Sunday, April 20, 2008

Life Goes On - and forward

We had two joyous events this week, one very public and celebratory and one private and more understated.

The public event was the First Profession of our novices Randy and Joseph. As generations of Benedictine monks have done for more than 1500 years, they stood before the altar and read their Instrument of Profession, which they had written out with their own hands, committing themselves to our life of Obedience, Stability and "The Conversion of My Life to the Monastic Way of Life", in this case for one year.

Randy's Monastic Vow in his own hand
If they decide to persevere in this life they will make this promise again in another year, and perhaps more than that, but the renewals of the vow are not public happenings: they are private community affairs. Then finally, if they feel completely called here, they will have a big celebration when they make their vows for life.

It was a wonderful time: not raucous, but very joyful. There was a nice crowd of their friends and friends of the monastery, including companions in our life from several different religious orders. These events are always as much about the past as they are about the present, as those of us in vows are always transported back to the day when we made the same commitment, and are inevitably rolled through the years that have gone by since then. There was good music, including a wonderful display of the capacities of our new organ, and then there was a meal, which Joseph and Randy had chosen, of fried chicken, biscuits, collards and banana pudding with "'Nilla Wafers". There was also a quite splendid sermon by Br Scott, which you can read on our OHC Lectionary Blog, if you would like.

We haven't had a double profession in many years, and when you add this together with the approaching profession of Br. Daniel in South Africa and the clothing of Br. Josias, also in Grahamstown, we have a lot to celebrate. Daniel has lived here in this monastery for much of the past year, so we will be sharing the joy of this event in a close way. All of this is a particularly rich promise of new life for our community, and it brings with it all of the happiness and also the "stretching" that new life, new expectations, and new ways always brings. We have a lot to celebrate and a lot to grow into.

And that growth was evidenced in the second joyful event to which I referred - which was a perfectly ordinary House Meeting that took place the day after the profession. The agenda had a number of items on it concerning the living of our daily life - how things get scheduled, how we can handle a growing guest ministry that sometimes threatens to overwhelm everything else in our lives, and some proposals for changing long-established customs, like the ringing of the tower bell. These are things of varying degrees of importance for us, and you may not be surprised to know that it is the smallest ones that sometimes produce the most tensions, and I have seen some wondrous conflicts over very small agendas in my years in the Order.

The thing that I celebrate (and not only I) is that we negotiated all of this with quite natural ease, with good humor and with creativity. We ended up making some decisions that were more imaginative and more helpful than any of us would have thought of by himself. We can now see our way to a significant expansion of week-day programs in the Guesthouse, knowing that we have drawn some good boundaries which will insure that the community gets the rest, and the sabbath, that it needs. Tensions that came up were honestly and quickly dealt with. Differing views were respectfully received and held while we search for solutions. We took time and care with each other and reached some really good resolutions. And this, no less than the professions the day before, gives wonderful hope for our future. If we can continue to grow in this way of discernment when issues come before us, we will forge a future that will be full of hope.

So, many Alleluias are due this Eastertide, for now and for the coming days and years.

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Just so regular readers of this column will know - I leave on Wednesday for some time away. I'll be in Kansas City, where I lived and worked for several wonderful productive years, and where I have a lot of connections. I'm looking forward to the time with much anticipation. I'll be away from this blog for the next two weeks, and look forward to being back with you after that.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Rainbow of Monks and Nuns

This week we had one of the periodic meetings of CAROA (The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas) here at Holy Cross. This is the association of traditional religious communities of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At times it also includes the Caribbean and South America, but presently we don't have much presence there, except for one house of the Sisters of St Margaret in Haiti and a fledgling Franciscan community in Brazil.

What a collection we were, and what a sight! There were monks, friars, sisters and nuns (some day I may discourse on the fine points of difference between all of these). We came from 20 different communities and in all sorts and manners of costume. There were people in black habits, there were people in white habits, there were people in brown habits, and in gray habits and in blue habits. There were even two people in a black and blue habit. There were nuns in very traditional veils, and sisters in modified veils and those in quite traditional habits but no veils. There was a Franciscan in a traditional habit with red and black checkerboard sneakers.

There were more different sorts of crosses than you can imagine.

And there were brothers and sisters in secular clothes as well - smartly tailored outfits with discrete crosses which are different for each Order, and much more informal clothing as well, sometimes in colors that indicated the community and sometimes just plain old clothes. And there were some sweat shirts and jeans, some with crosses and some without.

Some wore different things at different times, and there was no guarantee that different members of the same community would be dressed in the same way (though most were). The 50 or so of us who were gathered here made quite a sight.

We're much more comfortable with this variety than we were at one time. At times in the past, members of the Conference could be very touchy about who dressed in what and at what time. Now that concern has faded and we seem willing to accept the decisions that each of our communities has made about our dress.

That's not the only thing that has changed. I've been in and around these meetings for more than 40 years. They were not always occasions that one looked forward to. We've been through times when our sessions were very brittle and touchy. There have been times when there were subjects that couldn't be mentioned, and when the sense of threat and competition between communities was pretty high. I've been to meetings when a sense of superiority and judgmentalism reigned supreme, and meetings when the only things that could be discussed out loud were so deadly boring that it was hard to imagine why we went on with these sessions at all.

I wasn't part of the official meetings this time - other members of our community have taken over that. But I know many of the people who were here and have known some of them for a long, long time, and I know what I sensed as I talked with them at meals and socialized with them at other times. My sense was that this was a very blessed and creative time. The topic this time was the care of the elderly in our communities, and it's a topic that is of great importance for all of us. Most religious orders have more elderly members than can be cared for by the younger members of the order. Some have no younger members at all. How do we provide care with skill and dignity and still empower the the active members of our communities to engage in a vigorous ministry and a full exploration of their spiritual path?

This is not a small matter, and my sense is that the Conference pursued it in depth with very little defensiveness and no sense of hidden secrets. There was a gentle sense of cooperation and support about this meeting, and of people who were genuinely glad to be working together. The whole household had a very good feel to it this week.

To work together on a common issue which is of great importance to us all and on which we are not all agreed, and to do so with love and commitment to each other and a sense of support for each other - this is quite a task. It's even more of a task to succeed in such an undertaking. Our house was full of this during these days, and we were blessed. One could wish for such a blessing for the Episcopal Church, and for the Anglican Communion, and for all of Christianity. Wouldn't it be amazing for gatherings of Christians of very different sorts to be like this?

Those who participated in the meetings worked very hard. Those of us on the sidelines, who provided support services, and socialized and reflected together with the delegates worked hard, too. And when noon came today and they were all gone and it was just the 16 members of Holy Cross Monastery present for dinner, it seemed like such a haven of peace and restfulness.

We are very tired right now. We're even going to take some extra time off in the next couple of days. But I'm very glad this meeting happened, and that it happened here. The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas has something to offer the wider church. Over the years we really have learned how to love each other. And we've learned at a deep level that our commitment to Christ is more fundamental than the things that try to separate us.

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If you follow this column regularly you may want to know if I'm still bumping into walls. Thankfully, I'm not. There is still brain fog, but it's less. The antibiotic hasn't wrecked my intestines. I need more sleep than usual, but I'm up and working. And the terrible pain that affected my ankles and knees the last time I had Lyme Disease has not reappeared. So on I go. We'll see where I have gotten when a month of treatment is over. And my doctor is one of the people who developed the protocols for treatment of Lyme, so I'm in very good hands.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The River Flows...... And the Present is Always Here

Last week I quoted a saying from an old Zen acquaintance about how the River often flows in a different direction than we expect, meaning, of course, the River that carries us along through our lives. Last week the River shifted suddenly and unexpectedly, and that shift went on happening all during this week and gave me an experience of the Present Moment that was far different than any experience I had ever asked for - or than most people would want, I suspect.

The long and the short of it is that I have been too optimistic for the past 4 years when I say, as I did last week: "Antibiotics took care of it." In fact, it appears that they didn't take care of it. What the current dose of antibiotics revealed was that I didn't, as it turns out, get rid of the Lyme Disease at all four years ago. It is still with me.

It happened like this. I did, finally, get the antibiotics last Sunday and begin taking them. All was well - I know from experience that the probiotics that I also take will mostly keep me from the usual unpleasant effects. But there was a surprise waiting for me. There I was, in my office at night, wrapping up the day and getting ready for bedtime. And I was suddenly struck by what I have since learned to call "brain fog". The chief experience was of being trapped, as the phrase describes, in a thick fog. I wasn't able to think much or plan at all. I was quite lost. All this was accompanied by a great weakness, so I didn't have much in the way of resources to deal with it.

I realized this was going on when I tried to turn off the light and go to my room for bed. It took a moment to come to the reality that I didn't know where my room was. "This is silly, " I said to myself, "my room is right down the hall here" and promptly ran into a wall. So I started in another direction, and ran into another wall. I couldn't get anywhere. I couldn't even figure out where "anywhere" was. So I stepped back into my office. "Focus" I thought. I couldn't. I didn't have the energy. It was too much.

I had the grace to realize that this probably had to do with the drug, and would probably pass, so I sat down in my chair and thought I'd use the time to write to one of my closest friends, to whom I owe an email message. Only I couldn't remember his name, so I couldn't bring up his e-address, and I couldn't think of anything to say anyway. So there I sat. All I had was the present moment - there was nothing else available. Well, I thought, I might as well be where I am, so I sat there, in the night (which I love) being where I was, living with a small intuitive sense of God's presence and a larger sense of my dilemma.

Finally it lifted a bit, and I got myself down the hall and into bed. The next day, as you will expect, I called the doctor who summoned me immediately, which was no surprise. "Oh yes," he said "you apparently didn't get rid of the last case of Lyme at all, and the antibiotic has stirred that up." The brain fog turns out to be my body processing away the waste products of the battle it is fighting with the old case of Lyme. The dose of antibiotics is now larger and will last longer, and I'll have some more attacks as the time goes on. With any luck I will finally get rid of the Lyme Disease. My doctor, who is a renowned expert in Lyme, will keep close watch on that.

And I continue to be thrust unexpectedly into the present moment, with no other resources. At Compline a couple of nights ago, I all of a sudden realized that I was in the second half of one of the Psalm verses and had no idea what the first half of the verse had said. It was a different experience from the drifting away that we all experience in liturgical ceremonies - it was as though the first half of the verse had never existed. So, knowing what this was, I thought: "What's more important, the part of the Psalm where I am now, or the part that I have already said?" and finished the Psalm, not having any idea what it had said, but able to let it locate me before God in the process. And many of the Psalms talk about being confused and lost anyway, so that sense is just an extra added benefit. I can be confused and lost before God.

Let's not make this any more dramatic that it is. I'm not suffering dreadfully because of this brain fog. I'm being well taken care of by my doctor and if I can't remember where my room is, one of my brothers will take me there. The community knows what's happening, and they will compensate. I don't even feel bad, except for the weakness that strikes at the same time as the fog.

I have, however, been delivered into a more intense experience of the present moment than I ever counted on. I never really considered until this week, that when I said "the present moment" I was meaning "the present moment accompanied by all of my memories and potential distractions". It never occurred to me to wonder what the present moment would be like if it were devoid of all my normal mental processes and capacities. Now I know. It's disconcerting. But it's not bad. And it does have God in it, which is the major point. The one thing I'm not robbed of, when I'm in the midst of one of these attacks, is my ability to sit before God where I am.

There is more reflection to be done on this experience, but that will have to wait until my reflective capacities have returned. The succeeding episodes haven't been as severe as my first, but these fogs do appear at times and then I know that all I have is right now. That is something that I am going to want to keep, whatever the future brings.