Sunday, December 28, 2008

There's Always a Holiday Surprise Waiting

Someone - or something - doesn't want me to clean my room. (And you thought I was going to write about Christmas, didn't you?) I've been trying for weeks to free up the necessary time to do a really good and thorough clean-up, which is more than badly needed. Other stuff kept getting in the way, but finally last Monday it was going to happen. I had the time set aside; a nice free late afternoon on my day off. The timing was perfect - right before Christmas. I had nothing else planned and nothing that couldn't wait. I had my cloths, sprays, mops and dusters assembled. I was ready to go. Right after lunch.

So I was sitting in our small dining room having a sandwich and thinking about my fortune in finally getting to this long-desired project, when Mike, the young man who keeps our grounds, came in. He'd been looking around, just seeing what was what and at the back of the monastery building, near the site of our generator, he said he smelled gas. Well, that seemed possible. Our generator runs on natural gas and it had been in use recently, during a prolonged power outage, so a leak could have developed. Obviously the only thing to do was call Central Hudson, our gas and electric supplier.

It took a while to get connected with the Gas Odor Service Agent, but after calling three different numbers I did someone who as courteous, fast and concerned. She said someone would be here within 45 minutes. In fact it was about a half hour when the service man arrived. He walked around, determined that the odor was coming, not from the generator at all but from a large vent in the ground next to the monastery; a vent, he said, that probably came from our boiler room.

So into the boiler room we went, and sure enough, there was a strong smell of gas there. Right away he had some suspicions, but didn't want to say anything out loud until he had his sensor on, so it was fetched and used for testing the air and sure enough, there wasn't much gas, but there was carbon monoxide - lots of carbon monoxide. The legal limit on the presence of carbon monoxide in dwelling spaces is 5 ppm. The level in the boiler room was over 150.

So a call was put out for a fire truck with an exhaust fan. Sirens started sounding almost immediately. A fire truck arrived. Another fire truck. Another one. Every fire truck in the area seemed to feel it necessary to respond. In the end there were five of them, but as it turned out none of them had brought the requested exhaust fan, so that had to be sent for separately. In the meantime we opened the door to the boiler room, and with an excellent exhaust system functioning quite well, the room was almost free of CO fumes before the fan actually arrived. But the fan had to be set up, of course, and put into action.

In the meantime the monastery building was ordered evacuated, so I organized a small squad of brothers to make sure everyone was out of the monastery and into the guesthouse. Several brothers arrived home from an afternoon out about this time and found the driveway full of fire trucks, emergency personnel and brothers wandering about and assumed the worst, so they had to be filled in.

In the meantime the plumber arrived and shortly afterward the boiler burner repair man whom he had called. "Oh yes," he said, "when it gets cold like this the gas company increases the pressure in their lines, and lots of big boilers have incomplete combustion and you'll get carbon monoxide from that. We'll fix that right up." And he set to work, mostly adjusting valves and openings so that the burner on the boilers was getting more air to cope with the increased gas that we'd had. And then there was the testing process, which took a lot longer that the work on the burner did.

But finally the monastery was declared safe again, everyone moved back from the guesthouse and the gas company man went off saying that he would come back in the morning. If everything was still all right, he'd certify us as clear. If not, he would order the gas lines shut down. The plumber departed. So did the fire trucks. Last of all the man who was repairing the burner and testing the air went home, promising to come back in the morning. By the time everyone was gone it was 7 hours since the smell of gas had first been noticed, and it was time for bed.

You have probably heard that carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless. So had I. But the Gas Odor man says that in his experience CO from incomplete combustion is always accompanied by a distinct smell - which is why he reached for his sensors so quickly after poking his head into our boiler room. An interesting thing to think about. The smell, I guess, is from other incompletely burned ingredients in the natural gas supply.

So we will have carbon monoxide detectors installed in the boiler rooms and in one or two other spots, though given how isolated the boiler rooms are it's entirely possible that the smell of incompletely burned gas may be the first thing we notice if this happens again. Our heat is hot water, not forced air, so the danger to us on the upper floors isn't great, but it is there, so we need to be warned if this happens again. Once again I marveled at how much in the way of trucks and equipment appears every time something happens. And I, whose sense of smell is almost absent, feel grateful to Mike for his sensitive nose and quick response. Now we know something about our systems that we didn't know before, and we have some alertness that we didn't have. We are very grateful for being preserved for another day.

And my room still hasn't been cleaned.

Do you have days like this? Not surprising that this post comes right after the one about our Advent Retreat is it?

I have another day off coming on Wednesday. I wonder if cleaning is in the cards for that?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ever Tried to be Quiet in Advent?

I have a deep and abiding love for Advent. The texts for the monastic offices pick up my interior longing for God and sing it to the most beautiful of Gregorian melodies. And though we have a fairly modern adaptation of monastic style in this community, this is one of the places in which we are unabashedly old fashioned: we celebrate Advent while it's Advent and we don't get around to celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas. The tree didn't go up until this morning, and it won't get decorated until Tuesday and Wednesday. We party very merrily on Christmas and the days afterward, but not until then. We're implacably reactionary about this time of the year. Whatever may be the cultural situation, we devote the four weeks before Christmas to the longing for the appearance of the One on whom all history is focused. Oh come, Oh, come Emmanuel.

And one of our most treasured customs, at least as far as I'm concerned, is taking 3 days for retreat towards the end of Advent, usually Tuesday through Thursday of the week before Christmas. The guesthouse is closed, the buildings are quiet and silence reigns. One of our friends who used to be rector of a local parish said that she delighted in coming in for services during the busiest shopping days of the year and seeing the sign on our Bookstore: "Closed for Retreat". This is one of the ways in which our counter-cultural identity most delights me.

If you read this column regularly, you will know that the second part of this year has been a difficult and stressful time: the reconfiguration of the household, with some brothers leaving and others arriving to take their place, the deaths of 3 members of our community in about 7 months, and the destruction by fire of our monastery in Santa Barbara, all with the international financial crisis looming over us, as it is over many, many people. So I have been looking forward to this retreat even more this year. I really craved the quiet and the time to savor it. The Advent Retreat really called to me.

It wasn't easy getting into the retreat, nor had I expected it to be. The change-over was too great to do suddenly. But I was working away at it, relaxing as best I could and trying to be patient with myself while my body and soul discovered that yes, I really could take it easy, and I really could be quiet.

And then................................. on Wednesday all hell broke loose in the Incense Department. Normally I expect to have to cope with last-minute orders during this retreat, and because I love the incense work so much, it just adds to the joy of the retreat - packaging the last of the stray orders for people who have forgotten to do their ordering earlier and really need to get incense for the Christmas services. I can do it leisurely and enjoy all of the process, and get incense off to those who have asked us to rush it along.

But this surpassed anything I have ever seen in all the years I have been running the Incense business. They faxed from Seattle and from Florida. They left voice mail messages from Maryland and Georgia and North Carolina. They wrote notes from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and New Jersey. No corner of the United States was left unheard from. They needed incense for their services and copies of St Augustine's Prayer Book for presents. AND THEY NEEDED IT NOW !!!!!

What to do? This is one of those times when I have to figure out how the observance of the Advent Retreat and the compliance with the demands of business can possibly go together. So I set to work. "Take your time. Be mindful. Pay attention to each detail. Remember how much you enjoy this. Pray the Jesus Prayer over each order. Keep going, and keep your awareness in gear. Be alert. Use your meditation skills. Come back to the center every time you need to."

All very true. All very important. All worth paying attention to. And, when it's 9:30 at night and you're still at it, having been going strong all day long, it begins to wear a bit thin.

But I got it done. At 10:00 pm I wheeled the last of the packages to the UPS pick-up dock and dragged myself to bed. I forebore (is there such a word? The spell check doesn't think so) to question myself about how faithful I had been to the spirit of silence.

Then on Thursday, I went back to the retreat. And it was there waiting for me. I had to work at getting into it again, and though I can't claim three uninterrupted days of bliss, I can say that I was really into it by the end of the retreat. Advent was really Advent for me at that point and I was rejoicing in the quiet of anticipation. I don't know if Wednesday was an interruption or not. It certainly wasn't what I had hoped for in a retreat. But then, it didn't drag me away from the retreat either, at least altogether. I did apparently emerge from Wednesday with some shreds of my recollection and my longing for God intact.

Also, there hasn't been an incense order since then. Hooray!

And I think that I may have been more successful in how I practiced during the frenzy of Wednesday than I was aware of. I slipped into the closing hours of the retreat with surprising ease, even if it took some concentrated effort. And the effect of the retreat has lasted through the days since then, and that doesn't always happen when a retreat ends. This has been helped along by the winter's first major snow storm and the fact that most of our scheduled guests canceled out, so it has been very low-key, even after the retreat finished. I really have been free to enjoy the closing days of this season.

Could it be that things sometimes happen just so that we can learn the lessons we need to learn? Or maybe there's just always something that needs to be learned, if we look for it.

Happy Advent! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cookies From Mother

So there I was yesterday morning, on a beautiful crisp day, in a car with Robert and Adam, headed to New Jersey for an ordination, this time the ordination to the priesthood of Sister Eleanor Francis of the Community of St John Baptist in Mendham, NJ. I've written here before of an ordination in New Jersey a good many years ago - one of the first ordinations of a woman to the priesthood, and of all of the emotions that were part of that occasion for me. Now, a long time afterwards, in another era, in another packed church, there I was, reflecting on the years that have gone by.

The service was really glorious; the music was splendid, the congregation more than enthusiastic - indeed somewhat raucous at points - the sermon was tender and moving, and the bishop has a natural talent for inspiring enthusiasm. And more than coincidentally, a lot of the people who filled the Convent Church were priests who happened to be women. I was just a few miles from that other church of years ago, and I had a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings, not just about yesterday's occasion, but about all the years that have passed and of my gratitude for the women priests who have been part of my journey.

The sense of import surrounding this occasion of an ordination was as fresh yesterday as it has ever been for me. There were two points in the service that were particularly notable for me. The first was at the beginning when the group of people presenting the candidate for ordination stood before the bishop and said: "...on behalf of the clergy and people of the Diocese of Newark, we present to you Sister Eleanor Francis Reynolds to be ordained a priest in Christ's holy catholic Church". The second point was just before the ordination itself, when the bishop turned to the congregation and asked: "Is it your will that Sister Eleanor Francis be ordained a priest?", and the congregation responded (actually they shouted): "It is!" Which caused the bishop to make an aside by saying: "There isn't much doubt about that, is there?"

At both of these points I had a shiver up and down my spine. And this time that shiver had not a shred of doubt or hesitation in it. It was a response to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a sense of the depth of this moment.

There was obviously a tremendous affection for Sr Eleanor Francis and for her community in that room, and it was expressed in the participation in the service, in the singing, in the wonderful chaos of the exchange of the Peace, and in the moments of drumming and dancing with which the service closed. It really was a glorious day and a magnificent celebration, and it was a great privilege to be there.

And there's a lot of history behind the special feelings there are for a Holy Cross monk to be participating in the ordination of a Sister of St John Baptist, because that community helped to give birth to the Order of the Holy Cross. At the very start of our community, in the early 1880's, the Community of St John Baptist shared with us in the ministry at Holy Cross Church in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And it was from that Church and that ministry that we got our name: people would see the early members of the Order on the streets in their habits and say: "Oh, those are the Holy Cross fathers", and the name and the dedication stuck and became our own.

The CSJB community nurtured us and supported us and encouraged us all through those difficult first years. And when our Founder, Fr Huntington, came to the time when he made his vows as the first member of our community, he did it in the chapel of the Sisters of St John Baptist on 17th Street at Stuyvesant Square.

It's hard to even enter the chapel of the sisters in Mendham without feeling surrounded by those days. The seven lamps that hang before their altar are from the old Holy Cross Church in Manhattan, and they have the cross from the Church in their Lady Chapel. The altar before which Sr Eleanor Francis was ordained yesterday is the same altar which our Founder knelt before to make his vows as the first monk of an American monastic community in the Episcopal Church.

The St John Baptist community even gave us the cross that we wear. As the story survives, on the day of his profession, Fr Huntington was waiting in the sacristy for the service to begin when the Mother Superior of CSJB, making sure he was all ready for the liturgy, said to him: "Where is your cross?" And he said: "What cross?" And she replied: "You can't be professed in the Religious Life without a cross!" And she turned to a closet and took out one of the black wooden crosses that the novices of CSJB wear to this day. And since then the identifying mark of professed monks of the Order of the Holy Cross has been that same black wooden cross. I've always thought it was a great symbol that the sign of our profession is the novice cross of another community. This life is really about giving ourselves away.

So here we are, 125 years later, in a time when the relationship between Holy Cross and the Community of St John Baptist is particularly rich. We really are good friends. The sisters come here for retreats, and we have supplied confessors and spiritual directors for them in recent years. We visit with each other on important occasions, and continue our relationship of mutual support. And, for Holy Cross, the relationship is always full of the years that have gone by since Fr Huntington made his vows in the presence of those sisters and started the remarkable journey that has been that of OHC.

At the reception after the ordination yesterday Adam and I were standing with one of the sisters and we reflected a little on all this, and he said: "Coming here is really sort of like coming home to mother." And she, without a hitch, turned to the serving table next to us and took up a plate and said: "And here are the cookies."

I have no doubt at all that we are going to be partners in this mysterious life for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Late and Short

This weekend I was conducting the annual Advent Retreat, together with Suzanne Guthrie and Sr Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit, and that took all my time and energy for the weekend. But there's some news that we're happy about, so I'll rush it to you:

This week, Br Robert (the Superior), Br James and I were at Hyde Park to accept two awards. Holy Cross was given the 2008 Ryan White Community Organization Award and the Dedication and Commitment Award from the Dutchess County HIV Health Services Planning Council and the Dutchess County Department of Health. Both of these awards are for the ministry of St Raphael's Place, which provides retreat opportunities for poor people with AIDS and which I wrote about just a few weeks ago. We are so pleased to receive this recognition and it was obvious in being at the awards luncheon that Holy Cross is held in great affection by the public health organizations of this area, and that they are well aware of our efforts on behalf of people with AIDS, both now and over the years past. All of James' devotion and hard work in getting this ministry off the ground is now very justly rewarded, to our great delight.

We also report that James was in New York just a few days previous to this to receive a grant from Episcopal AIDS Response at their annual awards banquet,which will support the continuation of this ministry and will enable us to provide transportation for those who want to come here for the St Raphael events. All of this recognition, so soon after the ministry began, is a very great encouragement to us.

The retreat this weekend centered on the theme of Pilgrimage, and was designed to highlight the ways in which our bodies as well as our minds participate in our life of prayer. We processed the participants all over the monastery on journeys of exploration. It was a rich and very engaging experience, for those of us who conducted the retreat no less that for the participants. It also required a great deal of labor in the set-up department! I'm very happy with the way it turned out and feeling very fulfilled and very exhausted.

Happy Advent!