Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Unexpected Is Always With Us

We had just started the process of settling down, right? Almost all of those who are leaving this house for other monasteries or other locations have left and all of the brothers who were coming have arrived. People have begun settling into their jobs, the guesthouse season is in full swing, and the task of this season is now that of adjusting to each other and learning to work and pray together in new ways. Right? Right?

And then on Tuesday morning, the unexpected and the unwelcome came to be with us: Br William Sibley died. His is the 3rd death in our community in less than 5 months, and for an organization the size of the Order of the Holy Cross, that is an awful lot. And William was part of the West Park community. The other 2 deaths didn't touch us this way: Bernard had lived on the west coast for years and Michael lived either on the west coast or in a Nursing Home for the last part of his life. Their lives didn't touch us in the same way as William's did.

Br. William, OHC
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

It was sudden, but not entirely unexpected. William didn't have any current health crisis, but his health was chancy - he was in his mid-70's and had some heart problems, some lung problems some balance problems, and he was a heavy smoker, which at his age that causes big problems. Last week he caught the cold that is going around and complained about it fairly loudly, but didn't want to consider going to a doctor. In a fairly short time his fever disappeared and he was getting around again, so it seemed that he was on the road to being well again. Then Monday things turned worse. He had no fever, but seemed disoriented and was growing weaker. He still was very opposed to seeing a doctor, but when he fell in the hall and we had trouble getting him up again and his breathing began to become labored something obviously had to be done, so we called 911 and Robert went off with him to the hospital. They said it was Congestive Heart Failure with perhaps a touch of Pneumonia, and admitted him. Because they had sent Robert home before his admission, we were not aware that they had admitted him to Intensive Care.

We weren't worrying. We had just had another Brother, just about his age, go into the hospital with a bit of pneumonia and a bit of CHF and he was in the hospital for 2 days and then home again and in good shape. So it seemed that it was just a touch of what Sam had. Only in this case it wasn't, and at about 7:30 am on Tuesday the hospital called to say that he had suddenly taken a downward turn and had died. We were stunned.

But we had to go on and now we were going to have to bury William and to tend to ourselves and care for a house full of guests. When you have to do it, you do it, and most folks do it largely by telling stories and by observing the family rituals.

The Stories:

William was one of Holy Cross' Larger Than Life characters. He was a man of great talents and great energy and he was always at the center of things in the Order's life. He was, for a time, a tireless missioner, going from parish to parish preaching, teaching and counseling. He served for a number of years as the Prior of the monastery in Toronto and became widely known throughout the Canadian Church. Then he was the Superior of the Order, the first of our non-ordained brothers to be elected to that post, and he served for 9 years.

After being Superior William had a number of years when finding his place was really hard for him. He lived for a while at the monastery in Santa Barbara and then in a retirement home in Toronto. Then about three years ago he came here. His adjustment here, after having lived away from the community for a number of years, was not easy, but he and we worked at it and came through to a really good place. I think that the last couple of years he was happier than I have known him to be in a long time. He loved to cook and he took over the job of providing a meal on Tuesday evenings, when Edward our chef isn't here. He truly reveled in that job, eventually extending it to preparing soup for the clients of the homeless shelter where some of our brothers volunteer and to fixing dinner even on Tuesday nights when there weren't any guests and we didn't need a meal. He loved the whole process of getting the ingredients together, going out to shop and of spending a day in the kitchen. It gave him a place in the community that he hadn't had in a long time, and he became gentler and happier.

William was a born politician and loved everything that was political. Whether it was the politics of our nation or of the world or of the church, whenever a political conversation started, William was there. He knew political figures everywhere, particularly in the church, and rarely could a bishop be mentioned that William didn't know, and he counted many of them as his friends. He knew all of the crises and transitions that the Episcopal Church has been through in the past half-century, and he and other old "veterans" of those battles often reminisced together in the guesthouse.

He was also a much-loved counsellor. We have had many, many messages in the days since his death telling us how much his presence and his words meant to peoples' lives. It was part of William's lot to have an alcohol addiction which he struggled with for many years, and he used the gift of that struggle to be a real wounded healer. A large portion of the messages than came to us speak of how many people feel that they owe their sobriety to Williams counsel, companionship and love. His wisdom and his experience were often transformative to people whose lives he touched, and we have been fortunate to hear from a number of them and to listen to their stories of how William helped them find meaning and recovery in their lives.

Telling the stories renews our knowledge of our Brother, and some of the stories that have come to us from around the world revealed things about him that we never knew at all.

The family rituals:

We did a version of a practice that we began a number of years ago when one of our brothers died unexpectedly. On Tuesday when we heard of his death we began immediately to sing the Office of the Departed, and that continued throughout the day. That Office, with its texts full of gentle and firm reassurance and its Gregorian melodies that utter a sound of deep lament, is so full and expressive that nothing more was needed. Anything else would have been too much. But on Wednesday we were ready to move forward and that is the day that William came back to us. His body lay before our altar, dressed in his Cowl (which is the garment we wear in church) and holding the cross that he received on the day he made his Life Vows. We had two hours of vigil: time to say farewell, time to pray, time just to be silent before the mystery of life and death. The Guesthouse was quite full that day, but the guests by and large left us to ourselves, so it was just us and a couple of very close friends who came to join us for those hours.

Then, when our vigil was over, we closed the casket and had a very simple Requiem Eucharist and expressed our faith and received communion together with the casket in our midst. After the mass was ended, the casket was taken to the door and put into the hearse and then we had a small ceremony that the funeral director has provided for us for many years in which the hearse drives away up our driveway very, very slowly, and I thought of all the years and all the times that I have watched that car go up the drive and disappear around that last curve.

That evening I was talking with Robert, our new Superior, who has never been here when we were having one of these community goodbyes to a brother, and he said: "This really was our funeral, wasn't it?" I hadn't thought of that, but of course it was. The public funeral, which will be in a couple of weeks, will be a grand liturgy full of processions and holy water and incense and will be the great occasion that Holy Cross is so good at. But that is largely for other people; for William's family and for Holy Cross' friends and Associates. This was ours - just for us and for William, and it was very good.

Those are our stories and our rituals. That is how we negotiated this week. It has been hard, but it has been good and it is all the stuff of our life.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Adventures With a Virus

This looked like a very ordinary week. It was, in fact, the sort of week in which I began to ask myself: "What in the world will I write about this week?" I should know by now that when I ask that, something always gets supplied. In this case what got supplied was a virus.

At least I assume that it is a virus. I suppose we'll never really know if it was viral or bacterial or something else, nor is it all that important to know. It began like an ordinary cold, but it has ended with that very enervating weakness that sometimes accompanies the flu or other viruses. At first I just pushed on, of course: "I need to get my jobs done - can't leave them for other people who are already busy enough." Then on Friday morning (or maybe it was even Thursday), while I was getting breakfast set out for a large group, I all of a sudden couldn't go any further. I was completely out of energy, and I couldn't force myself one more step. So I left the job with a generous Junior, and went to bed.

Now you have to know that being in bed with a cold has been a real source of difficulty for me for a long time. When I'm feeling well, I sometimes even long for a nice gentle cold, so that I can go to bed for a while. I think of the wonderful hours available to meditate, for quiet contemplation, for spiritual reading. At times when my schedule is so pressed that I'm having trouble with finding any time for prayer I do yearn for a convenient virus.

But the reality is quite different. When I actually have my longed-for virus, do I meditate for endless hours? Do I consult learned books on the Spiritual Path? Do I strive to enter the Cloud of Unknowing? Are you kidding? I look at the ceiling. I listen to PBS. I read useless novels (and I choose the word 'useless' deliberately). The time goes by without my doing any of the things that I yearn for. It's been like this for years. I beat myself up internally because of it. I have this ideal of having endless hours for prayer; why can't I do something about it?

It finally got uncomfortable enough that I asked Jose, my meditation teacher, about it. I did this at the Inquiry period at the end of our Wednesday night Meditation session, and I didn't miss the appreciative chuckles from the group which means that I'm not the only person for whom this is an issue. I had stumbled onto a Common Problem.

Jose is wise. He is genuinely wise. And he frequently says something that I wouldn't have predicted in a million years. Many, many times in the decade that I've been part of his circle I've been amazed and stimulated by his unexpected response to what I thought was a question that I knew the answer to: in this case I expected something like: "Take it seriously - get to work - you're not being dedicated enough." And that wasn't the answer. At least it wasn't Jose's answer. He said that of course that was my experience. I was, in fact, experiencing the reality that I didn't have the energy to pursue my ideals. Most of my energy was going into being sick. We weren't talking about lack of moral fiber or a failure of the will. We were talking about how much energy is available when one is sick. And then he said: "You can, of course, use what energy you have to attend to what is happening. And that is worth dong. Just attend to your illness. Befriend it. Follow its path. But don't expect any great insights. It's not the time for that."

Thomas Merton said that at times when he met with answers like this one he felt like he'd missed a train.

But even if I thought I'd really missed the point for a long time, I did remember that conversation. I don't get many colds; this is the first one in two or three years, so I haven't had the opportunity to practice this particular line of inquiry. But I did keep it in mind, and when I took to bed this time I left my ideals at the door, but I did take my mind with me. And I just observed what was occurring. I followed it with the sort of attention that I've learned through years of meditation: I looked at what was happening, and what it felt like. I observed it with such openness as I could manage, and without judgment - when I could manage that. I just followed my cold through the sore throat, into the running nose and on into the coughing and chest part of it, and the nights when my head and chest were so active that I couldn't sleep. The pattern is very familiar - a day for the throat, a day for the nose, a day for the chest. That, I assumed would be the end of it, but it wasn't. I woke up this morning feeling very much better, but also with a very great weakness that seems to come from the center of me, the kind of weakness that warns that there is not much left in the way of reserves. "Be careful" it says, "don't push this too far." It the kind of weakness that sometimes comes at the end of a bout of flu, which makes me think 'virus'.

Now I'll have to be honest and tell you that I was not doing this exploration in the hopes of any great Spiritual Experience. I was just doing it because it seemed like the thing to do. I've pursued meditation long enough to know that, for whatever long-term spiritual benefits it may have, it is also a good thing in and of itself. It's a good path to walk, and it's a good way to approach a day - any day. I did it mostly on blind instinct, and because of that conversation with my teacher.

I describe the result as remarkable because it was unexpected. It was also so plain and so obvious. I found that this illness was simply my path for these few days. It wasn't an interruption, it wasn't a failure, it wasn't an inconvenience. It was simply where I was, and I was having the grace to be where I was. I can't tell you what a difference this makes. I seem to have dropped a whole layer of baggage about the task of being sick and being in bed. It's where I belong right now. It's what life has given me to be lived. It is a full experience all on its own, some of it unpleasant and some of it less so. It isn't to be judged from the point of view of 'what I could be doing if I wasn't in this damn bed'. It's where I am, and it is good to be where I am, because God is where I am, not in some fantasy of where I should be.

And I found that the ability to be in that space really did feel like meditating. In spite of the warning that Jose gave me about having expectations, I really did have some insight. I learned that being where I am, even if it's in bed with a virus, is the task of my life for now, and it actually feels much better to be doing my task than longing for another one.

I hate - I really hate - using the word "Spiritual" for every little revelation that happens to come along. But this does feel like learning something about the spiritual life. Or maybe I need just to take seriously the advice I gave to someone years ago, and which she keeps reminding me of from time to time: "There really isn't any such thing as a 'Spiritual Life' ", I apparently said to her, "you just have your Life, and you need to pay attention to how to live it."

In any case, life with a virus has helped to wake me up.

And, I have to add a small PS, just to show you how ambiguous these things are. I am very weak this morning, but I did go to Mass. After all, it's Sunday. You have to understand that I come from a time and a place when Sunday Church was regarded as one of the facts of life. Not an obligation, mind you: after all, you never asked the sun if it had an obligation to come up every morning, it was just a fact of the universe. And so was Sunday Mass. If you knew the world was going to end at 10:30 on Sunday morning and there was Mass at 9:00, at 9:00 you went to Mass. You just did. So I just did. And it was fine. I'm a bit weaker, maybe, but it's ok. To be there, to have the Sacrament, that's mostly what I'm about, anyway.

And of course I'm doing this writing, and that's ok too. This gives me energy, and feels like what today is about, just as much as it's about the closing part of this viral journey.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Big Change

Ever since early summer the monastery has been in the midst of a major set of changes that will be taking about six months to bring to pass and for the last month, while I've been regaling you with Tales of the Aegean Sea, it has all been creeping up on us.

Regular readers of this blog will know that it all began in June with the election of a new Superior for the Order of the Holy Cross. The Superior has general oversight, both pastoral and administrative, of the four monasteries that make up the Order, located here in West Park, in Santa Barbara, California, Toronto in Canada and Grahamstown, South Africa. The Superior can live in any of the houses of the Order, and Robert Sevensky, our new Superior, has chosen to make this his home. He is from this part of the country, having been raised in Scranton, and lived and worked in the Northeast before he came to Holy Cross. He has a doctorate in the field of Ethics and taught for some time before deciding that monastic vocation was his place in life. He brings a gentle and caring presence to his job, as well as an incisive mind. Robert arrived just this week to take up his job.

In any organization of our (quite limited) size, such an election always sets in place a series of changes that ripple through the whole of the community. To begin with, the new Superior replaces the old one, and the former Superior moves on somewhere, usually after a period of sabbatical for rest and recuperation. Robert replaces our former Superior, David Bryan Hoopes, who plans to spend his sabbatical in parish ministry in New York City, as an interim rector. He's not quite moved out yet, but he's been away a good deal, so we're getting used to living without his presence.

Then Reginald Martin Crenshaw, who has been Novice Master, has also come to the end of his term and while I was in Greece he moved to his new stationing in Toronto. Reg is also a learned man, having a Doctor of Education degree, and teaching and the educational field is his real passion. He also has training in various consulting fields and has worked as a parish consultant both here and in the Diocese of Chicago before he came to West Park. He's busy exploring the possibilities for his ministry in Toronto, and he's confidant that he'll find something exciting.

Reg's replacement is Adam McCoy, who is another of our "doctors", holding his degree in Early Medieval English. He may be known to you through his book "Holy Cross" which is our centennial history. For a number of years he has been in parish ministry, first in Orange County, California, where he created a very large Hispanic Ministry, and more recently as Rector of the Church of St Edward the Martyr in East Harlem in New York City. St Edward's has both African American and Hispanic congregations and is a lively and welcoming place, and is also the parish where David is going to be Interim. Adam moved in here about a month ago, also while I was away, and has been settling in together with our new Postulant, Charles Mizelle, who comes to us from the Los Angeles area, where he worked in the Resort Spa industry. He's working his way through the considerable challenges of adjusting to living in a monastic community.

One more person is coming - our Novice James Dowd. Jim began his community life here, and has been in Santa Barbara for the past 7 months, having an experience of how our life is lived in another of our monasteries. He will be here to finish the last 6 months of his novitiate and then we look forward to having him here as a Brother in vows. Jim has a background in theatre and staging and was for several years the chief organizer of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He has been responsible for the organization of our growing ministry to the disadvantaged of the Mid-Hudson region, and we anticipate that he will be expanding that work.

(You may be noticing at this point how many different paths there have been to vocation in our community - it's one of the hallmarks of Holy Cross and I'll have to write about that some day).

And then we are anticipating the departure of our beloved Tony and Suzette Cayless, who have been Residents of our Monastery for nearly 8 years. They came to be part of our community at their retirement. Tony was a parish priest for all his working life, first in Barbados in the West Indies and then in Long Island, and Suzette is a teacher, spiritual director, and consultant. She has worked in the Guesthouse office during their time here and both she and Tony have conducted retreats and Guesthouse programs and exercised a ministry of Spiritual Direction. Tony has also been an Interim Pastor in two parishes in this area. Nor must I fail to mention the splendid Sunday evening parties which Tony and Suzettte have provided in their home on occasion and which have given us so much relaxation and enjoyment at stressful times of the year. They have decided that the time has come to move closer to their son and his family in North Carolina.

Br Scott Borden, the Guesthouse Director, isn't going anywhere, but he has become the Assistant Superior, and that brings its own set of changes.

That's a lot of details, and I've put all that stuff in deliberately in the hopes that you, like me, are thinking at this point: "That's an awful lot of change for a monastery of 10 monks."

Any change in personnel in a small community creates ripples that affect the lives of everyone else in the community, and in this case the changes will mean a significant reconstruction of our life together. A good deal of the leadership of the house is changing, and a lot of the fabric of our community relationships will be in flux as well. A lot of our life is up for change.

Of course the basic structure of monastic living continues: we will sing the Office four times a day and the Eucharist is offered daily. We will welcome scores of guests each week, and share our meals with them. We will provide programs, and counselling and direction and friendship to people almost without number.

At the same time, a lot is going to be different. Relationships are in transition - both the way we relate to individuals and the way the whole community "feels". New people have new ideas, and will expect that their perspectives will be made part of our life and of our decisions. I expect that, when all of the changes have been made, the Change will just be beginning. Holy Cross will still be recognizably Holy Cross, and it will also be different. Life, with all its twists and turns, carries us along as we seek to offer a place of peace and stimulation to those who come here. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Stay tuned!