Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Rest of the News

There is some additional news to add to what I wrote about last week. During the week of Chapter we had two deaths in the Order - the first time in our history that two brothers have died in the same week. Br Michael Stonebraker and Br Bernard van Waes had both spent many of their years here at West Park, but neither was living in this monastery at the time of his death.

Michael was widely known throughout the Episcopal Church. He was one of the generation of the "mission brethren". He traveled the United States, as so many of our monks did for many decades, giving retreats, parish missions and conferences and he was known by nearly everyone who knew anything about Holy Cross.

Michael had two great passions in his life: youth work and pipe organs. His father was an organ builder and he grew up learning the craft. He played the organ all his life (quite an accomplishment for a man with only one arm!) and knew, it seemed, every organ and every organist in the Episcopal Church. He helped design the tracker organ which was in our monastery church until last year, when it finally had to be replaced. He also gave himself whole-heartedly to work with young people. For years he was a regular on the campus of St James school in Hagerstown, Maryland. He also was Director of Christian Education at St James Cathedral in Toronto during his time at the Priory there. He developed a relationship with the Diocese of Olympia in the state of Washington, and summer after summer returned to provide programming for the camping program of that Diocese. Their camp is now named Camp Michael in his honor. He had an enormous effect on this lives of countless children and teens.

With his devotion to the Order's work and ministry Michael also carried a great deal of difficulty with living the community life. One of his arms had been lost at the time of his birth and as is often true of males with physical disabilities, he carried a great deal of barely suppressed anger, It was, of course, his family - in this case, his community - that felt the brunt of much of his anger. He was a very large man, and heavy anger from such a source is never easy to handle, and that was certainly true of our community. At several points in his life Michael lived apart from us, and much of his later years were spent living in Seattle and continuing his beloved ministry there. When financial and health pressures forced his return to West Park he came with great grace and determined to be a real member of the community. But it was not to be. Barely two months after his return here he was hospitalized with a crisis caused by his diabetes and he never returned to the monastery. He lived for several years at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, across the river from us. He was in regular contact with us and for as long as he could he returned here for the big feasts of the year. But the past year was one of great decline for him, and he died in Kingston Hospital, just minutes after some of the brethren who were here for Chapter had visited with him and prayed with him.

Br Bernard was another man with many talents who was never fully able to find his place in the community life. Bernard had great artistic talents. There are a number of his water colors and his pen and ink sketches around the house here and in other houses of the Order, and they betray a great sensitivity and a careful eye. He was also a devoted student of the writings of Thomas Merton, and was particularly interested in the relationship that Merton developed with the Shakers. He did some writing on the subject, but the book that the worked on for years was never published.

None of us knew the man that Bernard was before World War II. We only knew the person who was touched, and changed, by battle. The chief event of his life, as he told it, was the day that half of the bridge of the ship on which he was stationed was blown away, taking with it his best friend, who was standing next to him at the time. No one had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome at the time (though we knew about "Shell Shock") nor was there any thought that anything could be done about it. And as with Michael, the community was often the focus of Bernard's chaotic emotional life.

Bernard was not a great missioner, and his ideal was the contemplative life, and he lived a fairly withdrawn life wherever he was. He was here at West Park for some time and then spent about 15 years in the Priory in Berkeley, where he finally found some treatment for his PTSD and gained a measure of inner peace. He suffered from cancer for nearly 20 years, and the community was continually amazed at how long he managed to survive. His last few months were spent at Mount Calvary in Santa Barbara, where he was cared for most lovingly by some of the younger brethren there. He was touched by deep joy in these months, and so were the brothers who looked after him. Some of his creativity returned at this time, and the end of his life was happy. In his dying he gave some wonderful gifts to us. He was in Hospice care at the end of his life and he died just days after being transferred to a residential facility in Santa Barbara.

Contrary to the projections often sent in our direction, the monastic life is no ideal state, freed from the conflicts that everyone else in life faces, and I do my best not to hide either the joys or the trials of our life in this column. These two brothers were greatly talented and marvelously accomplished human beings and many people were genuinely transformed by their ministries. They also had lives that were deeply marked with hostility, anger and chaos, and both they and the community bore those marks as well. All of this we carried through the days of their dying and as we sang the Office of the Dead for each of them, and we carried their lives, and ours, to the altar at the Requiem Eucharists for them. Michael's funeral was done here at West Park in the presence of his community. Bernard's funeral will be July 14 in Santa Barbara. The ashes of both of these brothers will be laid to rest in the columbarium here at West Park where most of the departed members of our community rest. And of course stories will be told about them for many, many years.

May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The News - at last!

So............... I didn't get here last week, did I? I had good intentions, but a funny thing happened. We did get a Superior, all right, and we also got a new Council. Our Council is a group of 5 brothers who are elected to be a support for the Superior and to offer advice. Their consent is required for the Superior's appointments and a number of his other actions (one of our former Superiors claimed that the only thing he could do without the Council's permission was to name a new monastery). I wasn't expecting it at all, but I ended up being elected to the Council - it's been more than 20 years since I've been on the Council - and not only was I elected but I also became the Secretary. Thus ended any free time for writing a blog, because there were Priors and other officers to appoint and finances to discuss and many other things.

And now that I'm here I should stop the introduction and say that we do have a Superior, who is, just in case you haven't heard, Br Robert Sevensky. Robert has most recently been the Prior of Mt Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara, but he is very well known to people around here, having been at this monastery for a number of years before he went west. Robert is a native of the northeast, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and besides his service to the Order for many years, he is the first Superior to hold an earned doctorate. He is the second superior of the Order who is not ordained (Br William Sibley was the first). He was elected on the first ballot, so the process ended up being both impressive and tolerable. He was elected by a large majority, so the community is pretty happy. He will be moving here in the early fall.

Two things happened to me in the course of the election which I thought I would share. One of them occurred during the balloting. As I mentioned in my last post, we vote one by one, in order of seniority. I get to vote pretty early in the process because I've been in the Order for a long time. So I was back in my stall in Choir and was just watching the brothers go to the side chapel and then to the altar with their ballots and come back down the aisle before the next one went. As one of the brethren came back down from the altar and made his way to his stall, I all of a sudden knew that we had an election. It wasn't something I guessed at or wondered about. I wasn't counting who was likely to be voting for whom, nor was I even aware of just how many brethren had voted. It was sudden and it came out of nowhere and I knew we had elected the superior. It wasn't spooky or even uplifting or joyful or anything like that; it was just knowing. I told myself, as I always do when something like this happens: "Well, that's nice, but we need to see how the election comes out - you never know about these things." But I still knew. As it turns out, given the majority by which the Superior was elected, I had in fact, probably come close to intuiting the ballot which actually elected him. No matter, that's just how it happened.

When the voting was complete we waited for two of the junior monks to count the ballots, which takes quite a while, given the care they need to take. And as we sat there waiting I had, once again very suddenly, one of the most powerful experiences of the presence of the Holy Spirit that I have ever had. I can only describe it as "weighty". It was like having a Mack Truck drive through the Church. There wasn't anything subtle about it. It was just like it says in Acts, "a mighty wind, which filled the whole place where they were sitting." The Holy Ghost, the Comforter, was the principal thing that was real in our Church at that moment. It was both unexpected and unmistakable.

Well, that's what happened to me. I'm not feeling the need to have evaluations or analysis, at least at this point. But I do want to say that I think that these intuitive experiences are far more common that we often think. Manifestations of the spiritual part of our being are both real and perfectly natural, and my own belief is that they happen to most people. But living as we do in a society that values the rational over everything else, I think that lots of people completely miss these things when they happen, and those people who do notice them are usually reluctant to talk about them. After all they aren't "normal" (by which we mean rational). But they are, in fact, perfectly normal. These things happen to people, lots of people. But so often they are missed or we hide them.

These little explosions of the Spiritual into our daily consciousness are, in my view, just part of what it means to be a human being. They don't make me holy and they aren't an indication that I'm special. They are just what happens because I have a spiritual part to my humanity, as every other human being does. I've learned both from the Christian tradition and from my experience that you have to be very careful about claiming anything about these happenings or making predictions based on them or telling people what they should be doing because of them. Mostly they're not for that. They are usually just moments when the veil is drawn aside and we see more of reality than we are usually open to. After all, the Holy Spirit is with us all the time, not just during the counting of ballots at an election. I just happened to realize this at one particular moment.

What should I do about it? I should be thankful. I should rejoice in this very nice gift that I've been given. I should be grateful for having had a moment when I became more aware of the fullness of who I am. And then I should get about the business of writing my blog, and finishing my correspondence and loving my neighbor and doing the laundry. I should work at being a Christian and a human being.

That's what these things are for. And that's enough.

And, oh yes, I should also tell those of you who don't know, that I have been reappointed as the Prior here for another term, so there will be more blog postings, God willing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

And Now, the Election

So - for us this is a major week. This week (on Saturday, in fact) we will elect a new Superior for the Order of the Holy Cross.

And what, you may ask, is a Superior? Or, for that matter, what is the Order of the Holy Cross? I know that some of the readers of this column know all about this, but I also know that a good number don't. On the theory that the life and ordering of a monastic community are of some interest to lots of people, I will let you in on the private part of our life this week.

The Order of the Holy Cross is a monastic community with 5 monasteries - one in Santa Barbara, California, USA, one in Berkeley, California, USA (in the process of being closed), one in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and one in Grahamstown, South Africa, in addition, of course, to the Monastery here in West Park. In our system, the Superior is the chief executive and pastoral officer of the community. He lives in one of the houses of the Order, but he chooses which one.

The present Superior lives here at West Park, his immediate predecessor lived in Santa Barbara, and the one before him lived in Manhattan (where we had a monastery at the time) and then in Berkeley. He visits every house of the Order each year on a sort of tour of inspection, to make sure all is going well spiritually, physically and financially. He presides at the Clothings of Novices and the ceremonies that admit men to annual vows and to the life vow. He presides at funerals. He counsels and advises. He presides at our annual Chapter (the business meetings of the Order). He provides general leadership and visioning. He's the CEO, more or less.

The Superior's term of office is 6 years the first time he is elected, and should he be reelected at any point, he would then have terms of 3 years each. He appoints all of the other officers of the Order, myself included, though he normally consults with a house before appointing its Prior. All of those appointed to office are appointed for 3 years, and their terms expire half-way through his 6 year term, and again at the end of his term. So all of us in leadership are going out of office.

In short, this is a Big Deal. Everybody's life is about to change, to some degree or other.

So we mark this occasion with appropriately solemn ceremonies and procedures. Today and tomorrow the brothers from the other monasteries will be arriving here. We will start our week with discussions. For the past six months we have been engaged in a process which is essentially a nomination of candidates and of identifying issues that are likely to be of concern during the next Superior's term, and we will meet in large and small groups to talk about these issues. We will also discuss with the candidates what their ideas are and how they feel about the issues we have identified, as well as what they perceive to be their own strengths and weaknesses. When we have had plenty of time for discussion, we draw our time of talking to a close and on Friday we have a day of silence - of retreat. On Friday we think, we pray, we consider. And we give God a chance to work with the great mixture of things that has been stirred up in the days preceding.

On Saturday morning we assemble in our Monastery Church. We are seated in precedence - that is, in the order in which we entered the community, beginning with the eldest and going down to the most recently admitted novice. We start with prayer and then we begin the election. Each member of the Order, beginning with the eldest, goes from his seat to a side chapel where the ballots are waiting. He marks his ballot, indicating the candidate of his choice, and then he takes his ballot and lays it on the central altar of the Church and the next brother goes and marks his ballot. When everyone who is in life vows has voted, the ballots are taken to another room and counted by brothers who either are not in life vows or at least are not candidates for election. They then bring in the result of the balloting and announce it. If no one has received a majority of the votes another ballot is taken, and this goes on until there is an election.

In my years in the order there have never been more than 3 ballots needed, and this is just as well. I have heard stories of years in which the election was very closely contested and the ballots went on and on. A ceremonial election such as we have is profoundly moving on the first ballot. It is, of course, rather less so on the second ballot and even less than that if it goes on. Apparently the whole process gets extremely tedious if it has to go on and on. There may be wisdom here, of course. If the process gets too tiresome, it tends to force some sort of movement towards a decision, just to get the whole thing over, so it isn't a bad way to have it organized.

After the election is announced there is time for celebration and congratulating the newly elected Superior. Then the process of choosing and appointing new officers begins. During the course of the week we have also elected our Council - a group of five brothers who advise the Superior and whose permission is needed for most actions he wants to take. So the newly-elected Superior begins his meetings with the Council and that goes on until all of the needed appointments have been made and any issues that need immediate decision are dealt with. And then we begin living under new leadership.

Of course, one of the things we deal with during this week is the reality of not knowing what things are going to look like by next week and of living with the anxiety of a transition like this. Who will be the Prior of this monastery - and of all of our monasteries - by next week? If there are new appointees, who will do the work they have been doing? Who may need to move from house to house? Who will have new responsibilities? Who will suddenly have no responsibilities?

Everyone's life will change to some extent, and some will change a lot - certainly that of the new Superior, for one. All of us wait in the silence of our retreat day, and in the days afterwards, to see what the new order will look like and where our place in it will be. There's a certain amount of chaos in our feelings, and in the workings of the Order, and we wait for God's hand to move over this chaos. "Over the chaos of the empty waters, hovered the Spirit bringing forth creation" is the hymn we sing at Vespers every Sunday evening, commemorating the Creation of the world and also of the changes of our lives. It is this Spirit whose presence we seek during this week and with whom we try to cooperate in the living of this transition in our corporate life. We are caught up in the Biblical story of the creation of the world, as God - and we - recreate and reorder our lives for the next 6 years.

Next Sunday we will still be meeting. But I'll slip in a little note, at least, to let you know what has happened - or as much of it as we know by that point.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Best Part of the Week

One of our family legends is a story that my Aunt Sarah told on herself about one of the years on which she had a New Years party at her house. On this particular year every one had a particularly marvelous time. There was lots of laughter and lots of drinking and eating and many jokes and even some singing. And everyone was having such a good time that they didn't depart at the usual post- midnight hour. They stayed on and on - and on. The night got longer and longer. The family got tireder and tireder. And still the guests lingered and drank and talked and joked and laughed, and drank. Finally, as the light of dawn was beginning to show, some people began to make a move to leave. My Aunt extended her hand, and bleary with exhaustion said, only half consciously: "Oh, you're not leaving now, thank God."

It is not at all an infrequent happening for one or more of the guests to stop on their way out of the door on Sunday afternoon to express their appreciation. In the course of this, a very frequent remark that gets made is: "I'll bet you're glad to see us leave!" Often enough there is then an awkward pause, which acknowledges the impossibility of giving an honest answer to that question, or more importantly, an answer which is complete enough to be true.

Sure, there are weeks when we would be happy to say: "Oh, you're not leaving now, thank God". There are weeks that have been long and full, weeks that have been difficult for any one of a number of reasons, weeks when we are really worn out by the time Sunday arrives. But just as often there are also weeks which have been full of tremendous joy and creativity and have given us a great deal. We are very privileged to have such a range of people come here, with such a range of talents and interests. We are stretched and engaged, and sometimes confused. We are exposed to a tremendous variety of human experience in the course of our guest ministry. So, are we glad to see them go? Well, yes - and no. It's usually both.

There's a lot more that could be said about that, and I probably will at some point. But where I'm headed this time is towards the part of Sunday afternoon after the guests have mostly departed, and especially towards Vespers, the very favorite time of my week.

By 2:00 on Sunday afternoon things have begun to quiet. There may be no one left, or only a few stragglers. Many of the monks are napping. The guesthouse and the bookstore are going through their financial closing for the week. The pace has slowed. All of a sudden the sound of boats on the river and birds in the trees are more prominent than they have been since last week at this point. There is quiet, and a sense of spaciousness where quiet can become peace. You can almost hear the buildings go "Ahhhhhhhhh."

At the end of the afternoon we have an event which is called Tea - and to be sure, there is tea to be drunk and usually some sort of snack. It's a time when we can just be with each other and relax. We meet in the north end of the library, surrounded by windows that offer a view of the Hudson River and the surrounding forest or, when the weather permits, out on the porch, which overlooks the river. The conversation is quiet and reflective, rarely either penetrating or insightful. It's just a time for us to share our tiredness and our relief and just to be people, and community, together.

And then at 5:00 the bell sounds for Vespers. Going into the church is a time of real joy for me. It's so quiet. Remembrances of the guests are there - the candles they have lit, the pieces of paper still lying about, a few things out of place. But it's empty, except for us. Now it's all ours. On days when it's sunny, the rose window at the west end of the church is letting in light that is suffused with reds and yellows, in contrast to the blues that it shows in the mornings. The quiet and the emptiness make the sense of the holy, which our church radiates so clearly, even more apparent. My heart catches just a bit whenever I enter our church, but never so much as on Sunday at Vespers.

Usually it's only us. The guest court is empty except for our Residents. We're singing to God with no audience. It's so clear at these times just what our worship is about. Even when there are people present, they are most always people from the neighborhood whom we know and whose presence we treasure. They are part of this movement towards quiet.

The incense wafts upwards. The Gregorian Chant is marvelous. You would think that people tired after a long week would let the tones and the tempos slip a bit, and that can happen, but even more often the sound is nearly ethereal. It is a mystery to me where we get the energy to sing that beautifully and so much in unity with each other at that particular time of the week. But so often we do. It's one of God's nice gifts.

Just last week I was thinking of the quality of my attention at Sunday Vespers, and it's quite an interesting thing. I'm not riveted on the meaning of the words, I haven't got the energy. Sunday Vespers is not the time for intense prayer, at least for me. It's a time for sitting in God's lap. I'm not absent from the words of the Psalms and the readings, but I'm not closely focused on them, either. The years have given me the Psalms as a part of my consciousness and they are never absent from me. But at this time I'm conscious of them pretty much in the way that I'm conscious of my bones or my toes. They are there, they are crucial, they carry me. But at this point, they aren't the center of my attention. My attention is more diffuse. I'm taking in the light, the smells, the sounds, whatever is there.

It is so hard to explain what a feeling is like. When I thought of writing about Sunday Vespers, I thought I would do it to tell you how I feel about that time. Then I immediately thought how impossible that would be. What does Sunday Vespers feel like? Well, it feels like everything I've said, and much more, not all of which would go into words very easily. The experience of God always goes beyond words.

To sum it up - Sunday Vespers is God's benediction on our week. It's God pulling up the covers over us as we say farewell to the labors of the week and prepare for our Sabbath time on Monday. It's a big sigh as we pray our relaxing. It's joy for what we have offered and received this week and happiness in being free to play for a bit and do nothing for a bit. It's a time to pray those half-hidden and unseen parts of us that aren't sensed during the rest of the week. It's the best time of the week for me, and I think that's why we sing so well. It's easy to sing when you've just received such a nice gift.