Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Retreat For Lent

This week we had our Quarterly Retreat. We have four retreats a year, and this year our winter retreat fell during Lent because Lent has come so early. This retreat is usually in February and Lent snuck up on it this time.

These retreats are really great times, but it wasn't always that way, and it took some time and some careful work to make sure our retreats worked well for us. We have these retreats because we feel the need to stop every now and then to have some quiet time: we need a time of silence. Because we run a large and quite successful Guesthouse, we have a busy life that's full of people. It's a wonderful life in very many ways, but it is one that is very much tilted to the active side of things and to engagement with our guests. We need an alternative from time to time. So silence is one of our needs. Simplicity is another need. Our pattern during retreat is to have fewer Offices and not to have the usual meetings, appointments and such at all. We don't even have choir practice. We aim to have a leisured time, and one that has as much space as possible, so it will be an effective alternative to our usual pattern of living. Time for long walks, extended study, lengthy naps; whatever you need to bring you back in balance, we hope this will help provide it. Most of us look forward to these times with some anticipation.

It took a while to work it out. For most of the years of the community's life we had one day of retreat a month. That was the pattern, and it was holy. It was set in stone. Almost all of the Episcopal monastic communities did it. One day a month. You took it on your own schedule, so usually the community was engaged in its ordinary work (and talk) while you did your best to have your private retreat, which had to be worked around the usual schedule of the community's daily life. It was one of the givens; it was what the Religious Life was all about. We didn't quite believe that the monthly retreat was given to Moses along with the Ten Commandments, but it was right up there in priority.

Then an interesting thing happened. We got into a conversation about the monthly retreat in the course of a meeting about another topic. It just came up sideways, one of those things that slips in when you least expect it. Somehow in the midst of a conversation about another agenda we found ourselves talking about the monthly retreat and discovered that no one in the room - nobody - got anything much out of this sanctified tradition. We all thought that taking time for retreat was a really good thing. But no one felt that the practice taking one day a month while everyone else went on as usual "did it" for them. There wasn't enough time to settle down. We never got really quiet or relaxed enough to pray the way we wanted to. It felt as compressed as the rest of life often did.

Fortunately we had the sense to set to work and do something about it. We could have said: "But this is the Holy Tradition. It has to be kept like this. Our wise ancestors laid it down this way, and they knew what they were talking about." Instead we recognized that this tradition of regular retreats was important, while also recognizing that what we were doing wasn't working. So what would work? Well, if a day a month was where we started, how about 3 days once every 3 months? Everyone thought it sounded good (a minor miracle in itself) and so we started. The rest of it we have worked out as we went along. I doubt if this particular form of retreat practice will last eternally, but it works for now. When it doesn't work any more, we will probably still have the sense to look at it and see what is needed at the time. For now it is a really blessed way to do it.

We even changed things a bit this time. In this retreat we spent some time for some spiritual sharing with each other. Suzette read the Dr Seuss story: "Horton Meets a Who" and we reflected together on what we heard. It was a good time. It was light-hearted and it was deep. It was a good time that enriched our silence. Who knows where we will develop that from here? We just need to keep open to the possibilities.

There's a bigger principle here. In our reading at the mid-day meal on Saturdays we have been hearing a book about the spirituality of Lent. This past Saturday the passage we were hearing was one in which the author suggested that in setting up a pattern of spiritual practice you pay attention to how you schedule things to make sure that you're cooperating with the energy of your body and your day. She said that she has found that if she journals in the morning and has time for praying in the evening that works fine, but it seems to be all wrong if she tries it the other way around. She says that you need to take account of the energy of your day, and what will fit naturally into which period, and my experience is that she is right. Cooperating with how your day wants to be prayed will get you a lot further than starting out with a theoretical pattern of how the spiritual life "should be" and working from there. If you pay attention carefully enough, you can uncover the ways in which your life is asking to be prayed. If you can cooperate with that, you may find a pattern of prayer, reading, journaling or whatever that you can engage in and be enthusiastic about, rather than one that you are fighting with all the time.

At one time in my life I had to pay attention to this in a big way. I was going through a big emotional transition, and the psychological work I was engaged in was intense. I was accustomed to meditating first thing in the morning and I had done that for many years, but I was beginning to find that it was harder and harder to do. I was doing it less and less frequently. I spent more time fighting to stay seated on my mat than I did cooperating with my discipline. We all go through difficult times, and staying with it can be very productive in those times, but an extended trial of that proved that it was just making it worse. So what to do? Give up meditating? I tried that, and that didn't feel right either. What to do? Finally I asked myself what would feel right, what would make it possible for me to pray. When I did that, the answer came fairly quickly; I needed to get up each morning, get my shower as usual, get ready for the day, and then make a cup of tea and get back into bed for my prayer time. With the warmth of the tea, and the comfort of the blanket, and the support of the mattress, I had enough of what I needed that I could pray. It was usually pretty informal and not very patterned. But I was there . I could be in that space and let my life unfold before God and pray it - even if I wasn't using words. It wasn't my usual pattern, but it did work, and it cooperated with the energy of my life well enough to keep me going in a creative way. And my spiritual director was delighted when he heard about it.

Now paying attention to the energy of your life is not always the same thing as being in your Comfort Zone (especially if what your comfort zone is doing for you is zoning you out). The real energy of the situation may involve some challenge. When I conduct meditation retreats I frequently encounter people who say something like: "I simply can't meditate longer that 10 (or 15, or 20) minutes. I can't stay with it any longer. It isn't productive to be that distracted and jittery." In those cases I often suggest that if they can only meditate for 20 minutes, they should try meditating for 21 minutes and see what happens. Often you need to go to the edge of a situation and work from there. A little bit of "edge work" - nothing huge, just a bit - can often make for a big change. It's very useful to have someone to talk to about all of this, of course. Healing insight so often comes from another person.

But this week I'm being drawn to the task of being open to the demands of your own personality and your own body, and working with the challenges that they present. That, in my experience, can often yield very productive ways of going forward, as it did for us and for our retreats.

What about you? Anything to share from your own experience of creating a way to pray?

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Banquet of Many Courses

I'm posting early this week because I'll be away over the weekend, first at a house party to say goodbye to close friends who are moving to Denver, and then to see an exhibition of Tibetan art at the Rubin Museum in New York City. (I'm excited)

Lent. What are you doing for Lent? Is there any point in "doing something for Lent"? Is this a custom with any meaning these days?

The community has talked about these issues and over the years we've done different things, including nothing. This year, whatever the reason may be, there was a good deal of energy on finding something that we could do that would be appropriately Lenten and also meaningful. What we decided on in the end follows pretty closely the thoughts I put down last week on small changes. This year our Lenten observance focuses on our noon meal each day.

The noon meal is our main meal. Supper is a smaller meal, appropriate for people who go to bed pretty early. It still strikes me as odd to refer to our noon meal as "lunch" since it's the big meal of the day, but in this society there isn't any other way to communicate about the meals. If we try calling it "dinner" that just confuses people, because everyone knows that dinner is in the evening. So lunch it is.

Whatever it's called, this meal is served 5 days a week. Our guesthouse is closed from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, and on those days we forage on left-overs or cook our favorite things in small groups, or have little expeditions to some local diner, or whatever we like. On Wednesdays through Sundays the meal normally begins with silence while we read aloud from a book. The reading is sometimes spiritual, sometimes history or biography or travel or social commentary. Very occasional we hit on a book that combines all, or most, of those things. The reading lasts through about two-thirds of the meal, and then we have a space for conversation to finish the meal with.

When we had our discussion about Lent, the noon meal seemed like a good place to focus some of our energy about what we wanted to do during this season, and our conversation followed the trail blazed by the recent changes in other parts of the day about which I have written earlier. There was an obvious attraction to silence, as the earlier silences of each day had proved to be so fruitful. But we didn't want to lose the richness of the readings either. People so seldom read aloud to each other at this time in history, and it's a form of communication and relationship that has gone into eclipse. Guests often refer to our reading at meals as one of their favorite parts of a stay here. So we didn't want to loose that, either. And there was also a desire to focus more closely on the themes of this season, rather than just continuing to read on in the book by Peter Gomes that we had been reading. Out of these desires we have fashioned a sort of banquet for ourselves - a banquet of several experiences or courses. On Wednesdays and Fridays we have our meal in complete silence. On Thursdays and Saturdays we read. We have chosen two books for our reading, one an ancient text and one contemporary. On Sundays we honor the festal nature of the day by having conversation with the meal.

I love the silent meals. First of all, the silence connects me directly to the spiritual nature of the meal. Our Founder referred to "the silence which ever broods within our walls". For me a silent meal brings this silence, and the One who lives at the heart of this silence, into our meal and more intimately into my life. Silence is for listening, and the listening for God of these meal times is something that I value a lot.

I also get to attend to other things. First there is the scenery. The beauty of the Hudson River Valley that is spread out before us through the huge windows that are a part of our Refectory is always an attraction. Then just seeing the community and guests and reflecting on what I know of each one and of their joys and their struggles gives nourishment to go along with the food. And then there's the food itself, of course, which is normally excellent. Edward, our chef, sees to that. In silence I can concentrate closely on the flavors and the textures of the dishes we have for that day. And I can concentrate on my eating; I can do it more slowly and mindfully. I can feel my stomach as it welcomes the food and gradually becomes fuller and fuller until it reaches the moment when I am full and need to stop eating. It is possible to give attention to these processes when there is reading or conversation, but it's more complicated. It's a multi-tasking sort of thing, and doesn't always work for me. Having quiet time to attend is a gift.

And the reading is proving quite provocative. On Thursdays we are reading from the Lenten homilies of the Venerable Bede, my namesake. Bede was a monk of the Eighth Century in what is now England, and he wrote a history of the English Church (for which he is best known). He also wrote a series of scientific text books, the first to be used in Europe, and a number of commentaries on Scripture. And he left behind a number of homilies, some of which we are reading. I'm enjoying this reading. I like it because it isn't relevant. These are the thoughts and concerns of another age. They don't address our problems or our concerns. But just because of that something more universal shines through them. In the things he addresses, though they were meant to convey the Faith to people living in England in the 700's, I hear the deep concerns of everyone, no matter what age they live in. These homilies throw my own issues into relief, just because they don't address them directly. The struggle to believe, to live a life of faith, to conform one's life to the Gospel, all of this is very clearly central to what he says. I'm quite taken with old Bede's sermons.

On Saturdays we are reading from a contemporary book - "A Clearing Season - Reflections for Lent" by Sarah Parsons. This is a very contemporary book, one which is contains incisive understanding of the season of Lent and conveys it with a combination of spiritual and psychological insight, flavored with the spirituality of other faith traditions. I like this one because it is relevant; relevant to the struggles of the moment and the joys of this season. It's good, practical, spiritual reading. And it is arranged in chapters that address the meanings of each week of Lent, so it's perfect for reading to a group of weekend guests, because it focuses on the theme of that particular weekend.

On Sundays we talk. Relaxation seems appropriate to the celebration of our Holy Day, and conversation is natural for celebration. We mingle with our guests and share something of our lives with them and hear something of their experience of a weekend with us. We have dessert. The rigors of the season relax a bit. It's fun. It's especially fun when you realize that it's leading into the further relaxation of our Sabbath time which begins on Sunday evening and lasts through Monday.

So we have laid out for ourselves a Lenten banquet of many courses. Each has its own flavor and its own nourishment. Each brings something different. I'm enjoying this way of keeping Lent and getting a lot out of it. I'm glad we took the time to develop this plan out of the many desires that arose in our common conversation. It's one of the real joys of community life.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Little is a Lot (less is more?)

We've made a couple of small changes here in the past month. Since I had a lot to do with suggesting them, it's not surprising that I'm pleased with the outcome. But it has also given me a lot to think about.

The first change has to do with praying for others. After the Eucharist most mornings we have a community meeting, which we call Chapter (the historical reason for that is that a chapter of St. Benedict's Rule is read at the beginning of the meeting). As part of the meeting we go around to each member of the community so that he (or she - remember our Residents!) can let the community know about what is happening for them each day, make requests, ask for assistance with a job, etc. It's the organizational time for the coming day.

Now often enough one or another person will ask us to remember someone in prayer. The request is usually something that is quite important to the person making it, something that doesn't seem adequately attended to by just mentioning it at the Prayers of the People at Mass. Sometimes the stories of the people we're asked to pray for are heartbreaking. Sometimes the issue is personal enough that the person presenting it doesn't feel comfortable mentioning it in a public situation with all our guests around.

I got to wondering if we didn't need some formal way to respond to those requests. None of us bring a prayer request to Chapter if it isn't important to us, so don't we need to respond when someone asks us to pray? I had no way of knowing how each of us responded to those requests after the meeting was over, but I know that I sometimes forget all about them, at least until Chapter the next day. So I suggested that we have a time at the end of the meeting when I ask if there are any matters for prayer. People could mention anything on their heart, and then we'd have a space of silence, and close with a very short spoken prayer.

So we started. One of the surprises was how many people wanted to participate. When we just asked for prayers as part of our going around the circle, this is something that happened maybe once or twice a week, and sometimes not that often, so my expectation is that there would often be mornings when there was no particular agenda to be mentioned. In fact, there hasn't been a single day since we began when someone hasn't brought something. The second surprise for me has been the quality of the prayer time. It very quickly became not just a formal time when we weren't talking, but a deep pool of silence that our requests are dropped into. It's very intense, and it's a silence that almost speaks because it is so real. It gives us real time to respond to the needs of the heart that have been brought to us, and several members of the community have spoken about how important a time it has become for them. I also tend to remember those people or situations, and to pray for them, as the day goes on.

Our second change concerns leaving the Church after the Eucharist is over. We used to begin Chapter directly after Mass, and the community would leave just as soon as the dismissal was given. But this felt abrupt to me, and I increasingly thought that more time was needed to make the break with the encounter with Christ that had just happened in our midst before we go off to a completely different kind of experience. And I can also mention that sometimes the exit from Church had the aspect of a battle charge, and no guest would dare to stand in the aisle for fear of being run over. So I thought, how about starting Chapter 10 minutes after Mass ends? Just a small break to make things seem less rushed and more leisurely.

Again the result has surprised and pleased me. I almost always stay in the Church, so I don't know what it feels like in the other parts of the house, but for me the sense of depth has been noticeable. I get to linger and savor the experience of Christ within me. I get to wind up one experience before beginning another. And as as result, I am more 'there' at our Chapter, and that meeting has a fuller, more present sense that it has had for me. So we are honoring not only the Eucharist that has finished, but the Chapter that is about to begin. I also notice that as time passes the number of community members who remain in Church for those 10 minutes has increased noticeably.

Two tiny changes - one lasts 10 minutes, the other a lot less than that, and they have changed the whole feeling of how I enter the day. I now go forward a lot more collected (and recollected), a lot more peacefully, and often with a significant amount of joy. Nor am I the only one who feels like that, though we haven't had an evaluation of the changes, so I don't know everyone's feelings. But what I have been thinking about is how important a very small thing often is, particularly in the living of the spiritual life. A small change can have large results. And persevering in a small change can have even bigger results.

As I have said before in these columns, Fr. James Huntington, our founder, had a way of writing memorable sentences. One of his most memorable occurs in the Rule he wrote for our community, in the Chapter "Of Food and Fasting" (good Lenten fare). He says: "It is to be remembered that a persistent and long-continued self-denial is often harder and of more spiritual benefit than an excessive austerity alternating with an abandonment to appetite."

I know exactly where excessive austerity alternating with an abandonment to appetite gets you. Nowhere. It doesn't change anything. I know this from a lot of experience over a good many years. That's why I'm a fan of small changes. Making a small change and sticking with it is almost always quite enough for me. The effort required, while minuscule at first, sometimes quickly escalates, and even becomes excruciating. That's because making a small change can actually mean making a change, while the larger, more heroic gestures, followed by a complete collapse don't involve really changing anything.

This latest chapter in our life has brought this to my attention again. Living into our new rhythm will give me plenty to occupy my energies during Lent. I won't need much more, if I really attend to what is going on as a result of our small changes.

What's your version of all this?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Start 'em Young!

Every once in a while something comes across my desk which is such a delight that I can't leave it unshared.  This week I got an email like that from a friend in Ithaca, whom I got to know in my recent Cornell work.  She is a very accomplished musician and she has a 2 year old daughter named Sabina whom I have known since she was just barely born.  She writes:

"I thought you would get a kick out of knowing that Sabina's new favorite book is the Monastic Breviary! While I had sung Compline by myself frequently while pregnant and a bit when she was very small, I have mostly been doing my devotions alone and quietly until last week. Sabina seemed a little restless before an afternoon nap so I pulled the Breviary off the shelf and chanted Diurnum. She was enthralled and now picks up the Breviary asking for "more stories"! Her favorite is Compline, though, which we have been singing every night. She is even learning some of the responses and will make up her own. This morning she sang her version of Matins to her sleepy parents: she would sing a few "verses" ending with "Mama" or "Papa" or "Bina" (I'm guessing these were intentional prayers), flip through a few pages and sing some more, flip through a few more pages and after a few more repetitions, end with "Ah ni Com-pleen".

She'll be 2 at the end of February. How soon should I sign her up to become an oblate? ;) "

Imagine growing up known what Compline is! And not only knowing what it is but how it sounds. Imagine not having to discover later that there are such things as Offices and that they can be part of a spiritual path. This story is not only delightful to me but also wondrous and provocative and encouraging. The spirituality of 2 year olds seems to flourish pretty naturally if allowed to.

What do you remember of the discovery the part of your life that grew to be your faith? I remember how itchy wool pants were (they were only worn to Church on Sunday). And I remember that I complained but didn't think of rebelling because there was a feeling about walking into the church that was different from anything else in my life. (All this comes the time when I was learning to tie my shoes, so it is pretty early.) I remember the little individual communion cups and feeling really sad that I couldn't drink one because I wasn't baptized (I was raised in the Baptist Church and was baptized when I was 16. And yes, I remember how fulfilling it was the first time that the plate full of little cups came by and I could take one.

But most of all I remember my first allowance, and I remember it well enough that it is one of my foundational stories. When I got old enough that it was agreed that I should have an allowance (and be expected to do chores around the house)the amount was set at 10 cents. I know it sounds ludricrous now, but at the time it was quite an adequate amount for a small boy. I certainly had ideas about what I would do with my own money, and movies and candy bars were at the top of the list. A date was set for the first payment and when it came my father made something of a ceremony of it. I still remember the solemnity of the occasion when the money was handed over, and to my surprise, it wasn't the dime I was expecting; it was 10 pennies. "I'm giving it to you this way" my father said,"so that you can put one of the pennies aside for the collection on Sunday." I remember the awesome feeling: I was now old enough to do what the adults did, and old enough to know that having my own money meant having an obligation to be generous.

When I was 13 the allowance went up to 50 cents, a consequence of the movie prices being raised when one reached that age. And of course the contribution to the Sunday Collection went up to 5 cents. By that time it was part of me; I enjoyed the feeling of putting the money in the plate when it came around. My life-long sense that part of the point of money is that it is not only my obligation but my joy to be generous, was well settled by then. And it has stayed with me all these years. I still have an allowance - we include in our budget a certain amount of money for each member of the community to have for personal expenses, and I still give 10 percent of it to a cause that I am particularly concerned with. That early foundational experience is a permanent part of my place in the world, and part of my tie to the Divine.

What are your memories of an unfolding spirituality? Most people have them, though they sometimes need help in reaching back to them. My Aunt used to tell of remembering being small enough that she was led by the hand to the Episcopal Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and snuggled up close to her grandfather's side and heard the music and smelled the incense, which seemed wondrous to her at the time. I know people for whom the sight of the sky or of a poor person opened the depths of life to them. I know people of no formal faith tradition at all who remember an early sense that I would clearly call spiritual. It's a part of us, and it unfolds early and it grows with us. Some people learn to nurture it and some don't. Some of us discover it much later on and then have a lot of catching up to do. But it comes from within, from those depths where God resides at the center of us.

I treasure the stories of Sabrina and the Breviary, and my of Aunt and the incense and of me and my pennies. They are one of the ways I am settled in God and nourished and guided by God. They draw me back to the deepest level of what is real.