Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Ending, A Beginning and a Thanksgiving

It has come to the point that there is not much left to be said about Mt Calvary in Santa Barbara except "We're working on it." So I expect that after today I won't be devoting this space to that part of our lives, at least for a while. But the voices are being raised wanting (and sometimes demanding) to know what the future is going to be: When will the reconstruction begin? How long will it take? Is it going to look just the same as before? So here's what we know at the present.

For now, the brothers are housed at St Mary's Retreat House in Santa Barbara, with the gracious welcome of the Holy Nativity Sisters. We anticipate that they will be there at least until the first of February. In the meantime we are exploring longer-term options for their housing. Several possibilities have emerged and we need to see what will work best for our life, our ministry and not least, for our now much-reduced finances.

The Mt Calvary site is now fenced off, as the law and the insurance companies require. When the insurance people tell us to go ahead it will be leveled. We are deeply appreciative of the many generous offers to help in the clean-up, but because of the nature of the fire, there really isn't anything left to clean up. The site will be bulldozed, and that is all that will happen for now.

In mid-January the Order's Council will meet with the Superior in Santa Barbara. The Council is an elected body of 5 life-professed brothers who assist the Superior in decision-making, and whose consent is required for most major decisions that are made between the yearly meetings of our Chapter (which is our annual business meeting). At the January meeting we expect to focus on the immediate needs of the Santa Barbara brothers and on issues concerning on-going housing and ministry for them. We expect to know more at that point about the terms of our insurance settlement and the implications of that. We also expect to make plans for the discussions that will take place at Chapter.

In June, Chapter will meet, probably here at West Park, though that isn't quite nailed down yet. Most of the brothers in the Order will be here, including the brothers from Canada and South Africa. At that point we are going to talk seriously about our future. You'll note that I didn't say "the future of Mt Calvary". We are going to need to talk about our whole community and what this fire means for where we are headed and how we want to get there. The future of our ministry on the West Coast and the use of our Santa Barbara property will certainly be an important focal point of the discussions, but we will have lots of wider issues to be looked at; things like who we are and what we want for the living of the monastic life in the future. It is beginning to dawn on us that we are not just at the end of something, but also at an important beginning, or at least at a major transition. I'm told that Rahm Emmanuel says: "You never want to waste a crisis." And we want to use this one well.

We are so grateful for all of the expressions of concern and offers of help. Right now, if you want to do something really important for us, you can pray for us in the next 6 months as we discern the meaning of this event and where God is calling us to be and what we are to do.

And of course this week we had Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day which we shared, as always, with a nice group of friends and guests. Jim and Scott crafted a liturgy for the day and it included nice singing, a touch of incense, and a time for offering thanks, which was a very moving time when each of the brothers offered the thanks that was in his heart, and then the guests joined us in offering their thanks. Bernard said that he felt about a foot taller when it was over.

Then came the Thanksgiving meal. We told Edward, our chef, to cut back on it somewhat, because we, like so many people at this time, are having to cut back significantly on our expenses. And, as we could have predicted, Edward cut back in the most elegant way imaginable, and the feast was a triumph. Afterwards one of our guests said to me: "I have never in my whole life gone back for a second helping of Brussels Sprouts until today."

But the best moment of Thanksgiving for me was in the evening, after supper, when I walked around outside for a bit and experienced a few moments of the intense and almost magical silence that sometimes comes to this spot on major civil holidays. It was so still: there was no traffic on the highways on either side of the river, no boat traffic, either. It was between the tides and the Hudson River had stilled as well, and its surface was a mirror that reflected not only the lights from the buildings on the other side but also the most brilliant of the stars, and that's something we don't often see. In that profound quiet and beauty was the promise not only of peace but of deep and vigorous life. It was a moment of knowing that God never forsakes us and that God's comfort and strength is there just in reaching out for it.

That is what I will take into the next few months as we begin to discover the path that we are now beginning to walk.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Week Afterwards

The issue behind, above, below and around everything this week has been, of course, the loss of Mt Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara in the fires there, which occurred (is there anyone left who doesn't know?) a week ago last Friday. Here at West Park we received guests as we always do - and the first thing they all said to us were words of encouragement or grief. We conducted retreats - and thought of the fire. We joined our guests for meals, and spoke of the times we had all had at "The Mount". And during all of the days, we carried this loss in bruised hearts as we went about our work and our prayer.

If we had any doubts about how widely known Mt Calvary was and how many people valued it, those doubts are now laid to rest. I have often said that I have never been anywhere in the world where I put on my habit that someone didn't come up to me and say: "You must be from Holy Cross". This week the truth behind that came to visit us. Emails came by the hundreds - by now by the thousands. Phone calls. Letters. It was all over the Internet: all of the Holy Cross blogs at least doubled their readership, and sometimes more. One day Br Randy's picture site had over 7,000 hits. And friends who had mentioned it in their own blogs report a great increase in readership as well.

Of course, one expects that the Santa Barbara paper would want to cover it, even Los Angeles. But the New York Times had a major article, which for a short period was on Page 1 of their Internet Edition. Most of the articles have a picture of the surviving pieces of the front door and some of the mural that surrounded it, and that picture has become an icon for the whole story of the Tea Fire of Santa Barbara (named for the site near which it started). The news has spread all over the world, because Mount Calvary is remembered with affection by people everywhere on the globe. One man wrote to tell of a Time Capsule he saw put into the garden wall in the late 1960's. Almost everyone in the community has either never heard of this or had forgotten its existence, so Nick, the Prior, will ask our contractor if anything is known about it, and whether it could have survived.

Robert, the Superior, has been in Santa Barbara all week, being a pastor to the community and to many others, and beginning the process of planning for the immediate future. Many of you will already know that the brothers are safe and well cared for at St Mary's Retreat House at the bottom of the hill where Mt Calvary was, and which is operated by the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. The brethren are, of course, alternating between confidence and horror, as one does when confronted with a loss of this magnitude. They are also being treated with great kindness and affection wherever they go in town, and have encountered generosity and discounts on everything they have had to purchase while they put their lives and their clothing stock back together. People have been so kind and sympathetic.

The planning for the future will take time, of course. This is a matter for consultation with the whole community. Mt Calvary belonged to the brothers living there, but more than that it belonged to the whole of the Order of the Holy Cross, and our future belongs to all of us. When Robert returns tomorrow we'll know more about the immediate future. Before long we will have a meeting of the Order's Council by telephone, and then in mid-January the Council will meet in Santa Barbara to deal with issues that are more immediate. As of now, we expect that the major decisions about the future of our work on the West Coast and the future of the property will be discussed at the next meeting of our Chapter, which will be held in June. That meeting was to have been at Mt Calvary, and will have to be relocated - probably it will be here at West Park. So the answer to all of the questions about "What are you going to do? Are you going to rebuild? When will you start construction?" is that we don't know right now, and we are working on it. There are issues of the future of the Order as well as the future of Mt Calvary to be considered and we have to do that with dispatch, but with care as well.

Now for the fire itself- as I have gathered stories from emails and phone calls from people who were there. It was unimaginable. The temperature, we are told, was over 2,000 degrees. This is responsible for the fact that almost nothing survives - no small mementos, no little things to rescue from the debris. It's not even clear how much of the structure actually burned - a lot of it will simply have evaporated. The brothers took the house cars when they evacuated and left the truck behind in the driveway. It melted. We have a neighbor who works with EMS and volunteer fire organizations and when we told him about this, he just nodded and said: "Yes, that happens." I guess the best way to convey this part of the story is to let Robert's words speak:

"We have been up to the Mount. There is nothing to be salvaged and it will be leveled. It was so eerie...quiet, hot, dusty, empty. I'm glad I saw it with my own eyes, though it breaks my heart."

And just when you can't believe the reality of it all, there, just a few feet away from where the truck was, is the little studio building that was put up a few years ago to provide space for brothers who do artistic work. And it survived quite untouched, we are told, while all of that incredible holocaust swirled around it. Joseph's icons and his paints, Roy's colors and papers for his calligraphy, Nick's cello and his music - they all made it through. How does that happen? We have an old and dear friend who lives down the road from Mt Calvary and we hear that the fire came to within 3 feet of her house, and then it stopped. It's more than anyone can fathom.

So that's the story as we know it right now. I'd like to describe it all in one fine sentence to sum up the experience. I find I can't even think what that sentence would be. I'm still stunned - we are all still stunned.

And we're going on, into the future. Pray for us as we begin to imagine what that future will be and to plan for it. God will work with us and in us, as has been the case all these many years.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Somehow You Get Through It

I'm late this week. If you've seen our web page or CNN news you know why - on Thursday night/Friday morning our Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara burned to the ground in the fires that consumed a good many homes in that area. So this won't be long, and you will understand why. But I thought I'd put a few thoughts and feelings out.

Mount Calvary has been a part of our life for more than 80 years. It has been a spiritual refuge for thousands of people. For many folks it is a fact of life - a place that will always be there for refuge and comfort. And it has been part of us, as a community, It's part of the Holy Cross identity. That beautiful place on top of a hill with an unmatched view of the Pacific coast was what many people thought of as Holy Cross, and what lots of us thought of as Holy Cross, and now it's gone.

Friday was for shock. Saturday was for grief - and at times in the early part of the day it was so intense that I wasn't sure I would be able to stand up. Today (Sunday) was for exhaustion.

And through all of this, Friday - Sunday, I was conducting a meditation retreat with my friend Mary Gates! It was lunacy to think I could even think of doing it. But I did, and it was good. There was a particularly rich, diverse and interesting group of people, and they put a lot of work and energy into their participation. It was great. When it finished at noon I was finally free to know what I was feeling, and I wondered how I had managed. I still don't know.

Monday will be for hiding out. I need to sleep. I need to rest. I need to lick some wounds. I need to look at the river.

Now we have a lot of thinking, and talking, and planning and meeting to do before we know what lies ahead. Many people assume that we will rebuild as quickly as we possibly can, but it isn't as simple as that. We need to take time to see what we want for the future of our community and where we are being led. We need to discern the way forward. We need to hear the still, small voice that will tell us where the way is.

It is very painful, but the way of God sometimes is painful. One thing I know, we are a good, solid, and very much alive community. We will know the way when we find it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Night of Change

I've been thinking about change this week. Who hasn't?

Like nearly everyone else we watched the election returns on Tuesday night. We changed our Wednesday morning schedule so that any of the brothers who wanted to could stay up as late as they wished. And a bunch of us did, right through the acceptance speech, in our TV room with snacks and drinks just like everybody else.

And some of us cried, as so many people did (it would be interesting to know what percentage of the American population was in tears on Tuesday night), and we made the noises that were appropriate to whichever candidate we were supporting. A bunch of monks in a TV room watching election returns is pretty much the same as any other group, with all of the hopes and dreads that come with the night of a big election.

For me, as for a lot of people, nothing expresses the spirit of that night so much as the pictures of the crowd in Grant Park in Chicago. It would have been hard not to be moved by those faces - Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and a whole lot more, all screaming their hearts out as they watched the world as they knew it change before their very eyes. And I got to wondering where I have ever seen anything like this before. It seemed completely unique, but deeper down it had overtones of something that somehow seemed familiar.

And then I flashed back to a night in a neighborhood Episcopal Church in New Jersey several decades ago. I was there for an ordination; the ordination of a woman who had been a member of that congregation for many long years. She was being ordained to the priesthood, and it was less than a week after priestly ordination became available to women in our Church, and I was one of the participants in the ceremony.

I wasn't a particularly happy participant, either. I was not yet clear in my own mind whether I thought that the ordination of women was something I could agree with. All the way down to New Jersey I kept thinking: "What am I doing here? I don't even know whether I can say 'Yes' when the bishop asks: ' Is it your will that this person be ordained?'" I tried to wiggle out of it several times, in fact, but she was adamant; she was an Associate of our community and a dear friend of mine and I was going to be there and I was going to be one of the participants.

I did get through it with my integrity and my identity at least mostly intact. And I left the church that night knowing that a whole lot had changed, myself included, and I knew that I could believe in the ordination of women or not believe it, but no matter what I decided or didn't decide, she really was a priest. And a good part of the reason I felt that way was a consequence of looking at the faces of the people who were there.

I was the Bishop's Chaplain that night, so I was one of the first people to receive communion, and then I had nothing to do but sit in a chair in the Sanctuary as the crowd came to the altar rail. And so I saw those people coming for communion and I was moved, and changed, by what I saw. There was a lot of joy in those faces, and I had expected that. My friend was an old and well-loved member of that parish and they were rejoicing with her at the climax of a long, long pilgrimage to ordination. But joy wasn't all there was in those faces; there was something else there that I hadn't been expecting, and that was relief. And in spite of the fact that I wasn't looking for it, that relief was so strong that it couldn't be missed. They were happy for their friend and they rejoiced in her joy, but they were also vastly relieved: relieved that we could finally do this. It was finally real. We were all free to lay down a burden that many of us didn't even know we were carrying. It was right to have this ordination, and many, many people were relieved that it had finally happened.

I saw the same thing in Grant Park. There was great exultation and a lot of celebrating with abandon, and I expected that. What this means to African-American people, I can only dimly imagine. And the faces of the black youth especially, and the old people as well, especially touched my heart. Jessie Jackson in tears. Old ladies jumping and laughing and sobbing. They were looking at a world that was different than it had ever been before. And as I watched, there it was - it was that same look - the look of relief. It was time for this to happen. We have carried this burden too long. For years it has been time to lay this part of our history down, and we had finally done it. Do major changes always come with this sense of relief? I wonder, but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that they do.

Now, what will this change mean, in the end? Without a doubt, it will not mean everything that we are hoping for. The Episcopal Church has not brought in the Kingdom of God in spite of the fact that we have women priests and bishops. But a lot has changed. Business as usual has changed its face, and as time goes on, the way we do our ministry and our worship is changing, as the voice and the presence of the feminine is more and more decisive in the decisions that we make and the lives that we lead.

And the same with our country. As time goes on, there will no doubt be a good deal of weeping to match the exultation of Grant Park on election night. But there's going to be change as well, and some of it will happen in ways that we aren't expecting. Our image of who we are has shifted, and there is no going back on that. And, though Americans don't think a lot about the rest of the world, it's still true that a lot of the world is rejoicing along with those people in Grant Park. Our brother Bernard is Belgian, and through him we get word of how our election has been received in Europe. They are rejoicing and they are relieved, and Tuesday night is going to change them, too.

So here we go, off on the next leg of our adventure. This monastery, and these monks, are looking forward to being part of the pilgrimage, wherever it leads, whatever it brings.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Friends of Raphael

Sorry for my absence last week. I was flat on my back in bed, dealing with a virus that kept coming back for another round. Sometimes when I miss writing on Sundays I am able to make it up later in the week, sometimes not. This is one of the weeks when all of the stuff that piled up while I was in bed just did not allow time for writing.

But here I am this week, and today I'm reflecting on the joys and the scariness of undertaking new ventures at a very uncertain time. But if we let uncertainty keep us from adventures, sooner or later we won't do anything, so we're going on.

I think I've mentioned before that in the past year we have been exploring ways of reaching out to the disadvantaged and the poor in this area. This has always been part of the ministry of our Order, and now we're looking in new places and in new ways. We have a really great leader in this adventure - Br James. Jim has experience and imagination and talent behind him and he has been moving us in this direction for some time. Now I've made him the Director of Outreach Ministries and he's beginning to move - and to move us - in some new directions.

One of the truisms of Guesthouse work is that the customers of retreat centers are almost entirely middle and upper-middle class people. Why? Well, to begin with, these are the people who have the money to travel and to pay for staying overnight in retreat houses. And, it is often said, retreats are primarily an agenda of those who are fairly comfortable. For these people the basics of life are not a problem, and they have time and energy to devote to an inner exploration. People for whom life is more of a struggle, according to this view, just don't think in terms of retreats.

Oh, really?

That is a truism, but is it the truth? Might reality be different from that? When Jim was talking about what we might do at a recent community meeting he reflected that when you slip into the status of being poor, almost everything is taken away. The reality of becoming poor is that you loose access to housing and food and medical care, and you also lose access to beauty, and leisure and the opportunities of the spiritual life. That doesn't mean that people don't care and don't need these things. In fact, most of the studies I've seen indicate that beauty is one of the most fundamental things that people need in order to thrive.

So a while ago we set out to see what the truth of this might be. We located an agency in Poughkeepsie that deals with poor people who have AIDS. Some of their clients are actually homeless - they live on the streets. Some live in shelters. Some live in marginal housing. All are poor - and most are very poor. We proposed to the agency that we wanted to offer what we do best; we wanted to offer their clients a beautiful place to come to for a spiritual opportunity. We would, in fact, have them here for a Quiet Day, one of the most tried and true spiritual exercises that the Episcopal Church knows. A Quiet Day for the homeless poor? Some people laughed. Their vision of a Quiet Day is polite ladies and cucumber sandwiches.

But not the agency. They didn't laugh. They nearly cried, in fact. They have people who offer money or food, but they said that no one had ever offered a spiritual opportunity. Not ever.

Would it work? Who knew? But we planned our first Quiet Day. We organized transportation - a vital part of getting people as far as the front door - and Jim planned a simple program, and for the rest of it we just offered what we have, our prayer, our place, our (wonderful) food, our life. The agency said not to count on much the first time. They estimated that maybe 4 to 6 people would come, because their clients are not adventurous, or so they said. They would wait and see. If it looked good, they might come later on. And what happened? The first time we had 25 people. And they loved it. They loved it a lot. And they came back. And so St Raphael's Place was born.

Archangel Raphael
Originally uploaded by iconguy1

We named this program for the Archangel Raphael, whose name in Hebrew means "God Heals". Br Joseph painted a breathtakingly beautiful icon of Raphael to be the symbol of this ministry. St Raphael's Place has now evolved into a monthly Quiet Day for poor people with AIDS. And they love their Quiet Days, just like suburban housewives and stock brokers love their quiet times here. And they have become our friends, just as so many of the people who come here have. They are not just the faceless poor now - they have names and faces and identities. We look forward to their being here and to the meal that we share with them. It turned out not to be hard to share our Guesthouse and its riches with people just because they are poor and homeless. All we had to do was open the door and make it possible for them to come in. That took some doing, but in the end it was quite doable.

And Jim, who supervises this program, says that they have extraordinary experiences of the Holy and of God while they are here. And they talk about their experience and about what that has meant for their lives. And they have other experiences. One couple met here, and began a relationship and fell in love and got engaged. They were looking forward to their marriage, just as any couple in love might be, and then she died. The next time that St Raphael's Place opened, the man, the survivor, said that he didn't think he could manage to come back here. And then he said that he didn't think he could manage to stay away. This after all, was the place where the two of them began the most real experience of love they had ever had. How could he not come back?

These people weren't the first people to fall in love here - not by a long shot. It happens from time to time and we expect it. Why shouldn't it happen to people who come to St Raphael's Place?

So that's where we are now. We started out determined to explore whether poor people with AIDS had any need of what we offer. The answer has been pretty clear. We are convinced of the importance of soup kitchens and social service agencies, but we aren't a soup kitchen or an agency. We're a Benedictine Monastery. We wanted to see if the Benedictine life had any relevance to these people.

It does.

Now we have to see what comes next. We're going to consult with some people who work in outreach ministry in the Hudson Valley and see what they think and what they perceive the opportunities to be. We're going to apply for grants. We're going to use our imagination. And we'll see what comes.

The founder of Holy Cross, Fr James Huntington, was a remarkable man who had a personality that combined a deep contemplative spirit with the soul of a man who loved the poor. It would be hard to me to imagine Holy Cross without both of those elements in its life. We're trying to find out how to live this out in the conditions of our own day. It's not hard to picture Fr Huntington smiling at this new venture. At his death his last words were: "I will always intercede", and I think he prays for St Raphael's Place.

As I say from time to time, stay tuned. More will be coming.