Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Vision in White

One final post from my Aegean trip. Or at least that's my intention - one never knows.

At the last minute before I left for my trip I put my habit into my suitcase, motivated more than anything by the fact that I was all packed and my suitcase only weighed 30 pounds. I have a light-weight summer habit, and I thought: "Why not?" I had no intention of wearing it on a regular basis during the trip. After all, we don't wear it at home except for worship and for meals on Sundays and feasts. But one never knows what may come up. I did know that we were to have two special dinners on the ship; the Captain's Welcome Dinner at the beginning and the Farewell Dinner at the end. It seemed likely, or at least possible, that I would want to trot it out on one of those occasions.

We had several days in a hotel in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip, so we were 5 days into our adventure before we boarded the Corinthian II. By this time the group who had come for the time in Istanbul (about 45 of us - half the total number who would be on the ship) had gotten to know each other pretty well, and most people knew who I was. If they hadn't met me, the talk had gotten around. The news had spread: There's a Monk Among Us!

The second night out was the Captain's welcoming dinner. And on the first morning there lying on my bed was my invitation to be seated at the Captain's table. This clearly was to be An Occasion. If I was going to wear The Outfit, this was the time.

So I got dressed and made my entrance, right in the middle of the pre-dinner cocktail reception. Now there's no way to walk into a cocktail reception quietly if you're dressed in a white Benedictine habit. You have to endure the reality that you are going to be the center everything, at least for a few minutes. After 45 years, I'm used to it.

And so it was. The buzz of conversation nearly stopped. Every head turned. People I had gotten to know pretty well smiled and seemed pleased. For the rest, it was the usual mixture of things, ranging from pleasure through curiosity to distaste. The conversation began again. I was explained to everyone who didn't know. I was certainly a Presence.

All of this I was anticipating. What I wasn't prepared for was the reaction of the crew. Our crew was mostly Eastern Europeans (Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Poles, etc.) with a smattering of Western Europeans. They didn't know who I was. They weren't prepared at all. And, to my great surprise, they were thrilled. I was rather startled when the Maitre d kissed my hand. He explained: "This is the way we greet the monks." He is a Bulgarian named Bogdan, which he proudly told me means "Gift of God". (I don't know if the Bulgarian word for God is 'Bog' or 'Dan' - both are rather disquieting to my American ear). The Captain is Greek, though a naturalized American citizen since his wife is American. He was clearly terribly pleased that I was gracing his table in all my monastic splendor. All through the meal, the serving staff whispered in my ear how happy they were that I was there. And as I left people appeared from the kitchen and who knows where else to greet me, kiss my hand, and say how wonderful it was that I was there. In all my long monastic life I can't recall anything like that dinner.

I've thought a lot about that evening. I don't usually enjoy being a Symbol. It makes people uncomfortable more often than not. Americans prefer their religious symbols in church, and certainly not at fancy dinners. But the delight that the crew took in my presence was not the false sort of "How lovely to see you" sort of thing. It was real joy. And it didn't put me off at all, which quite surprised me.

As it happens, this is not the first time I have encountered something like this in Europe. I was in Germany three years ago to perform a wedding for some friends, one of whom is German. I know enough German to conduct the ceremony with a certain amount of grace, so it went fine. We had a great party afterwards and it broke up about 2:00 am. Then we went back to the bride's family home where I was staying and we were followed by some of the guests. We settled down in the living room, poured some more drinks and talked away the night, exploring, of all things, issues of Faith. Talk about unexpected! These were young people. They are the secular products of an agressively secular society. Their life is a lot less religious than that of most Americans. They have no use for the Church as they know it; it simply has no meaning for them. They can't imagine living their lives and trying to fit into what they know of institutional Christianity. But though this has been the case all of their lives, their spiritual quest is right there close to their surface. They haven't found any way to practice it, but they are very much in touch with it. And they are concerned with the situation. They feel that a complete life should have some expression of spirituality in it. They don't know what to do. But they are looking. Looking hard enough that they didn't want to go to bed at 3:00 am - they wanted to talk for several hours about it. The sun was well up when we finally got into bed that morning.

And so with the crew of our ship. I had no follow-up conversation with them, but the situation seems familiar to me. They are from societies that have had most expressions of religious faith squeezed out of them since the 1950's. Most of them have grown up either quite alienated from religious practice, or just unconcerned, at least on the surface. And then I appear, all dressed in white, and something that they turn out to be deeply aware of bubbles up. Joy comes with it. The sight of someone for whom a life commitment to faith is a possibility seems to open a part of them. It's important to them.

It certainly speaks deeply to me of the depth of the spiritual level of our being. This isn't just something that is pounded into us, along with guilt, in Sunday School, to be rejected and forgotten later on. This is a part of our being. This longing for God and for the depths of ourselves comes with having a human nature - of that I remain convinced. It can't be eradicated. We who are Christians don't practice some esoteric craft unknown to the majority of humanity. We are expressing the longing that all people are born with. We are walking in Christ's footsteps to God, and knowing that we will - we must - do that comes to us along with being a human person.

And I think of all those people who feel this and have no way to do anything about it and no one to talk with. They look for a sign of hope for themselves. Usually I am not comfortable being taken for that sign, because it seems to imply so many inauthentic ways of behaving that I am not willing to represent. But I felt none of that in this encounter with the crew of the Corinthian II. I only felt joy. I wish the trip had permitted some unfolding of that with some of them, and clearly some of them would have been more than happy to do it. But neither our schedule or theirs permitted it. I can only hope, and pray, that they will find a way to live what their hearts so clearly desire. And I trust what so many of the spiritual masters have said: "The desire for God is itself a way of knowing God".

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Of Tea and Boundaries

I'm here early this week. I'll be in New York City on Sunday seeing a friend who is in for the weekend, so I wanted to get this post done before I left. As I write, I'm sitting at my computer, having blackberry sage tea out of a painted mug that I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I haggled over the price of the mug, too. (Well, I didn't haggle a lot - what can you argue about when it comes to the price of a mug?)

My trip to the Aegean was not a pilgrimage. At least it wasn't designed or advertised as a spiritual journey. But day by day as I review where we were and what happened, the spiritual part of it gets clearer and clearer. You can't stop spiritual stuff from happening, after all, no matter where you are or how your trip is advertised.

In my case, one of the major things that has happened is that I keep stumbling over moments when my relationship to Time has changed. I have the good modern western concept that the past is "then" and the present is "now". But I'm having some experiences that were tripped off by this trip to the Aegean that indicate to me that the good modern concept is not all there is to be said. I'm having experiences of time as much less defined than that.

I first began noticing it in meditation. Meditation is an old and familiar experience to me, and the technique is part of my ordinary consciousness: attend to your breath (or whatever you're using), when you notice that you've drifted away, bring yourself back to the present, and do that as many times as necessary, with a gentle but firm touch. So if I'm sitting there meditating and find a thought of, say, the city of Sardis in Turkey coming into my mind, I just label it as "thinking", and bring myself back to the present. The trouble is that I'm no longer sure that Sardis is part of the past. What if that ancient city, those ancient ruins, are actually part of my present? This isn't anything that I'm thinking my way into. It's just happening. I can't seem to muster up the energy necessary to regard Sardis as a "distraction", because it seems very much a part of now.

Sardis Bath complex - picture by Dick Osseman

I think the stage was set by having those Turkish and Greek cities presented as a foundation of the Western Christian world; very much of what we presently are and how we think and what the world means to us has its origins in those walls, those streets, and the people who walked those streets and prayed and taught in those buildings. This found a ready audience in me, because I've always been interested in history, particularly in local history, and I've explored the archives of Holy Cross and the annals of the towns in Ulster County, New York for many years. New novices notice and comment on the fact that when talking about the history of the community I will say: "and then we began this ministry" or: "and then we opened a monastery in......." when I'm describing things the community did long before I was born.

So the stage was set interiorly and what has happened is that now the fabric of time is much less solid for me. The people of Sardis, the streets of Ephesus, the stones of Priene aren't "there" or "then" for me. They are here and now. They are my present. It's kind of disorienting, but also deeply real and satisfying.

This is, in fact, a fairly common spiritual experience. though the form I had it in isn't the most frequent one. More commonly it is experienced in terms of other people. It is described as the experience of how we are really all one, and there is no barrier between us. Thomas Merton's famous experience on the street corner in Louisville is one example. All of a sudden the boundaries that we assumed were there between us and other people, or us and other places, just seem to dissolve and we discover that the truth of the world is that there's a lot about those boundaries that is unreal. We- all people - really are one, nothing real separates us, and these experiences seem to also convey an urgency to live that reality. This seems to have struck me in terms of Time and my awakening to the reality that we are one with all the people, and the places, who went before us. In a powerful way there is no "then". Sardis is now.

I also had the great privilege of being in on a similar discovery made by one of my fellow travellers. We were in Thessaloniki in Greece, being shown through the Church of the Holy Wisdom which is a church so ancient that no one knows when it was put up - sometime between the 5th and the 8th centuries, probably, maybe earlier. It definitely has mosaics that were put there in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the church was already very old. We were sitting in the nave, hearing about all of the wonders of the architecture when the youngest member of the group appeared at my side. He's a teenager - a really great guy, and very bright. He's an ordinary teen in many ways, including the fact that he has found a real passion for his life. Unlike most teens, however, his passion is ancient Greece. He's read the Illiad and the Odyssey and much else. He knows the history, he knows the people. His grandmother takes his passion seriously and brought him on this trip. It was great having him with us.

Anyhow, he had wandered off during that talk, as kids often do (actually, as I often do, for that matter) and he appeared again while the talk was still going on, looking a touch disoriented and said quietly and urgently: "Bede, what's that room over there on the right? What is that? I've never felt anything like that in my whole entire life." From my years of working with young people I have the gift of recognizing an Issue when it appears, so I got up and went over to the room he was pointing at.

It was an ordinary square room with a couple of windows on the right side. It had a number of icons - no surprise, this is a Greek Orthodox Church. It had a large plain Cross in a stand. And it had two rows of stalls facing each other. That's all.

It was the Choir - or at least that is my interpretation. What we call "The Office" - that is, the daily recitation of the Psalms together with some hymns and prayers - is part of Church life in Orthodoxy, in parish churches as well as in monasteries, and in Greek churches, especially old ones, there is sometimes a room set aside for this purpose. I can't remember exactly, but I think that in this Church it actually connects with the Sanctuary, where the Eucharist is celebrated. In any case, what this guy had stumbled across was a room that has been prayed in most days for around 1,500 years. Prayer has soaked into the walls and it is a presence thick enough to be felt. And he felt it. And it blew a bunch of his circuits, just as my time circuits seem to have been blown.

I came back (the lecture was still going on) and quietly told him what he had found and what it meant. I also told him how much of a privilege I felt it was that he had shared that with me. He nodded, and then wandered off. During the rest of the morning he appeared at my side again a few times, and when I saw the disoriented look I put my hand on his shoulder to ground him, and when he came back to earth he would wander off again.

That's it. Even though we talked about a lot of different things during the rest of the trip, we never talked about that again. Life went on and the trip went on. I have no idea what he will make of that moment in that holy place as his life unfolds. I do think, however, that he will never forget it.

So there we are - two people, and two experiences of moments when the solidity of our lives dissolved and reality was perceived to be much more, and much different, that we thought it was.

I think these experiences are pretty common. I think, in fact, that they happen with both frequency and regularity. But in our radically secular culture we are trained to ignore them. And if they are strong enough that we have to notice them, we almost never, ever mention them to another person. People in our society don't talk about that sort of thing. You have to be someone pretty quirky, like a monk or a teen, to do that. But these experiences of awareness of the spiritual dimension of things are part of life. People who do brain research can even point to the places in the brain where they happen. They are part of the gift of our human nature; God pulling us to that place where boundaries aren't what we thought, and where we are really one with each other and with the world as it is and as it was. Quite a thing for an old man and a young man to share.

But you share it too. Yes, you do. And part of the journey is to learn to see it when it happens.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Well, I'm back from points east and beginning to integrate what has happened to me in the past 2 weeks. I'm to the point now where my body has figured out which hemisphere it's in, and what is happening now is that I am beginning to realize the richness of all that I was exposed to. When you're in it, you're just going from place and concentrating on what you are doing at the present moment. Now the sweep of the trip and the expanse of what it represented is beginning to sink in. I have had more than I even dreamed of.

The trip was entitled "Heaven and Earth in the Ancient Aegean" and it was organized by the Cornell Adult University. My friend Scott MacDonald, the Chair of the Philosophy Department, was one of the leaders and the other was Frank Rhodes, former President of Cornell and before that a Professor of Geology. They are both splendid lecturers, and I've never had a trip that was filled out and contextualized so deeply as this one was. We explored the meaning of the part of the world we were in from the point of view of what it gave to the history of ideas, and especially what it gave to the formation of the Christian religion (Heaven) and the geological forces that formed that part of the world (Earth). That's one reason I'm feeling so filled with the richness of the experience.

I began to realize what the experience was going to be like when I first entered my hotel room in Istanbul on the first morning. We arrived in the late morning, so there was a bit of a pause before our rooms were ready, but it wasn't long, and when I got my room card I went up and opened the door and there before me was a wall mostly of glass and beyond it at my feet was the City with the Bosphorus flowing through it. I was looking at Europe on the near side and Asia on the far side and had my own balcony to view it from and without even thinking about it I said "Ohhhhhh". At that moment I began to realize how much I was in for. It was a lot, as you will gather, and it won't all be told in one writing, but I'll share at least some of the adventures.

From the point of view of time, we covered about 5,000 years of history. Near the beginning of the trip we visited Troy, which was first built in about 3,000 BCE. There are 7 cities piled one on top of the other, and the last occupiers were the Romans, when the harbor finally was so silted up that the city was abandoned, like so many in this part of the world. It was a very moving experience to be there and it was the place that I realized how skilled our guide was, because without Yaman (his name) I could have wandered through those miscellaneous ruins - a foundation from the first city, a gate from the 3rd city, a temple from the last city - and not gotten any impression at all except for mixed ruins. As it was we came out of it with a feeling for all those cities and the people who lived there and the lives they lived in that spot for more than 30 centuries.

And we went to Knossos on Crete, which was abandoned about 1,500 BCE (perhaps because of the explosion of the volcano on Santorini, which we also visited) and saw a completely different civilization, who used wood for their columns instead of stone and painted them deep red and black and had an art that was different from anything else that we saw. And for the centuries following, we saw Greek and Roman buildings aplenty, many different places, many different styles, so many centuries while time flowed on.

To start in Istanbul was to have a mini tour of a lot of those centuries. We saw there a vibrant 21st century city on the move, and breathtaking ancient mosques filled with exquisite tile work, and cruised up and down the Bosphorus, seeing the land and the city and we explored what is arguably the greatest church in the history of Christianity, the Hagia Sophia, where the dome seems to float on light and to be held up by the Holy Spirit rather than by the pillars on which it rests. It was from this place that Russian envoys, looking for a religion to embrace, returned to their homeland and reported of that church that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth."

To our west (Turkey) we saw many of the cities where Christianity took its form and shape, including Ephesus, which revels in the title of "The Best Excavated City on Earth", and to our east (Greece) we saw Delphi, spiritual home of the Greek nation for many centuries, which still clings to the sides of an almost vertical mountain, and Thessalonikki, which preserves its very ancient Christian Churches, many of which have 7th and 8th century mosaics, created when the churches were already old.

We saw excavations done exactly the way they are "supposed to be", most especially in Ephesus, and there we wandered through the most recent example of this work - a hillside that contained several 2nd and 3rd century "condos" - homes of some of the wealthy Ephesians, terraced into a hillside. The mosaics and frescoes and walls and foundations have been left in place, just as they were, and a skillfully constructed walkway has been built through and above the houses, so that you can explore the whole neighborhood but not disturb it. We also saw the great theater, seating, so they say, 25,000 people where the crowd wanted to tear the Apostle Paul to pieces and shouted for hours on end: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" (see the Acts of the Apostles for the story).

We also saw excavations that defied all the rules, especially Sardis. "The Rules" specify that you aren't supposed to reconstruct excavated ruins, except perhaps to set up a column or two, because your ideas of how the site might have been could destroy evidence of what it was actually like. And you never, never, never are supposed to set out on a major reconstruction project, especially if it has to use modern materials to fill in the gaps. But the people in charge of Sardis have made several major reconstructions and all I know is that when I wandered through the immensity of those Roman walls and arches and looked up at the facades of that columned hall I felt like I knew something about those cities and what it was like to be in them that I had never imagined before. And they've restored much of a splendid synagogue and left the floor mosaics in place so you can actually walk on them, like people did at the time, so I could feel with my feet what the city was like, which I had never felt before. And when we got to the huge Temple of Artemis, which really isn't much restored, I could still feel the place and have some experience of it and carry that experience to Ephesus, where the famed Temple was destroyed by the Christians centuries later to make the Church of St John the Evangelist (which incidentally was the largest church in the world at the time.)

And we ate fresh-from-the-sea octopus and shrimp in Santorini, and meses at any number of places in Turkey (we would call them 'appetizers' - a selection of vegetables, mostly cooked, served with a variety of olive oil-based sauces) and organically raised lamb on the farm in Crete where it was raised, followed by a dessert of freshly made yogurt with toasted nuts and honey.

And we saw Thermopylae, which I've always heard of and knew nothing about, and places called Priene and Stilida and Vergina, which I never even heard of.

Everyone wants to know what the highlight was. What an impossible request! Well, if pushed I guess that really has to be two consecutive evenings. The first was in Ephesus. When we had done seeing the site, we were served a superb banquet on the terrace in front of the Library of Celsus, which is in the center of the city, and as the evening darkened all the of columns and walls of that fabled city were lit with spotlights and candles and a string quartet from the Izmir Philharmonic Orchestra played. And then at the end of the meal, just to send it over the emotional edge, all of us who had ever sung in the Cornell Glee Club (which I did for 4 years) were called forward and everyone rose to sing "Far Above Cayuga's Waters" - talk about a cultural clash!

The very next night I sat with Bob, who was the other single man on the trip, and who became a good friend, at a terrace cafe overlooking the sea from Fira - the capitol city of Santorini and built at the peak of the volcanic mountain which composes the island, and watched the sun set over the sea and then saw the lights of the city come slowly on as the evening darkened and the moon rose high over the Aegean. As they say, it doesn't get much better than this.

That's enough for one week. You get the idea. And lots of other stuff happened, too, which will come later. I haven't even begun to talk about the people stuff, which was a whole other dimension. I'll unfold some of that stuff as it unfolds in me.