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.

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