Sunday, May 25, 2008

What God Gives on Plane Flights

So there I was, in the airplane, hunkered down in my seat next to the window on the first leg of the flight back from Kansas, on my way from Kansas City to Detroit. I am clearly reading my book on Ephesos (getting ready for my trip to Turkey in August). But it doesn't really matter which book, any book will do. You have to understand that I approach conversation with seat-mates on an airplane with about the same enthusiasm that I reserve for root canal work. They are something to be avoided if possible as far as I'm concerned.

This time I have the creeping feeling that my tactic isn't going to work. The guy next to me is obviously noticing me reading. He's working up to something. I get a little more curled up in my corner. He glances over again. Now I know it's coming. And it does: "I see you're reading about Ephesos." "Yes." (will a monosyllable be discouraging enough?) "Are you reading it for reasons of faith or just for information?" (Oh no - conversations between Episcopalians and Evangelicals on a plane can be a real nightmare of religious manipulation). "Well," I say, (not prepared to be outright rude,) "I am going to Ephesos this summer, so it's largely for information, but there is certainly faith involved in this journey."

Now the gates are open. Now it's going to come. There's no way out.

And it doesn't turn out to be what I'm expecting. Not at all. The guy, in fact, really needs somebody to talk to. He's hurting. He's looking for some comfort, and he has decided that a nice white-haired gentleman reading a book about Ephesos might just do the trick. And here's the story. He's fairly young - in his mid-20's, and he is a youth worker in a large church in the mid-west. He has developed some philosophical conflicts about his work with the parish he serves and has been looking for another job. And he's just finished the big interview weekend in a new place. It looks like a dream. Great church, fits his outlook like a glove. He loves the place, and they show all the signs of loving him - the staff likes him, the pastors like him, he loves the set-up, it looks like a go.

However in this congregation, they require a consenting vote from the congregation when hiring any important staff member, so the congregation has to meet and take this vote. He has to get an 85% majority to be hired.

He gets 84%.

Now he's on his way back to where he came from. I can't even imagine what it would be like to have that experience. Now I know why he needs someone to talk to, and I'm ashamed of my reticence to be open to the encounter. I can understand not getting a job. I can even understand coming close. Missing it by 1% really horrifies me. I can't think what that would feel like.

He's in deep pain. I wouldn't describe his state as a crisis of faith, but he sure is having trouble fitting the faith as he knows it into the framework of what has just happened. Prayer seems impossible. He describes a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. There's anger and some self-directed negative stuff in there too.

So we talk. I try to think if I have anything that which would be both genuine and which stands a chance of being helpful. If you read this column regularly you won't have any trouble imagining what I come up with. I ask if he has prayed the pain. I inquire if he has taken the self-doubt to God. And of course at the beginning I might as well be speaking Urdu. No one has ever talked to him in these terms. This isn't surprising. He works in the context of a very American form of religion and Americans don't operate this way. Success is the name of the game. What God does with pain is take it away. Self-doubt is to be conquered. I'm asking him to take this stuff and treasure it enough to offer it to God as the basis of some communication.

But I'll have to say that he takes to it pretty quickly. He's amazingly and genuinely both open minded and open hearted And we haven't been talking very long when he reveals to me that just a couple of weeks ago he gave a talk to the kids he works with about being so dedicated to God that you are willing to have everything taken away from you. He even said that he could see himself being destitute for the sake of his faith. "And who," I say, "do you suppose you were preaching that for?" He guffaws. That's not a word I ever use, but it's the only one that fits this particular response. There's an explosion of laughter and relief and he struggles to get out his answer: "Me", he says.

Ok - I've managed to put a bit of perspective into this situation, and I've suggested a change of view that he can explore and even respect. But here's where it gets really interesting, because here's where stuff begins to flow in the other direction. With a good deal of enthusiasm he gets up and fetches his computer and pulls up a sermon from the Internet. It's where his talk to the kids came from. It's entitled: "God is Enough". And boy, is it powerful. It is by a talented and anointed preacher saying something something that reaches all the way down to the bottom of me. It's a sermon designed to counter the arguments of the Propserity Gospel - the view that all you have to do is believe rightly and act faithfully and you will be rewarded monetarily. And over and over again in the course of a homily of about 5 minutes, this guy drums out: "Whatever your circumstance, whatever your needs, whatever your demands, God is enough." Some of his illustrations are outrageous - they are intended to be. This talk is designed to break through ordinary human resistance with the Gospel. God is enough.

Because, of course, I'm worried at this particular point in my own history. The economy is tanking, and I don't know how this is going to affect us here at Holy Cross. Next year's budget looks pretty serious. We have no endowment and no large reserves. And if the cost of oil causes people to come to the guesthouse in smaller numbers that will lower our income. And the cost of gasoline, and the cost of insurance, and the cost of medical treatment are skyrocketing. You know the story. You are affected by it, too. And I'm in charge here. This all lies at my doorstep.

And into my worry and anxiety comes the word of the Gospel, conveyed by a hurting mega-church youth worker: "God is enough".

I've had plenty of conversations with Evangelicals on airplanes and they were mostly very unpleasant, with people who were unwilling to grant that my religious experience or my viewpoint had anything positive to be said about it at all. I've been mowed down by professionals, and if I insist on holding my own it can get really nasty. I've don't believe I've ever had an airplane conversation that was actually an experience of genuine faith exchange and heart sharing like this. He isn't even put off by the fact that I'm a Benedictine Monk in the Episcopal Church. That just intrigues him a bit. We each have a gift for each other that comes straight from the Lord.

As the plane touches down on the runway in Detroit, he suggests that we pray. We reach for each other's hand and start praying. (My God, I don't believe this, I'm actually doing this willingly. Usually I experience this stuff as more of a nightmare than an opportunity.) The prayer flows, it comes quite naturally. It's just sharing between two people who have been blessed.

Will this change the way I approach such encounters in the future? I'm not sure. I expect that my crusty exterior may be a bit thinner, though. And I do know that the heart of my prayer for the past couple of weeks has been hearing a phrase sounding in the depths of my heart: "God is enough. God is enough."

That ought to do something for my leadership, shouldn't it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Experience

On Friday we began this year's offering of the program called Benedictine Experience. It's a program that offers people the opportunity to come to Holy Cross and live the life of a Benedictine monk for eight days. They work and play and relax with us, and they reflect with us on their experience - and, of course, a big part of that is thinking about what all this might mean when they get home after the program is over.

Benedictine Experience was invented by our friend Esther deWaal, the author, when she was still in Canterbury, and the very first BE (as we call them) to be offered in an actual Benedictine monastery was here at Holy Cross, back in the mid-1980's. Since then we have offered this experience each year, with the exception of our Centennial year a few years ago, because we were celebrating that. Twenty-eight years is an extraordinarily long life-time for a program.

Each year we have some 'Benedictine groupies' who come (and some years ago they invented the nickname "monk camp" for the BE) and make this week their annual retreat. Each year there are new people, of all ages, and quite a mixture of social status, race and even nationality. Some people who come to Holy Cross to experience the Benedictine Life decide they really want this life for themselves on a permanent basis and are now brothers in our community. Some years the group is large (I think 27 is the most we have had) and some years it's small (6-8) but on it goes. This year the group is small and all but one are men, which is very unusual. Two of them come from outside the United States. More than half are priests. One of them was a member of the very first Benedictine Experience at Holy Cross all those years ago. So all of this makes for a different group than the usual one. For one thing, they talk a lot more, and they are comfortable communicating in groups.

Of course, the main thing the group does is to follow our liturgical schedule. They have seats in the Church that are arranged choir-wise, facing each other, like the monks' seats in Choir. They take turns reading the lessons at Matins and at Vespers (which produces the usual crises when there are Hebrew or Greek words to be pronounced). They get some idea what it is to live a life that is framed by prayer, and this is one of the chief reasons that they come.

But all of the rest of the elements of our life are there as well. Each morning they spend time in meditation together, with instructional sessions led by one of the brothers. Then there is a class, which is always on some aspect of the Benedictine life, and this year is about the Rule of Benedict and how it applies to our - and to their - life. During the afternoons they do manual work - outside, when the weather permits, and inside at other times. They will typically work in our flower gardens, in the library, in the church and sacristy (applying a coat of oil to our wooden life-sized crucifix in the Church is one of the yearly features), at house cleaning or sometimes in the kitchen. When possible we have them work together in small groups, so they get to know each other as the week goes on.

One day of the week that they are here, they have a 24 hour period of silence, for retreat and prayer and reflection.

At the end of each day they gather with members of the community to reflect on what the day has been like, what joys or difficulties it brought them, and what they may be taking home from this experience. It's in this gathering that we come to know how the Benedictine life has been working on them. Though they don't always report that their experience has been one of uninterrupted joy, it is almost always a creative and satisfying time for them. Last night, one of them said that the thing he valued most was that "this place is alive". That certainly made my heart glad, because that's my experience, too.

Each year I feel that this is one of the best things that we do all year long. It's also one of the most natural things we do. We are just sharing - sharing who we are, how we live, what we think, what our life is like. That is a very natural thing for the members of Holy Cross to do. It also takes quite a large amount of energy. To live this closely with people who aren't an actual part of our community, and to live with the intensity that this week demands uses a lot of our capacities to the full. Also we don't get our usual Monday day off, which interrupts our usual pattern of living, and there is a price to pay for that. When next Saturday comes and they have departed, most of us will be exhausted.

Over the years, Benedictine Experience has spread far and wide. It has especially taken root in this country. There is a group called The Friends of St Benedict, and they sponsor Benedictine Experiences in a number of places in the United States, with a variety of formats. I have conducted a BE for them in North Carolina and next spring I will be doing one in Virginia. Other of our brothers have done these programs in California and in Texas. They are wonderful experiences, and in each place a real community develops as a result of living the Benedictine pattern of life. But we still offer the longest of the BE's, and we do it in the context of the actual living of the Benedictine life in a monastery, and that makes our offering unique.

And BE expresses the overflowing of the Benedictine life that Holy Cross is particularly devoted to. We are always trying to figure out how this life can be offered to others. In BE, and in the Quiet Days that we offer to poor people with AIDS, and in our series of Bach Vespers, and in the retreat we did some time ago for formerly homeless people, and in the space we offer for the Ulster County Mental Health Coalition to come together to reflect on their lives and their work, in the countless parish groups that come here for weekends and in the gatherings with local clergy that meet here, Benedict's "little way" comes alive again and works God's love in this world.

What a nice thing for monks to be doing!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Of Oil and the Holy Spirit

One of the pleasures of living in the community of Holy Cross Monastery, at least for me, is the consistent creativity with which we approach our celebrations of the liturgical year as well as other events of our lives. We like celebrating and we do it well and when something has worn thin, we aren't afraid to say "this isn't doing it" and to look for better solutions.

And so, a number of years ago, we decided that our usual celebration of Pentecost "wasn't doing it", and we wanted to look for a liturgical 'container' that would really celebrate the Feast of the Coming of the Holy Spirit, which marks the end of the Easter season. We started with several meetings in which we talked about what we wanted to celebrate - what are the themes of Pentecost, what would be like to emphasize? Of course the event itself - the Speaking in Tongues first given to the Apostles - was major. And then what our attention focused on was the movement of the Spirit-life of Christ from the historical person of Jesus into the Church. Pentecost is intended to be a mark of the birth of the Church as a body that lives Christ's life and continues Christ's ministry. This seemed to us to be what we wanted the liturgy to express for us.

How to do it? Balloons wouldn't make it, for us. Neither would a birthday cake. We thought and we brain-stormed and then we planned. We came up with a ceremony with which we were pleased. It "worked". But of course it wasn't perfect on the first go-round, and so for several years we did some more work on it and fine-tuned it. In the end we created a celebration for Pentecost that really does, for us, express the feast.

It goes like this: the liturgy begins like an ordinary Sunday. Then, just before the reading of the lesson from Acts, one begins to suspect that something is up when several members of the community leave their places and go to stand in various spots around the Church. The reading of the descent of the Spirit on the Apostles in the Upper Room begins as usual , but when the story gets to the point where "they began to speak in other tongues" a whisper, a murmur, comes from around the Church. It sounds something like the "rushing wind" of the Biblical account, and it's composed of those stationed around the church quietly reading the story in different languages, as the reader at the lectern continues the story. This murmur of sound continues to accompany the reading until the end. This year we had the reading in Latin, Greek, German, Spanish and Italian. In some years we have had more exotic choices, like Walloon, Finnish, Ga and Fanti, but this is what we had available this year. It's quite an experience. Even though I know what's coming, and often enough I'm reading one of the alternate languages, it still gives me goose bumps and makes my hair stand on end. This imitation of the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit is quite amazing. It is the sound of mystery.

Then we go to a large glass bowl in the center of the Church, which is filled with olive oil. We bless the oil, recalling the Biblical use of anointing to convey the presence of the Holy Spirit, and ask God that we may be "drawn to your heart, transformed by your love, and sent forth to your world as signs of your kingdom." When the blessing is complete we all anoint each other. Someone puts his finger in the oil and traces a cross on my forehead and says: "Bede, may God's spirit live in you." And then I turn to the person behind me and anoint them and so it spreads through the congregation, each of us being "ordained" once again, to have the risen life of Christ and to live it in the world.

Then we float seven wicks, or sometimes seven candles, in the oil, and one of us goes to the Paschal Candle, which has burned since Easter as a symbol of the resurrection life of Christ, and brings flame from that candle and we light the seven candles, naming each one for one of the traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit -

the spirit of wisdom,
the spirit of understanding,
the spirit of counsel,
the spirit of might,
the spirit of knowledge,
the spirit of the fear of the Lord,
the spirit of love.

And while we are doing this, in the background - usually quite unnoticed - one of the monks puts out the Paschal Candle. When the seven lights are lit and we look around again that massive candle stands in our midst unlit. Easter is at an end. The gift has passed to us - we are now the paschal candle, the gift of Christ's life to the world. The seven lights burn through the day, until Vespers closes the Feast, and with it, the season of Easter. It's now up to us to keep that light burning in this world.

There is a special Eucharistic Prayer for this day, with which the sacramental bread and wine are consecrated. It recalls how the Spirit has been experienced throughout the history of our people - Jewish and Christian - and asks for the power of that Spirit for all of us. And so we end our worship, renewed and sent forth again into the "Ordinary Time" of the days and weeks after Pentecost.

It's a great celebration of this day, and a real renewal of our call to minister Christ's life to this world. It's a privilege to live this feast with this community.