is wonderfully quiet and open, it has its own set of demands. Now we are just free to enjoy our place and our time.

We have a relaxed liturgical schedule: Matins, Mass and Vespers each day. Edward, our chef, is away on his vacation, so we are cooking for each other, and we have only one communal meal daily. It's really lovely to provide each other with food, and to see what sorts of things each of us is interested in getting together (most years my contribution is to organize a Chinese take-out evening - there's a quite decent place locally, and the community seems to enjoy this event - at least I usually get inquiries about whether we are going to "do it again this year".) The community is quite gracious in its appreciation of the food that each of us provides, and this is also nourishing for our life together.

Some of us choose to do vacation time during these weeks. Randy has gone to see his family in Texas and will stop in Atlanta on his way home to visit with good friends from the days when he worked as a Youth Leader in that city. Bernard left yesterday to have time with his family in Belgium. So we're smaller, which means quieter, as well as more informal.

And then some of us use this time to do some exploring in the local area. And so it was that on Saturday a small group of us had an expedition that I've wanted to do for several years; we went to see the new museum of contemporary art in Beacon, operated by the Dia Foundation which does all sorts of interesting projects with modern art in this part of the world.

Dia Beacon has to rank as one of the most ambitious and interesting art projects that I have ever seen. It's in an old Nabisco factory (actually it was a printing plant for producing product boxes, I think) and it's huge. The plant itself is an very interesting example of industrial architecture, and belongs to the era when factories were being designed with a more humanistic eye. In this case, the building was quite consciously constructed to be well-lit; it has a multitude of north-facing windows in a sort of clerestory location - up towards the ceiling, and that provides the perfect light for a project such as this museum. The size of the place means that they can concentrate on monumental works to a larger extent that any other museum I have seen. The cost of building a new building of this scope would be prohibitive for most pocket books these days, but here was this lovely old factory just sitting there unused, and wonderful thought has been given as to how the various rooms and spaces could be used for the display of art. Somebody had a really creative eye when they looked at that abandoned building and saw a potential art museum.

For instance, there is a room for a work of Andy Worhal that is called "Shadows". It's a series of panels that are reflections of the same two basic shapes, each panel worked out in different colors and treatments and the panels cover the walls of a huge room. The original work was 124 panels and this room, as sizable it is, only has room for 72 of them, but it's enough to give you the idea, certainly. The amount of space in this room makes it possible just to rest in the center and see these reflections of the basic idea spread out all around you. It's quite unlike anything I have seen in more conventional museum spaces.

There is also a series of "negative sculptures" - essentially holes in the ground - that explore the concept of making sculptures by emptying space instead of filling it up. There are also some very large steel structures that you can explore inside and out, including a spiral one that opens up to a wonderful interior space that none of us wanted to leave once we had gotten in there. And there is much, much more.

We were there for several hours and even then didn't see the whole collection. But we came to the time that we had done as much looking as we were capable of. The works we saw were accessible, not in the sense that you necessarily "understood" what they were about in an intellectual way, but in the sense that they draw out from you a reaction. Being in the presence of this sort of art is fairly demanding emotional work. And after a certain amount of time we were just worn out. But the stuff is compelling enough that after I had decided to quit I came across a couple of more galleries that couldn't be ignored. And still I hadn't seen it all. That's got to be intentional, of course. It means I will get back there. I certainly will. I'm already thinking of friends who I can get to go with me, because I know they will react as deeply to the place as I do.

It's marvelous to have this sort of thing in this part of the Hudson Valley, which has not been much of a cultural mecca, to say the least. But it's a very encouraging sign that there are people who are interesting in feeding the soul in this way, and willing to do what must have been an enormous amount of work (involving an equally large amount of money) to get this project organized. What a gift to have this available to us in our local area. And what a gift that we take the time each year to be fed in this way. It's part of our vocation to explore the depths of the spirit within us, and I have been deepened in that exploration by my day at Dia.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

God Meets Us in the Funniest Places

We ended our retreat yesterday morning, so here I am, fresh from 10 days of silence. I can hear various people either wishing they could do a retreat like that or recoiling in horror from the prospect of 10 days without speaking; people don't usually fall in the middle on this one.

For me it was wonderful. It almost always is. And of course it was also surprising. It almost always is.

At my last post I went on at some length about work and learning to do without work and taking time just to be who I am without finding my identity in work. So where did God meet me during this particular retreat? (.................................................. I'll give you a few seconds to come up with the answer...........................................). The answer, of course, is God met me in work. Is anyone surprised? This sort of thing is only a surprise in the moment. In retrospect it's pretty clear that this is the way God works. God always catches you in the precise way that you aren't expecting.

To be more precise, the retreat surprise this year had to do with my work in the Incense department. I've written before about my involvement in the manufacture and shipping of our incense, and those of you who have been readers that far back will know that even though work in certainly involved in making incense, I don't really experience my involvement there as "work". It's much more of a craft for me; something I can do with loving attention and, hopefully, without a lot of haste. For all of its frequent demands, it is a part of my life that gives me joy, and it teaches me precisely the lessons of Sabbath. It teaches me to step outside of my normal goal orientation and to do something simply for the joy of doing it. And it's also nice when that sort of task produces something that smells good!

What happened was that I found myself reorganizing the work room. Some of what I did I'd had at the back of my mind for a long, long time. The containers in which the frankincense and myrrh are stored are not really adequate for the way I do the work at present, and they have been taking up a lot of space in the middle of the room. As always happens, my procedures have developed around things that just grew over the years and aren't always serving the needs of the present task. Though I haven't been really conscious of it, except at a very low level, the way things were organized was causing me some frustration - not major, just small and constant.

Nor did I go into this reorganization very consciously, it just developed. It started with myrrh. I needed to sift some myrrh. Myrrh comes in 50 pound sacks and the pieces are of all sizes from particles that are like dust to chunks the size of a baseball or larger. I can't use the larger ones unless they are broken down, so I have to sift the 50 pound lots to get the usable pieces separated from the pieces that aren't usable and need further processing. I had let this task go until I was completely out. I needed to make a batch of the blend called St Augustine (the one made with rose perfume oil) and I couldn't do it without getting some myrrh ready.

So there I was sifting. It takes an hour or so to get through the batch and it isn't a very absorbing task. It's just something that needs to be done. So as I sifted, my mind fell to considering what to do with the finished product. The barrel that I have been keeping it in is really far too large, and I've known that for quite a while. I don't remember why I've been using that container; probably it's because there was one available since the myrrh used to come in those barrels. Now it comes in mesh sacks. We also used to use considerably more of it, but many people find the bitter astringent scent of it difficult so I have gradually reduced the amount we use in our blends to the point where the complaining stopped, and we now use about a quarter of the amount that we originally did. So I don't really need to use a big barrel to store it in now. I looked around the room and there was a much smaller plastic container - a blanket box, actually - and it would do the job perfectly. In fact it would go on a shelf and didn't need to be in the middle of the floor.

You can take the story from here. The myrrh got sifted and repackaged and relocated and that started a process. Next came the frankincense. It comes in 100 pound sacks, but did they need to sit in the middle of the room? No, actually. And the sandalwood powder we use as a drying agent also really needed a much smaller container and could be stored on a shelf. By now I was in the middle of a major reorganization project.

The interesting thing about this whole process was how much fun it was. I loved figuring out all the details, I loved the work of getting it organized, I especially love the result. The work room is now roomier and feels lighter. There's a spaciousness to it, and it's organized so that it really facilitates the job of blending the incense instead of having to be worked around. None of it was anything I had planned to do. I had to say goodbye to some of the stuff I was planning to do. Something else had come along.

And the point of this story? Part way through this project I realized that something deeper was going on than housecleaning. I might easily have passed over this without even noticing, but I was in retreat and a lot of what I was doing centered around noticing. And what happened for me was that I stumbled a cross a connection between my craft and my spirituality. I actually got it, this time.

It has to do with creativity. It's an easy thing to theorize about. Scripture portrays God as a creator; that's how the Bible starts, and both Hebrew and Christian scripture repeats over and over again that the deep nature of God is to be a creator. And here was I, engaged willy nilly in this project that was at its base a creative task. I had been ruminating for a long time about the unsatisfactory nature of my work room, and my mind had been doing some reorganizing down there on a level where I wasn't noticing, and given the silence and the time it finally came together, and here I was engaged in this very satisfying creative task.

Now I'm made in God's image, right? Certainly that's pretty fundamental Christian stuff. But fundamental or not, it often remains pretty theoretical. I'm made in God's image. Yep. On to the next topic. But what does that mean at the level at which I engage with my spiritual journey? Well, what I stumbled over in the course of this retreat was that when I am connected to my creativity I am connected to God. That intuitive link which rests in my heart and has its roots in the deeper part of my being got activated in a way that finally became known to me. When I am creative I am acting out of God's image that lives at the base of my own being. God laid a hand on this project and on me while I was completing it. It was a very different way of meeting God than I had thought I would have in this retreat, and I am grateful to have been awake enough to have noticed it. Often I'm not.

What about you? Where are those creative moments for you? And can you connect the joy of those moments with the presence of the Spirit which lives at your center? What are your projects? Cooking? Knitting? Basketball? Service projects? Figuring out how to be more loving in a relationship? The possibilities are as wide as your life. The thing to awaken to is that God is sitting down there at the base of it all, plotting to get you creatively involved with your life. And if you look closely enough you can catch God at work there. You really can connect with the divine who dwells at your center. (To look for it you start at the area of your stomach. Your body is one of the chief agents of revelation here.)

And I can't let this post go without mentioning last night. Many of the community took a while to sit together after supper on one of the porches that overlooks the river. It had been a showery day and obviously the air was full of rain drops because suddenly we were looking at the most intensely brilliant rainbow that I have seen in a long, long time. It was complete from end to end and had a doubled companion at each end. It was a wonderful benediction on our time of retreat and a promise of the sabbath time that we have in the next three weeks. And I actually did remember what the Bible story tells us to remember when we see a rainbow - that God has hung up his bow in the sky. God has decided to move from being a warrior figure to being a lover of the human race, and God's bow is the promise of the fulfillment of that transformation in our hearts.