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!

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