Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cool?

Some time ago I had a back injury and was at the Chiropractor’s office getting a treatment. I was standing at the reception desk checking in and the Chiropractor’s 12 year old daughter was sitting nearby. I knew the receptionist and we were having the sort of conversation that you have when someone you know is checking you in. She asked about some of the things that were going on at the Monastery, and as the conversation progressed I could see the girl getting intrigued. Finally she sidled up to both of us, looked at me and said: “Hey, are you a monk?” “Yes,” I said somewhat reluctantly because I know what can come after that question. “Cool!” she said, and went back to what she was doing.

Before that day no one had ever said “Cool!” when they found out I was a monk. I’ve had all kinds of reactions, mostly ranging from incomprehension to curiosity to downright hostility. But never had I had that total positive acceptance that teenagers specialize in. “Something,” I thought, “is definitely changing.”

Part of this is where we live. If I remind you that we live 20 miles from Woodstock, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this area is full of monasteries – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, you name it. We are thicker on the ground here than most places in the USA. And part of it comes from her mother, who is a very open and deeply spiritual person. But I am used to having to work for my acceptance.

Twenty years ago, when I was actively involved with the work of the Youth Department of the Diocese of Kansas, I had that kind of immediate acceptance from the kids, but I had to work for it. At first they were as suspicious of me as they were of most unknown adults and it took a couple of years to work my way into their world. I had to spend time talking to some of them late at night about the puzzles of life and I had to hold some of them when a crisis hit and I had to be silly at the lunch table. Most of all I had to prove that I was genuinely interested in who they are and that my loving wasn’t phony. And I later found out that the last real barrier came down one afternoon when I was going into one of their cabins at Camp and tripped on the threshold and let out a ripe series of profanities. “That’s when we decided we could trust you” one of the guys said to me later.

And then they took me and my life for granted. Of course I was a monk. Of course that was cool. When their friends laughed at the monks who appear in commercials on TV they would say: “Oh no, monks aren’t anything like that. Let me tell you………..” They brought their friends for comfort and understanding. I knew their wishes and their fears and they knew what my version of a monastery was like. Some of the guys even went into bars in Wichita recruiting for Church Camp. (we had an interesting bunch of guys). So I’m not unused to having the monastic life thought of as a cool possibility by young people.

But it didn’t come naturally to people raised in our society, and to many, many people it still doesn’t. When I talked to the rector of a congregation in Connecticut that has been bringing groups here for years about why so many people in his congregation who would benefit from a weekend retreat at Holy Cross won’t even consider the possibility of coming here, he was quite clear that the chief reason is fear. they know quite clearly (they think) what this place is like – we never talk, the food is sparse and bad, the buildings are stone and cold and the people are unfriendly. You can spend all the time you want telling them that everything is the opposite of that and they won’t believe it. That particular set of projections is solid and well-established and is reinforced by the movies they see and by the TV they watch. They don’t want any part of it. And so again, we work for our acceptance and for the privilege of simply being who we are.

But things are changing. It isn’t only one kid saying “Cool” that makes me think so. I am going down this path today because this week we had a bunch of seminarians from Princeton here. Princeton Seminary sends a group every January. It varies in size from 20 to 35 (this year was one of the larger ones). They stay for several days and they thrive here. The loosely structured retreat we plan for them is balm for their souls. The quiet, the prayer, the good food (and more than anything the time to take advantage of all of these things) is something they almost invariably receive as a wonderful gift. Most of them find that when they enter here they are entering a world of unknown possibilities – they have never really encountered monastic spirituality before and they are intrigued and drawn in. They don’t know what to expect they find a place of opportunity for inner freedom and exploration. Some of them even begin by saying: “Cool!” Almost all of them are saying it by the time they leave.

They are young, extremely intelligent, very curious, and quite open: that’s part of it. They have grown up in a world where diversity and acceptance are big values: that’s another part of it. They are willing to accept possibilities that they haven’t encountered before, and they really value authenticity. When they find out that we are really committed to Christ and to this life we spend in Christ’s service, their hearts open.

And of course they change us. Their high-energy, bouncy, inquisitive searching never ends. They want to talk about deep questions day and night. They are willing to be silent and to explore silence, and their exploration is very intense. Having them here is a great privilege and, at least for me, extremely rewarding. It also demands as much energy from us as they put into it and that, to put it mildly, is something of a challenge to an almost-70-year-old. And it is also evidence that things are changing. It is actually thinkable now that someone can look at monastic life lived in the 1500 year old tradition of St Benedict and say: “Cool!” What we have to give to this world is meeting a new kind of audience. We’ll have to be ready for that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

On Doing What You're Doing - or not

Last week I went away to the country for a few days.

I know that will sound laughable to many, if not most of you. What is West Park, New York if not The Country? There are plenty of places on the property here where it is easy enough to imagine that you are the only person in the world. We have a view of miles and miles of river and hills. Often the only sounds are birds and the trains that pass on the other side of the Hudson River. We are most people's definition of "away".

Nevertheless, I went away. I went to visit a friend who lives in a valley west of here, and being at her place is really Away. Here we have all of the communication devices of the modern world - Internet, Cable, email, cell phones. The nearest shopping center is not any further away than it is for most suburban dwellers and the nearest mall isn't much further than that, nor is the 12 plex cinema. The house I went to is quite different. It's a converted barn and it's the essence of simplicity. One big room downstairs and one big room upstairs (plus bathrooms and another very small room on each floor). Lots of glass, lots of light, lots of trees and fields, lots of quiet. And, though the nearest houses are nearer to her than I am used to, the simplicity makes up for that: no TV, no radio, no signal for a cell phone, no movies in local town and the only mall went broke several years ago. We had a few CD's for music, a wood stove for a nice fire, lots of candles and good conversation. We cooked some killer meals. We were quiet. Heaven!

And in the midst of that simple relaxing space I had a significant learning experience. I was washing the breakfast dishes one morning (yes, by hand!). I was so relaxed that I was doing nothing but what I was doing and only thinking about what I was doing. And I wasn't doing it as a Practice, but I was actually doing what Practice is designed to lead to: I was just there. There wasn't anything else to do but wash the next utensil, and there wasn't anything to think about but how to apply the soapy water.

In fact, I was washing a knife - I do remember that. I had the sponge in my right hand and the knife in my left hand, and I can still see the suds and smell the gentle lemony scent of the dishwashing liquid. I was just - and only - washing that silver table knife. And all of a sudden there was this twisting inside. It was down in my gut and it felt like I was being twisted out of alignment. It was completely physical and it felt like I had just turned in the wrong direction. It was very unpleasant.

What was this? I knew almost instantaneously. It was my body's reaction to the instant in which I stopped being in that present moment and began to think about something other than what I was doing. I had taken my mind off the knife I was washing and started to think about something else, and my body had reacted physically and loudly.

I was able to be aware of this, of course, because I was so relaxed. I had very few things to think about that day. I had slept very well the night before and the biggest event of the current day was going to be making the fire in the stove. I was, to put it mildly, not very distracted. I had a simple task to approach in a simple way and that was it. Nor was my distracting thought anything of any significance. It was so irrelevant that I can't even remember what it was, except I retain a sense that it was of no significance. It was just a random distraction. What was going on was that I had actually gotten relaxed enough to notice what was going on inside me. And my insides had responded with a message: "this is what happens when you try to do one thing and think about something else."

Wow! To think that I had never noticed that. Most days I walk around in a fog of distractions. I'm rarely completely focused on being where I am and doing what I'm doing. I carry around a very active mind that feeds me with all kinds of things to think about that have nothing to do with where I am or what I'm doing. Meditation is no different: it is a school of learning about how fragmented my mind usually is. But for one precious moment at the sink last week, I actually had an experience of the price that I pay for living like that. The price is being twisted out of alignment, and I presumably pay that price nearly every moment of every day. I had just never felt it before.

So what is going to change as a result of this enlightening experience? Well, if the days since then are any indication, nothing much. It all feels pretty much the same as it did before. Am I more centered? Well, no.

Or is that true? It is true that I don't discern much difference in my foggy distracted states, but it's also true that this experience of the price I pay for living that way shows no signs of decreasing in importance for me. It seems to have been one of those rare but priceless moments of actually waking up to reality. And so what I think about reality has also changed. Where I think I am headed has also changed. I think it would be a big mistake to try to force myself back to that experience or to try to force my days into that mold - that would just be to multiply internal conflict. But what I think - no , what I know - about the world has shifted. And that is going to shift how I live. Quite simply, I know that is so, even if I can't see quite how that will work itself out.

I had a brief, momentary experience of how I was made to be in alignment with my actions, and of how rarely I live in harmony with that. Of course, I knew that before. I've known it for years. Every spiritual book I read tells me that. I talk about it to other people. I have known that it's true for years, decades. I had just not seen it at this depth. I'm not feeling judgmental about that, it is just a consequence of living in this world. And seeing that - actually seeing and feeling it - doesn' seem to have to have changed anything. It also seems to have changed everything.

Who knows where this is headed? But it is exciting.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Pain of Being Grateful

When you were young did your mother sit you down after Christmas and tell you it was time to write thank you notes for your Christmas presents? Did you hate it when she did that? Me too.

It's not that I lacked gratitude. I was almost always genuinely pleased with what had come in the way of gifts and was certainly happy and thankful for them. But something about being sat down and made to write about my gratitude was really tough, and I resisted it with all my strength. Come to think of it, being made to express gratitude in any way was not something that filled my heart with joy ("Say thank you to Aunt Sarah." "Awwwww, Mom.")

Obviously this isn't confined to me. I watch kids being trained and realize that this is a universal dilemma. Nor is it confined to children. A friend of mine is a parish priest in a sizable and very active parish. The congregation enjoys liturgy and does it well. They participate enthusiastically in the Prayers of the People each week. Every anguish of the world, every pain of their friends, every political or social injustice is brought before God and named as the Prayer goes on. And then, just at the end, comes what my friend refers to as "the most embarrassing moment of the week" when the person leading the Prayer says: "And now let us give thanks for all God's goodness to us." And the church falls silent. Nothing is said. No one gives thanks. Hello???? Is anyone out there grateful?

This is on my mind at this particular time because, of course, this is the time of the year when thankfulness is required. This is the time when people have been particularly generous to us, sometimes astoundingly so. Do I feel grateful? You bet. This is a community that really does operate on faith. We have no endowment (yet - I'm working on that), we have no large capital funds. We charge less for people to stay in the Guesthouse than it costs us to house them. Where would we be if people weren't generous? Many, many people give to us, especially at this time of the year, in gratitude for what they have found here, and because of that we can be here in 2008 as well. Am I grateful for that? I sure am. So do I feel like sitting down and writing letters that express my gratitude? Now I have asked the really embarrassing question.

Where is my mother when I really need her? She would make me sit down and do this.

In fact, when I actually sit down and write to people and tell them of our gratitude for their generosity, I almost always have a wonderful time. I love letting my gratitude out. I am truly awed by the commitment of our friends to our ministry here, and telling them of that is often pure joy. As I write those letters I smile, I laugh, I get teary. When I'm done I feel great satisfaction. It really does feel right. Then the next day I have more notes to write and I have to call on my mother and force myself all over again to sit down and write.

Sigh. What is all this about? Why is there this resistance? What keeps my gratitude from bursting through at every minute? It could, but it doesn't. Why?

Regular readers of this column will I know that, like many writers, I use questions as a set-up. I ask a question like I just did, as though I didn't know the answer, and then I proceed to deliver the answer. It's a rhetorical device. But this week it was more than that. When I first thought about this dilemma earlier in the week and knew I wanted to write about it, I asked that question of myself. What is the reason for this resistance? And I had no answer. I didn't know. I couldn't tell what my solution was and I didn't know why I didn't know. All I knew was that there was this big resistance to letting my gratitude out on paper.

So I had to do the only thing I know how to do, and that's just to feel the resistance. Let it be there, don't judge it, don't try to push it away, let it have its voice, let it say what it needs to say.

This isn't always easy to do, but having practiced this for a number of years now, I know that it can often be enlightening, and so it happened this week. I listened, I sat, I attended. The answer came in the form of a feeling; a feeling that I don't want to be this vulnerable. It's too scary.

How interesting! I would never have thought of this in connection with this particular issue. But when I think of sitting down and writing of my gratitude I realize that I do have to make myself vulnerable. I, after all, am not in charge of this situation. These gifts came because someone else decided to be generous. I need to meet that generosity with gratitude - or rather, the gratitude is there, I just need to tell them of it. And to be honest about it, I need to write about my feeling of gratitude at a deeper level than I usually let myself think of it or feel it. To write what I really feel about how grateful we are and how important this is for us and the future of this place and how deeply I value the ways in which people care for us, all of this is difficult. I've already hinted at why this is so; it's hard to write this stuff because it's hard to let myself feel this stuff. This place isn't here because of me and my efforts, however skillful they may be. It's here because of God's goodness and because a lot of people care about us. I find it hard to feel - to really feel - that. At base I guess I'm like a lot of other guys: I am a lot better at loving than at letting myself be loved. And I'm a whole lot better at showing love than in writing someone about how it feels to be valued and loved.

I don't think I've come to the end of this yet. This is just the first level of what my resistance had to say. But it gives me a handle of why this whole thing is so troublesome. And ok, maybe this is such a difficult thing to do because something about it scares me. Well, I'm a big boy now, I can walk through that. And maybe having done this particular bit of work will help me the next time.

And I also think this ties in with what I was writing last week about being generous. Generosity and gratitude are both attitudes that come with practice. Making them part of my practice will be important. I have read from time to time of the real power that is turned loose in the lives of people who have learned to live gratefully, who have learned how to receive each moment with thanks. It rings true to me and I know at a deep level that it certainly is true. To practice it: ah, now, that is the thing.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

When Empty is not Empty

Everything here is now quite different from the past several weeks. On New Year’s Day we finished our big Advent/Christmas push and closed the Guesthouse for two weeks, as we do each year. Now it is just us. We also have a reduced liturgical schedule so there is more open space in the course of each day than there usually is.

Having this set of buildings all to ourselves is very different from the way we live most of the time. It seems, well, vast. I’ve been told by those who delight in measurement that this set of buildings is 1/10 of a mile long. What I do know is that it accommodates our community and 50 guests without trouble. Now there is just us – 14 of us, to be exact, and soon to be less, as various community members take short vacations or other trips.

Having the Guesthouse closed also changes nearly every experience of the day. Many communities that run large guesthouses separate themselves from the guests to a good degree, but we don’t. With the exception of Mondays, when we are usually closed, there are always people in the Monastery Church praying with us, people in the common spaces talking with us, people in the conference rooms conferring with us, people in the refectory eating with us. The guests are a major part of the fabric of our lives, and this is a big part of the ministry of this place. It gives the place its feel. Now it feels completely different.

During this time a few people from the neighborhood will occasionally stop by for one of the Offices, and 5 people were here to celebrate Epiphany Mass with us this morning. Only very close friends will be here for a meal, but that will happen now and then. Mostly, though, it’s us. The melodies of Gregorian Chant fill a largely empty church. The common rooms have no people in them. Meals are often much more spacious: the chef is on vacation so we cook for each other, and we often spend much longer over a meal, relaxing and talking with each other.

Of course, the feeling of everything changes during this time. A major dimension of it for me is actually feeling how exhausting the Christmas time has been. Yes, we have a measured and simple approach to Advent, about which I have been writing, and yes, we have years of experience in how to take care of ourselves in a situation like this. But it is still an American Christmas, and this time of guests coming and going for two weeks with no break for us has worn out almost all of us. We need to sleep; we need to be quiet; we need a less demanding schedule. I feel in my bones just how much I need this time.

The pace of work is different, too. There’s time to spend doing things in the incense workshop that have been neglected, and building up the stores of incense after the Christmas rush. There is a lot of desk work connected with the end of the year and the financial part of the year-end time. There are lots (and I do mean lots) of thank-you’s to be written and end of the year notes to be acknowledged and responded to. There’s not a lot of leisure to this time, but it has a different pace and a different focus.

And of course, one of the things that can’t be ignored is that much of the place is empty.

And what is empty like? Well, first of all, there’s a heck of a lot of space that isn’t filled, so it resonates and echoes. And there are people and occasions that I miss. Right now I’m relieved that we have the place to ourselves, but I know that by the middle of the month when we open again I’ll be glad that time has come. I will look forward to the return of our guests.

But this week I’ve been listening to the emptiness and reflecting on what I’m noticing and what I seem to see is that this emptiness isn’t – well, it isn’t empty. When there are so few people around it is a lot easier to really notice, an immerse myself in, the fullness that fills the people-less halls.

I notice it most clearly when I go into our Church, (and I have to note that I notice it not only when it is empty but also when it is full of people.) Our Church is narrow and high, and it is so high that it always has a cavernous dimension. Lots of empty space there. But that space never feels empty to me. There is a presence there. And to me it’s one of the most noticeable things about this place. That presence penetrates all of our space: it penetrates all of our lives. When the place empties out like it does in early January each year, it is easier to notice that presence in every part of our buildings. Fr. James Hungtington, our founder, talked about “the quiet that ever broods within our walls” and I hear the same brooding quiet that he did. Over the decades the silence in which that brooding flourishes, and the presence that lives within that silence, has soaked into the plaster and between the stones. It has its own voice. It is not unusual for people who have never been here to encounter this particular aspect of this place on their way down the driveway on their first visit. They get about halfway down the drive when they first think: "Whoa." They may not know what it is at first, but they notice it. And they tell us about it, either at the time or years later. What is this that lives here in the emptiness and the spaces? I guess its years and years of prayer.

Once when someone asked me what it was like during these times I said: “It’s just us and the angels”. I wouldn’t want to push that too far, but it does express something of what I experience in this time and ultimately what monasteries are for. We are here to be a place where we have opened to another dimension of human life. We are one of what the Celts call “the thin places”, where the division between the physical and the spiritual almost doesn’t hold. It’s why I never enter our Church without feeling moved and it’s part of why I have wanted to be here for more than 4 decades. It’s a big part of why a couple of thousand guests come here each year. Many, many people have found that when they step into our space they step into a space that is full of God. And they don’t just believe it; they feel it.

Me too. In this first two weeks of January our emptiness isn't just empty. Not at all. What a privilege to live with the fullness of this time.