Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Day Is It?

Long,long ago, when I was looking around at various Orders trying to decide whether I was going to be a monk or not, the Superior of one of the communities that I visited said: "In monasteries there are two kinds of days, Sundays and not-Sundays".

So, is this Sunday? Well, it must be because we had a cooked breakfast and a high mass with sermon. That's what makes it Sunday. Isn't it? But what was that we had on Friday? And yesterday didn't feel at all like Saturday. It's very confusing to the body. It is every year. And of course we'll do it again towards the end of the week, with New Years Day coming. That won't be Sunday, either.

Still, however the days have been arranged, we've had quite a celebration. It began with our Service of Lessons and Carols last Sunday, sung by Kairos, the acapella choir who are are artists in residence at Holy Cross. This has become one of the artistic events of this part of the Hudson Valley and there were somewhere around 200 people in our Church and that doesn't count those who had to be turned away. You understand that our Church usually seats 35 - or 40 if we squeeze. The Service was magnificent - just plain magnificent! People were so happy.

Then on Thursday we decorated: a huge tree in the Pilgrim Hall, which is the social center of our Guesthouse, and a smaller one in the Monastery Common Room, and everything looks beautiful. The Midnight Mass was also very grand. In recent years the Lessons and Carols Service has taken the place of Christmas Mass as the event that everyone comes to, so the crowd, while quite good, was not such a strain on our facilities, and that was nice.

We had a reception after each of these events. So many people come whom we don't know very well. They come from all over this part of the Hudson Valley and we have such a different relationship with them than we do with the guests in our Guesthouse. These are people who often come only when there are big musical events, or who drop in to light a candle or to come to the Bookstore, or who sit on the lawn and enjoy a moment of quiet by the river, or who come on Christmas Eve. And so we feel that we need to incorporate these folks into the life of this place and every once in a while we invite them to socialize with us. Since we remodeled the Pilgrim Hall, it makes a wonderful place to have a reception, and it can be set up and taken down in very short order. Because of the size of the crowd for Lessons and Carols we could only manage cookies and cider, but we're talking about Edward's spiced cider and Lori's cookies, so people felt quite well provided for. (Edward is our magnificent Chef and Lori is the Guesthouse Administrator, and also a professional pastry chef). After Midnight Mass, Edward provided something more elaborate, with meats and cheeses and eggnog and more cider - quite grand.

It is really wonderful to be able to talk with people who may not see us often, but for whom this place is part of their lives, and who feel a tie to us that is important to them. People who stay in the Guesthouse often have a chance to talk with us, to confide in us, and to become close to us, especially if they come here often. But there are many people who live much closer to us, and for whom Holy Cross is important, but with whom we don't spend a lot of time. The receptions are for those people, so that we can welcome them and enfold them in the prayer and hospitality that make the life of this place. These are special and important times, and we work hard to make them special.

And now we go onward until New Year's Day. We don't close on Monday this week. We're open straight through until the end of the year - and that's going to make it even more difficult to tell what day it is. After today it will be fairly quiet with only a dozen to twenty guests for several days, which will be nice both for us and for the guests who are here, and then there will be a New Year's Retreat that will have a sizable group in attendance. Then the Guesthouse will close for a couple of weeks, as we usually do in early January.

I still don't know what day it is. Tomorrow I'll try to take a long walk in the hills and see if I can't convince my body that it's Monday, since that's my usual Monday recreation. But maybe that won't work at all, and that's ok. Knowing how to deal with the unexpected and with surprises is part of the spiritual journey. God is always surprising us with something, big or small. We have to be ready to see it. We get to practice every year at this time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Quiet Before........

Today is a whole different sort of time from last week. Last week I was feeling the pressures of the season in a big way. This week it's hard to imagine being more relaxed.

Our retreat was the big factor, of course. We have retreats for our community four times a year. Our major one is in the summer and that one lasts 10 days. Then scattered through the rest of the year we have 3-day retreats. It's been our custom for some years to have one of the retreats during the 3rd week in Advent. It's usually a slow time for the Guesthouse anyway. People are busy getting ready for Christmas and with other Holiday activities, so the number of guests would be low in any case. It's a good time to close the Guesthouse from Tuesday through Thursday and give ourselves a break. A spiritual break. The house is in silence. The daily schedule is somewhat relaxed. Most of our daily jobs don't need to be done - though at this particular time I do need to keep up with incense orders. The big push is over, but there are always a few last-minute orders.

One of our friends, who was a priest in one of the local parishes said that she always delighted in dropping in during the middle of December, and right in the middle of one of the busiest shopping weeks in the year seeing the sign on the Book Store door: "Closed For Retreat". She thought it was a wonderful counter-cultural statement. And so, I suppose, it is.

This time I knew very clearly that I didn't need more intensity. Sometimes during retreat I make a big push for meditation, study, a special project or something of the sort. That didn't feel like it at all this year. What I needed was space. I needed a bare minimum of stuff to do, with plenty of time around each thing, so I could move slowly, gently, and with a lot of attention to each small thing. I needed to stretch interiorily. And I needed to feel a lack of pressure.

I did have some projects, of course. One hardly ever escapes projects. There is a room next to my Office that has been a store room for quite a few years and it has been crying out to be cleaned and sorted for a long, long time. Some of the stuff stored there is important - many of the files and papers of the last Prior, who died suddenly and without time to do his own sorting, had yet to be gone through. And there was a collection of miscellaneous stuff in there that has gradually been getting higher and deeper. This seemed like a perfect time to do it. I also did some study in the teachings of Marcia Rose, a very talented spiritual teacher whom I have recently discovered. Those two things, some Mozart Concertos and the few incense orders were plenty to occupy the time.

Predictably, my latent guilt got activated. I should be busier. I should be praying more. I should be more intensely focused on my study. Fortunately I was burned out enough that I couldn't pay much attention to that voice even if I wanted to. So I just had to trust that I had what I needed: a few things to do, and silence.

It worked quite thoroughly, even beyond my expectations. Though I didn't feel very "spiritual" during much of the retreat, and my goals for myself were only partly met, by Thursday evening I realized that I was centered, I really was bathing in the silence, and that I had got my self back. God had blessed this retreat, and me.

The rest of the week has just carried this blessed time forward. Many times we emerge from retreats on a Friday morning, just of the edge of a full house of guests descending, and the transition can be quite a shock. But this time, because it was the last weekend before Christmas, we had only 5 to 7 guests. So the quiet has continued to be the overriding part of the atmosphere, and things are relaxed. Imagine having a week at this time of the year just to get back to yourself before Christmas is celebrated. On a regular basis, being a monk is certainly wonderful!

Now things will shift. (Don't they always?) This afternoon is our annual Lessons & Carols Service with Kairos, our Artists in Residence, singing, and that will be a wonderful occasion. If it's anything like our usual experience, the Church will be standing room only and The Holidays will be in full swing again.

And then the countdown to Christmas begins. A great tree stands in the Pilgrim Hall waiting to be decorated on Christmas Eve. Yes, I know it's outrageous, but we really are so old-fashioned that we don't decorate until Christmas Eve. We believe in letting Advent have it's full voice for all four of its weeks, and not doing Christmas until its time. If you've never tried it, it really is a wonderful rhythm. Guests will be flowing in all week, bringing every possible sweet pastry with them, ready to help with the decorating and humming carols. The usual energy of the place will get restored as the week goes on, and will come to a climax at the Midnight Mass on Thursday evening when we are joined by people from all over the surrounding area for our traditional High Mass.

I'm ready for it. I think the whole community is ready for it. We've done a good job of letting Advent prepare us for Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


My friends are complaining about this time of the year. Most of the complaining doesn't use the word "Advent", even from among the most religious people I know. It's about "The Holidays", which are a different set of things altogether.

The complaining is about the craziness of our behavior at this time. This year there seems to be a lot of discontent with the party scene. You, know - you are invited to a Holiday Party and so you have to have a Holiday Party to invite all of the people who invited you to their Holiday Party. All of this starts at the end of November and has to be done before the 24th of December. I have one friend who has been to 2 parties a night, 6 nights a week, for the last 3 weeks. He was also invited to parties on the 7th night of the week, but that is where he drew the line. He thinks it's crazy, but doesn't see any way of dealing with it.

And of course, there is the usual complaining about all the commercialism and the craziness of the shopping scene, but the last I heard, the amount of shopping was going up faster than any of the financial experts had expected - about twice as fast, according to one report. And when I did my own shopping last week, the stores were pretty packed - and this was on a Monday, so the complaining doesn't seemed to have changed that, either.

I do draw a line between Advent and The Holidays, and there have been times when I wrote passionately about the differences between them (see December postings for the past couple of years, if you're interested) but this year I'm musing on whether they might not be just two two different ways of responding to the same situation.

I wonder if Advent and The Holidays aren't two different ways of responding to chaos. Advent has all those apocalyptic themes - the end of the world, battles, wars, everything falling apart, and I wonder if this isn't at least partly a response of inner symbolism to the outer realities of December in the Northern Hemisphere. At this time of the year our whole world gets steadily darker, and colder and more difficult. On a semi-conscious level things are headed "down". There is a part of us, which goes back to the days of living in caves huddled around small fires, that has to be wondering whether we're going to survive this. We're feeling threatened and vulnerable and death lurks at the back of our minds. Many people respond with depression, and that's perfectly natural. I think there's also a variety of other responses.

Advent responds with archetypal symbols of chaos: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, plagues, dissolution of civilization. The Holidays respond with behavior that we hope will keep us from thinking about this stuff: we party so we won't have to confront our mortality, we shop so we'll feel provided for and won't have to think about our fragility. We do various things to shore up our feelings of security and let ourselves know that we will get through it.

And we do have our secular apocalypses, too - 2012, for instance. There are always apocalyptic movies around at this time of the year. These themes are always with us.

Looking at it this way makes several responses available to me:

1) I can investigate the various apocalyptic scenes that the liturgy provides me with and see what interior stuff is being evoked. It's not a bad thing to root around in my feelings about death, helplessness, vulnerability and such. This helps me realize what I'm responding to, and provides opportunity for enlarging my prayer. Yes, there's lots to pray about and meditate on in this stuff. Advent insists that it's better to have this stuff be conscious than to let it control us in other ways.
2) I can look at what I'm doing with my shopping and partying. You may think this amusing for a monk to be saying, but I have all those responses, even if my opportunity to act on them is more limited than those of most people. But I have old friends for whom I always buy small presents, and I am invited to various social occasions. And among all the wonderful reactions that God has provided us with, I have to assume that the ability not to think dark and dismal thoughts 24/7 has got to be one. We're created to face anything that comes along, and also to be able to have a respite when it all gets to be too much. How am I using these facilities? What do I need to face, and when do I need to give it a rest? How do I want to do my resting? Much to think about.... and to pray about.
3) Decisions. What do I want this time of the year to be for me? Like everyone else, I tend to get out of control in December. My calendar for this last week was a real nightmare. Why would any sensible person agree to everything I agreed to in the week following one of the biggest retreats of the year? Where was my time to do some recovery? How was I supposed to deal with the work that got set aside while the Advent Retreat was being planned, set up, conducted and taken down? I planned all of this past week in a state of unconsciousness. Do I want to do that again next year? Or even next week? What do I want to do to see that doesn't happen again? Much to think about, and to pray about.

I love Advent. I really love it. The Holidays aren't bad either. There is so much to be involved with. So many opportunities to deepen my humanity and my faith.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sharing the Peace

Years ago, when I was a young monk, I knew a nun who was also young and quite new in her order. She was going through a time of confusion and perplexity, as young monks and nuns do, and went to talk to their chaplain, an elderly and very kind man, and laid out her dilemma: "People come here and talk about how peaceful it is, how serene the sisters are and what a place of holiness this is" she said: "I know the reality of our life, and it doesn't look or feel like that to me. The life isn't like that. We aren't like that. I never know what to say." And he replied: "Ah yes, but you see, the peace isn't for you. The peace really is here, and all the rest of it is too. But it's meant for them, not for you."

No doubt under the influence of psychological analysis and systems theory and much else, we'd use different words to describe the situation now. But I've still always remembered a point well made. No matter how acute the observation of our guests may be, and sometimes it is amazingly accurate, still many of the gifts of this place are for them, and not for us, at least not directly. Our perspective on this place will always be somewhat different, and usually less starry-eyed.

I'm applying this directly to this weekend. This was the annual Advent Retreat, which I have been leading for many years with the author Suzanne Guthrie and Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit. It's usually a popular event and the guesthouse is most often completely full, as it was again this year. We work hard on providing creative programming and with Suzanne's gift of vision and Sr HM's very creative music, we most usually succeed. We certainly seem to have succeeded this year, if one can judge by the feedback. But the peace of this weekend retreat was definitely for them, not for me.

We organized this retreat around the theme of pilgrimage and the relationship between architecture and the interior journey. We processed them all over the place. In the course of examining themselves and our buildings they went upstairs, downstairs, through the chapel, into the monastery, down to the library. Our buildings are 1/10 of a mile long and we went from one end to the other, more than once. We worked hard and so did they, and their contributions were enlivening and sometimes exciting. It was wonderful to be part of a very creative time.

But moving 40 people around this set of buildings is no small deal. It was wonderful for examining the spiritual journey from a variety of perspectives, but I didn't anticipate how much energy would need to go into carrying things back and forth, setting up a different room every few hours, and providing candles, water, paper, books and ideas every few hours. My principal gift from this weekend appears to be exhaustion.

Was it worth it? Of course. It was a gift to be able to offer a truly creative opportunity for people. It may take a while to recover, but I will remember this time with pleasure and with gratitude. And there was one moment above all the others that I will keep with me for a long time.

Saturday night we provided a pilgrimage to the Crib. Our Creche was set up in the Library on the bottom floor of the monastery building. Close to the entrance of the Library is a sunken octagonal area that the building's architect thought was clearly important to the Library. Heaven knows how he thought that space would be used, but his original idea is now long lost. For us it's a puzzle and we've never known what to do with that area. We've tried artistic displays, couches, study tables and much else, but nothing ever really works. Except for the Creche at the Advent Retreat. It seems to belong there.

There are pillars around "the Pool" and with some dark cloth Suzanne created a sort of cave and the Nativity figures were placed in it. Our Creche is a modern one, done in a semi-abstract style, which I find very beautiful. The light was soft and low. Sr Helena Marie's music was very evocative. The atmosphere was quiet and deeply peaceful. We provided a candle for everyone who wanted to offer one before the Nativity scene.

As I went forward to offer my candle I also went down on my knees and touched my head to the floor. It's a natural gesture for me and one that I use with some frequency. Some years of yoga practice have made me unselfconscious about using my body however I want to in worship. Besides, I thought it might give people permission to do something out of the ordinary if they wanted to.

And it did. As I stood and watched, retreatants came before the Child, with Mary and Joseph and all the animals and the Wise Men. They bowed, they knelt. Some did a prostration like I had done. Some reached forward to touch the figures. A few caressed the head of old Joseph, or kissed the crib or the baby. People really did seem free to express the depth of feeling in their hearts and to do it in ways that are rarely seen in church in this country. It was an hour of meaning, and depth and tenderness. It was then that I knew without any doubt that we had created for those people the sort of retreat that we had hoped for. And, for a few minutes, it was a bit of retreat for me, too.

I was on the edge of tears for some time, just watching the scene and seeing how all of those people expressed what was in their hearts. And for those moments I didn't have to provide anything or teach anything or arrange anything. I could just be there at the Crib with everyone else. It's rare when a retreat leader can enter into the experience of the retreat, and I never expect it. Usually it's really important that you stand aside from that and make sure that things are going appropriately. But there, for a moment, I could just be at the manger with everyone else. It was a rare gift. And Advent has changed and deepened for me now.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Our History, Our Selves

When I first arrived at Holy Cross in 1964 to begin the process of seeing whether I had a monastic vocation or not, one of the jobs that was given to me was to be Fr Tiedemann's secretary. Karl Tiedemann was one of the Order's larger-than-life figures: a very big man with a booming voice that he used to good effect in the countless preaching missions that he gave all over the United States and in England. He was also the founder of our work in the western United States, first in Nixon, Nevada and then in Santa Barbara in the building that he discovered which became Mt Calvary Retreat House.

Not long before I arrived, Fr Tiedemann had been moved back to West Park from the West Coast in order to let Mt Calvary develop some new directions without the pressure of its founder looming over everyone's shoulder. He became the editor of the Holy Cross Magazine, which was largely a theological and spiritual journal in those days, though it also had some news items from the Order. It was felt that "KT", as he was called, could use some help with his voluminous correspondence and other paper work as well as with the editorial tasks of the magazine.

Actually the task that occupied me while I was a Postulant turned out to be rather different: he put into my hands a thick sheaf of paper which turned out to be a memoir of the Order's early days written by Fr Sturgis Allen, the Order's second member. It had just been discovered in the Archives and Fr Tiedemann was afraid that it was going to be lost because the paper was crumbling and the text was fading, having been written in pencil long before the days when typewriters were commonly available.

So it fell to me to make a typewritten copy of Fr Allen's writing, and that was no small task. The document was faded to begin with, and in places almost illegible. Add to that the frequent references to places and things I had no way of understanding (what, for instance, was a "Dupanloup Catechism"?). But I loved the whole task, from beginning to end. It took me from the Order's founding on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880's, through the times of wandering, when Fr Huntington gave up the work at Holy Cross Mission where we were originally located and he and Fr Allen had to find separate rooms to live in until the Brothers of Nazareth (a community that Holy Cross had founded) found them an apartment in a building next to the convalescent home which they ran "out in the country" - on 122nd Street. He then chronicled the move to Westminster, Maryland and the conditions of life there and then brought his reminiscences to an end just about the time the community moved to West Park early in the first decade of the 20th Century.

I was entranced. A sense of history has always come naturally to me, which I suspect was nurtured by growing up in the mid-South (Kentucky) as the son of a woman who very strongly lived from her Southern roots. People from that part of the country frequently identify my speech as coming from the South, though northerners seldom notice it, and I'm always surprised when it's pointed out to me. To say that southerners have an acute sense of history would be understating it a lot. I know exactly what Tennessee Williams was referring to when he said: "In the South, the past isn't forgotten. It isn't even past." Whenever I settle into a place I always start acquiring tales and information about my surroundings. It just comes naturally to me. I may be the only person in West Park who still knows where the Beulah Vale Baptist Church once stood and who remembers the jar of pickled eggs which stood on the bar in the establishment down the hill from us, which was the only remnant of a once flourishing Italian summer resort for people from "The City". I remember the old general store in the Village of West Park, long closed and abandoned when I arrived in 1964, I also remember its destruction when a train derailed in town in 1968 and one of the cars rolled over on top of it. I could go on and on. Sometimes I do.

So for me the history of my community which unfolded before me as I typed Fr Allen's manuscript isn't forgotten - at all. It really isn't even past. I have a natural understanding of why Holy Cross has almost always been willing to welcome whatever is new in the development of the Church. That comes to us from our Founder: that's what Fr Huntington was like. He welcomed new developments in Church and in society and he trusted people to make good use of them. And his love of adventure and the way he welcomed such a huge number of people into his life still mark us, from the sort of hospitality we offer in the guest houses of our Order to our stepping out and founding our new work in South Africa a decade ago. And the depth of the prayer of those first two men, which so obviously marked their lives and their ministries is still ours as well. We truly are the sons of that first generation. As I struggled to read that dim penciled text and preserve it from disappearing I learned not only about Fr Huntington and Fr Allen, I learned about myself and who I was going to be. I learned what it means to be a member of an institution with a century of history.

This past month has been rich with these reflections for me as we celebrated the 125th anniversary of our founding and this week celebrated the feast day of Fr Huntington, which is the actual anniversary of the founding of the Order. And this has been a time for exploring the future, too. This week, more or less by chance, there have been quite a number of men here exploring the possibility of vocation with us, more than we have seen in years. How many will actually come? How many of those will persevere? Whatever the answer, the march of the history of this one small and rather remarkable community appears to continue. It was quite moving to see them sitting side by side in the Guest Court of our Church, and watching them build the first ties of their lives as possible monks.

There are two things that always have to be held in tension: first, our past reveals a lot about who we are and shows us where we are going, and second, we can't be imprisoned by that. We have to be our own people with our own vision as we go to meet our own future. Both of those things have been strong in me this week as our past, our present and our future intersect and we move into Advent, which celebrates in its own fashion the ways in which past and future meet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Dark Time

The days are darker now, the nights longer. Often there's fog, mist and gloom. Conversations devoted to lamentation are part this time of the year, when the hours of summer sun seem so far away. It depresses lots of folks.

Usually I am quiet when conversations like that are going on since I can't join in with the complaining. The truth is that I love this time of the year. I'm very fond of dark, gloomy afternoons. I really enjoy the colors of winter, after the leaves are gone; the very subtle shades of gray and brown and dark green. Something in my soul wakes up when the days get shorter and the light gets dimmer. I've tried sharing my enthusiasm for cold, dim November afternoons, but you know what it's like when you're having a good session of grouchy conversation with friends and someone tries to be upbeat. Being quiet is the better part of wisdom at those times.

I can't trace my love of dim light to any one thing or event. I know that a dark afternoon with an easy chair and a lamp beside it always seems like an invitation to me: an invitation to read a really good novel or something that will take some concentration. And I have such good memories of childhood Saturday afternoons when my father listened to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio and my brother and I played on the living room floor with Lincoln Logs or our Erector Set.

erector set
Originally uploaded by tigerluxe

(Those who are as ancient as I may know what I'm referring to when I say that we had an Atwater Kent console radio which was regarded as being very fine for "good music", and good music was one of my father's great joys, and one that he passed on to me.)

Atwater Kent Cathedral
Originally uploaded by jschneid

Whatever its root cause may be, I have a fondness for winter's darkness. Coming out of Compline at this time of the year is a treat for me. The dark at the end of the day, the Great Silence which is so thick it could be cut if only I could find the right knife, dim hallways, far away lights winking on the river, all seem very welcoming to me. I often go out to our porch just to sit for a few minutes and wait for the express train from New York to Albany which races past at a brisk pace, or for the passing lights of planes or artificial satellites, while the constellation Orion presides over the winter stars. Even when it's cold, I go often go out. I guess my nice layer of fat provides good insulation. Then there's my room, with the light over the bed and a candle in the corner. It seems so welcoming, so peaceful, so enfolding.

Best of all is prayer at night. I really don't have to start praying, prayer is just there. Sometimes I have to look for it to see how I can tune in to it, but it doesn't seem to be anything that I "do". It's part of the reality of the night and if I have to look, what I'm looking for is simply a way to get into what's there. But more and more it's just there, and what I need to do is turn my attention to it and settle in. I've written before here of the sense of fulfillment that I had in the months that I lived with a community that got up for prayer at 2:00 a.m. That was 30 years ago, and I still treasure those nights and I seek those times when I'm able to do it now and then. There have always been religious orders that included middle of the night prayer in their schedules.

Some years ago I discovered a society in England composed of people who pray at night. Some of them get up to pray an Office, some just turn their minds to God when they wake up. Some pray on the way to the bathroom and back. I will do the Jesus Prayer on my beads for a while. I don't know whether the society still exists or not, and I can't find them on the Internet. The one person I know who was a member has had a stroke and no longer speaks, so I won't find out from her. But having some support in this endeavor isn't a bad idea and I wish I was in touch with them, if they still exist.

That's my time, and my way. Maybe prayer finds you on sunny afternoons at the beach, or whenever. There are times when all of us suddenly awake to the reality of it. Prayer really isn't so much something that we do as it is awakening to the reality of the world and ourselves. Prayer is a part of who we are and of the world we live in. We discover our way to it as we go along, just by practicing and seeing what happens. Monks sing Psalms day and night. Some people find prayer awakening when they hear a siren. Some people find that level of their being when they are in the middle of a crowd of strangers. Whatever. The times and places are unique to each of us. The important part of it is discovering what our times are and then showing up.

And it does change things.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

At Night By the River

Several weeks ago I blogged about being called into our Church one night when I was very tired and thought I was too tired to go. Well, it happened again this week, in a rather different way. There seem to be two factors at work in these summonses - night/dark, and tiredness.

We've all been worn out this week. The week before was glorious: 2 celebrations of the 125th anniversary of our founding, a profession of life vows, a really productive meeting of our Council. It was really good, but it was also a major disruption for people who live by a schedule, as we do, and it took all our energy. Not only that, but we started this week in the Guesthouse earlier than we usually do, and we had to hit the ground running because we had a group of about 40 people from the Diocesan Staff of the Diocese of New York. It was a great group, and from what we hear they had a wonderful time, but......

So we've been going through the week, each of us looking for the time or the place for some recovery, some respite.

This time it was after Compline one evening early in the week. I always love the sense of quiet that comes over our place after Compline. It almost has its own texture. And as I was headed for my room and savoring the evening silence there came again the sense of an intuitive invitation, this time to come outside. And this time I wasn't quite so worn out as the last time so my initial resistance wasn't awakened. I just turned down the hall and went outside.

When I got there I did the thing that seemed most natural: I went to the edge of the little bluff that our buildings sit on and looked out over the river. This is what I do every night from the window of my room, so it seemed like the thing to do. And I stood and looked.

Then I thought about my regular nightly exercise of praying for the people whose lights we can see across the river. I've done this for many years and it's part of my bed-time routine. But here's where my resistance came into play. Doing even that simple prayer seemed like it would take more energy that I had. It just didn't seem right somehow, and I'm in the process of learning that at times like this it's best if I follow the promptings that got me to this place. So I just stopped making any effort and looked at the river and waited.

The first thing that happened was a puff of wind from the cold front that was moving thought tousled my hair. It was just like someone messing my hair with their fingers, sort of saying: "Hi." "Hi", I said back. Then I waited.

Then I heard the sound of the river. Actually the river makes layers of sound. When it's moving there is always a sort of grumble; a low sound just about at the threshold of what can be heard, the sound of millions of gallons of water flowing. And because there was a cold front coming through and a fair amount of wind was blowing I could hear the noise of the wind and the sound it makes when the wind hits the surface of the river and then the sound of the waves stirred up by the wind. It was a restless, high sound, the sound of ceaseless energy.

Then I waited again. And I became aware of the lights across the river - lights from houses that are now beginning to be visible again since the leaves are dropping from the trees, and street lights and floodlights on the Vanderbilt Mansion and lights in the park land around it, and a couple of lights down by the river shore, and over all of it, the winking of the laser-like beams from the radio towers on the hills back from the river.

I watched all of those lights, just letting the sight of it sink in and became vaguely conscious of the people and the life that each of them represented. Then the next thing was spotting a winking light just above the horizon that was moving very slowly; a plane, so far away that there was no sound connected to it, probably out over the ocean, which is 80 or 100 miles away to our southeast. As it crept slowly along, so far away, I thought about the 200 or 300 people on board and wondered where they had come from and where they were going. Many of the planes that cross the North Atlantic pass this way, so there is always much to guess about when you see their contrails - so many dreams and expectations and lives.

Then the smell of the night came to me - damp, moist, fresh, overlaid with the smell of fallen wet leaves. This is unusual. I don't have much of a sense of smell and never have had, so I tend not to relate to the natural world around me by its smells. This was an extra little gift. And then another little gift, the feeling of the old, warm, moist air mingling with the cooler dried air being pushed in. I'm not sure I've ever been so aware of a cold front coming through and sweeping the old air out before it. And I saw the textures of the clouds, low and thick, sweeping along before the wind.

This gradually melded into a sense of the river itself, this great conduit of life that has flowed back and forth between these shores for a couple of million years or so. The Hudson is actually an estuary from New York to Albany, but it is so nicely river-shaped that no one thinks of it as anything else. The Esopus People who lived here before the Europeans came called it "The River that Flows Both Ways" and their story was that they originally lived to the West and were told by a prophet that they should move and should travel East until they found a river that flowed in both directions. And we are, in some ways, their heirs.

And then, slowly and gently, I became aware at last of the unity of all who live here or who have ever lived here - those represented by the lights across on the other shore, and those on the plane and those who came before electricity was invented, and those who lived here before people were here at all and those who live in the river and on its shores and in the air above. The great unity that joins us all became very evident to me.

This is one of the places to which the spiritual path is said to lead - to the knowledge of our unity with each other and with all life and with the earth and with God. I stood and felt that oneness.

Then I realized I was hungry and went to get a bed-time snack of a nice trail mix that I have that consists of some dried fruits and some raw nuts and some seeds. It seemed like the right food for the right time.

I tell this story partly as an account of one monk's experiences in the living of his life in this place, and partly just to say that I don't think that what I experience is particularly unique. I think that God calls out to us with the experience of unity pretty much all the time, 24/7. We just sense that call rarely. Only when the veil that is constructed by our minds and kept in place by the busyness of our lives is drawn aside for a bit do we let the reality of that call be heard. But it's there. It's always there - always. We just need to learn to listen. And how you do that is particular to your own circumstances and the conditions of your own life. But the testimony of the holy women and men of the ages is that we are drawn to this realization and we need to open to it to truly know who we are and where we are going.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Celebration Continues

I'm late this week because of all of the events that have been part of the past eight days. Yesterday we had our noon meal early and then got into cars as fast as we could and went to New York City to the Church of St Luke in the Fields, for the second of our celebrations of our 125th anniversary. St Luke's is not too many blocks from the neighborhood in which the Order of the Holy Cross was founded. The parish in which we worked in the 1880's was called Holy Cross Church, and it was from that Church that we took our name.

Their particular ministry was to German immigrants who were at the bottom of the social scale at the time, and for whose benefit Fr Huntington, our founder, began the exercise of the social ministry for which he became so famous in later years. Holy Cross Church has been gone for a long, long time, but we have a long history of connection with St Luke's, and presently the parish sends a large number of groups to our Guesthouse each year and the parish clergy are frequently here for their own retreats, so it was really right for our celebration of 125 years since the Order's founding.

The West Park community was joined by Br David Hoopes and Br Carl Sword who are both resident and ministering in the City, so there was a nice group of us to sing Vespers of our Founder, which has as its antiphons quotations from the Rule Fr Huntington wrote for us. The Office climaxes with the antiphon for the Magnificat which is comprised of our Founder's last words at the time of his death in the 1930's: "Ask them to forgive me; tell them I forgive them; I want them to have joy; I will always intercede." It was a wonderful touch that these words were reported to us at the time by the Order's dear friend Fr Schleuter who was then the Rector of St Luke's Parish.

It was a perfect time for Vespers. It was daylight when we started, and as the Office proceeded the outside light got darker and darker and more of the light came from twinkling lights on the chandeliers which light the inside of the Church. The acoustics of St Luke's are good, but very different from the Monastery Church, but we rose to the occasion and chanted well. It was a very warm afternoon for November and the doors of the Church were open and an interesting number of people came from the street as the service went on, to look through the back door or to come in for a few minutes. It was not all that different from the occasion in 1884 which we were commemorating when our Founder made his vows and became the first member of the first American men's religious order in the Episcopal Church.

An address was given by Dr Esther de Waal, the renowned author, who is an old friend of Holy Cross and a Companion of our Order. She put our celebration in the context of famous Benedictines of the past, such as Aelred and Dunstan, and talked of Benedict himself and his longing for God. It was unfortunate that, from our seats in the sanctuary of the Church, the reverberation of the sound system off the walls kept us from understanding large parts of the talk. But her obvious involvement with her material, and her echoing of the longing for the divine that characterizes the monastic vocation, were so clear that I found myself carried into that longing and into the love that those who seek God in prayer always hope to find.

A nice reception finished the afternoon off very well, and also provided some astonishment to the caterer who said: "You people actually talk to each other!" He does a lot of New York events, and apparently seeing those who attended actually enjoying themselves and communicating with each other was something of a curiosity in his experience. After that several of us had a relaxed dinner with our brother Carl in the City, and then made our way home, arriving not far before midnight.

And I haven't yet mentioned the other event of our week of celebration and that was the Profession of Life Vows by our brother Bernard Delcourt which took place on Wednesday. It was a wonderful, wonderful occasion which was more than anything an explosion of joy. Our Monastery Church was packed for the event, and Bernard's brother and his family had come from Belgium for the service.

There are a good many moving moments in a profession liturgy, but this time I think that the two things that most people have mentioned were the chanting of the hymn "Come, Holy Spirit" with the congregation kneeling and Br Bernard lying prostrate on the sanctuary floor, and the chant which Bernard and the Community exchanged with each other, repeating three times: "Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and let me live; and do not disappoint me in my hope."

Nor should I omit to mention the moment when Bernard knelt to make his profession, promising Stability, Fidelity to Monastic Life and Obedience for the rest of his life, and then signed the profession, which he had written out in his own hand, and rose to put it on the altar.

And then, of course, this being Holy Cross, we all went to the refectory for one of our chef Edward's magnificent spreads, which included an enormous Belgian Blue Cheese - which turns our to be both more mellow and more complex that the French blues that we are used to. (Bernard said afterward that he didn't know that there was a Belgian blue cheese - though he knows the town where it is made).

That, together with a 3 day long meeting of the Order's Council, of which I am currently a member, filled out a memorable and exhausting week. The house was very quiet today. We are all hoping for a gradual return to normal. Meanwhile we are savoring all that we have celebrated in the past 8 days.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How Do You Celebrate When You're 125?

You don't get a chance to celebrate being 125 years old very often. But this month the Order of the Holy Cross is 125. Fr James Otis Sargent Huntington OHC made his profession of vows on the 25th of November a century and a quarter ago, and of course we had to celebrate - a more modest celebration, certainly, than our centennial celebration 25 years ago, but some event was clearly called for.

So this afternoon we had the first of the events, and it was a Solemn Vespers of All Saints Day together with the Dedicatory Recital of the new organ in the Monastery Church.

As it turned out it was a truly marvelous occasion. Br Scott designed an interesting and imaginative service which combined the celebration of Vespers with the recital. Vespers and the organ pieces were interwoven with each other. There were two very familiar All Saints hymns at the beginning and the end of the service. Then the organ pieces were placed between the singing of the Psalms and the Magnificat and the reading of the scripture lesson. Our chant harmonized beautifully with the organ music, which was both stimulating and reflective. I've never seen anything quite like it - the closest thing I can think of is a service of Lessons and Carols which you sometimes see around Christmas, but this service had a well thought-out shape and a real feeling of both movement and unity.

The organist was Erich Borden, who is the brother of our own Br Scott Borden. Their mother, Jane, gave the beautiful Pipe Facade which is high on the south wall of the Church and encloses the speakers of the organ. The organ itself is a digital instrument made by the Rogers Company. It was given by our dear friend Dr Lalitha Manoharan, who was close to us for many years and now after a long time in this country is again living near her family in India. The organ is an instrument of extraordinary flexibility and wonderful tone. It sounds splendid in our church, certainly much richer than the instrument that it replaced.

The music that Erich selected was entirely modern, and included works by Sigrid Karg-Elert, Jehan Alain and Daniel Pinkham, all well-known composers of modern organ music. The pieces were carefully chosen to display the breadth of interpretation of which our new organ is capable, and they were not only lovely but quite interesting as well. There were some breathtakingly rich moments in the pieces and some amusing ones as well - as in the Pinkham "The wind from the West", which is Movement IV of his piece "The Four Winds." You could hear the locusts being cast into the Red Sea from the passage in Exodus 10 that was the inspiration for the movement.

One of the great advantages of a digital instrument is that the console is movable. For this occasion we put it at the head of our choir, positioned so that the keyboard faced the congregation. This gave everyone a full view of the instrument and they got to see how Erich managed the controls and what his playing technique looked like, which is not something you usually get to see at an organ concert. It also gave anyone who was interested an opportunity to come up afterward and inspect the console - several people were obviously very interested in walking all the way around it - and Erich stayed for a long time answering people's questions and talking with them about the concert and about the organ.

We finished the afternoon with a reception, Holy Cross style, which featured our chef Edward's platter of meats and cheeses and luscious home-made brownies by Lori, our Guest House Administrator. It was one of the nicest receptions I can recall. The group was a manageable size, so that it was possible to have a real relaxing social time, and that is indicated by the length of time that people stayed. We were all obviously enjoying the time with each other and no one felt rushed to go.

All in all it was quite an afternoon. What better way would there be to celebrate being 125? Creative liturgy, marvelous music and good food with good friends. A very Holy Cross sort of celebration, and a small example of why on this evening I am feeling so content and happy and so proud of my community.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reasons For Not Praying

Everyone who prays has to admit that we fail a lot in the task of praying. There are lots of times when we just don't pray. We don't do it.

Those of us who do spiritual direction know that we are not alone in this. "How is your prayer life?" is a question that often gets the answer "Oh, I feel so bad. I just haven't been doing it. I know I should, but I just haven't gotten around to it." (or, "I haven't made the time", or "I just can't seem to manage it" or whatever version we can find to describe our dilemma).

I admit it: this is definitely part of my life. I hear it a lot from other people, and I experience it in myself. More times than I would like to admit, my prayer life consists of not doing it.

There, I've said it.

Why? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? That's what I've been thinking about lately. What is the real reason here? I have a real urge to prayer. I'm a monk for God's sake! What are my excuses? What are the excuses that I hear from others? When I don't get around to it, what's going on?

There are a lot of different things here, but they fall in some definite categories. I could do this whole blog by listing reasons I've heard or said, but I don't feel like doing that. Instead, I'll give you three of my favorites, with some commentary.

I'm too busy.
This is a great one. It's very popular, and I hear it all the time. I even say it with some frequency. This is especially popular with Americans. Americans really love being too busy. We complain about it, sure, but we wouldn't be without it. It's part of our national character. I've heard it said that we are the only society that actively admires addiction to overworking. It may be killing us, but we love it. We derive a sense of importance from being too busy to pray. Being too busy indicates that "they" can't do without me and my work.

And there's the rub. There's a lot of emptiness underneath this one. We have to be too busy or we might not be important. Who are we if we aren't too busy? And prayer steps right in the middle of it here, because prayer involves sitting down and (gasp!) doing nothing. It deals with this excuse by facing it head-on. There's a sort of irresistible force meeting an unmovable object here. Being too busy is irresistible. Prayer is the unmovable occasion that puts itself directly in the way of this force. It forces us to examine just why we are too busy. And that is an examination that few of us want to make.

But it's an important examination. It may, in fact be crucial - even a matter of life and death. What are we doing to ourselves? That's what God asks us to face. What changes do we need to make? That's the big one.

I don't want to pray. or I don't feel like it.
Often this one isn't said directly, at least out loud. Usually there are other excuses offered. But when you get down to it, there is a lack of will or interest. We think we ought to have enough motivation to pray, but in fact, we don't. We may even think it's shameful to be this way, which is why we often don't say it to anyone, but there it is. It doesn't feel good, but we're stuck with it.

What to do? From my point of view the first thing to tackle is the sense of guilt. We're unlikely to get to the bottom of this one if it's feeding off our sense that we are "bad" or "wrong" because we feel this way. This is going to go around in circles, feeding on itself, until we can bring ourselves to just look at it. Forget the self-judgment. Can the guilt. This is just a fact. We're uninterested. Or we don't have the energy. Or whatever. It's just that. Not a judgment, just a reality. Once we get there we can look at it. What does it feel like? Where did it come from? Is there anything underneath here? The answers may not be evident right away. This is something that can take a good deal of patient observation. Don't worry. This is an examination that is a really good use of prayer time. Just take your lack of motivation and look at it, feel it, ask it a few questions. And then pause and see what the answer is. If it's silence, be patient. It may take some time for the situation to emerge.

Something is about to emerge.

This is often the result of the two situations discussed above. Being too busy and discovering that we just aren't going to pray can be important symptoms; symptoms that something is coming down the road to meet us. We often understand intuitively that something is coming up for us before we actually know what that agenda is. And our sense that something from down in our unconscious is about to rise makes us uneasy, jittery, unable to settle. No one likes to have their cage rattled and so we usually react by trying to keep things just as they are. So, prayer becomes more difficult. Sitting quietly and just letting God do as God wants to do with us is an open invitation for change; sometimes major change. And when we sense major change approaching we can do anything from getting nervous to shutting down altogether.

You get through this with the same attitude that gets you through so much else in the spiritual life: no judgment, no recrimination. If you can't, you can't. If you look carefully enough you can tell the difference between "I can't" and "I won't". "I can't" needs to be honored. I had a period of several months some time ago when the only way I could meditate at all was to get up in the morning, have my shower, make a cup of tea and then crawl back into bed with some spiritual reading. The tea, the gentle book, and some slow rumination was all I could manage, and then only if I was lying down. Honoring that managed to keep things moving forward gently until the time finally came that I could do something more focused. It turned out to be some old stuff - memories emerging from the far distant past, stuff I no longer need and that was ready to come out and go on its way, leaving me lighter and freer within. But I had to let it have its way before I got there.

Times when prayer and meditation are difficult or impossible can be very important transitional times. But for us to get the message that they always contain we have to approach them as though they were teachers; teachers who have come from far away or deep within to let us know what is coming next. It's really easy to get impatient or angry with ourselves when we fall into these behaviors, but treating them as enemies or sins is usually unprofitable. I try to remember the watchwords of my meditation teacher - no judgment, no recrimination. Difficult times can be wonderful teachers if they are welcomed as situations that just may be full of possibilities. Quietly facing them with questions such as "What's here for me?" or "What am I to learn here?" or just "What's this?" keep us facing in the right direction and keep us open. That's what's needed - an open heart. That will take us into the mystery that is unfolding.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To Have Peace.....

Yesterday was our monthly Peace Vigil. I don't know whether I've mentioned this part of our life before, but I know I haven't talked about it lately.

It all started during Lent several years ago. We decided that we wanted to do something about praying for peace. We organized a day of prayer for peace and we advertised it in the area and among local religious communities. We had one of the monks in the church all day long and other people came and went, and we finished with a service of peace in the evening. It attracted a substantial crowd and the church was pretty packed for the evening service and a number of friends and clergy and sisters and brothers from other Orders took part.

Then during Lent we continued our vigil on Saturdays and invited our guests and people from the neighborhood to join us. By the end of Lent it had become part of us. We knew that we wanted to continue it, but doing it weekly seemed more than we were able to sustain, so we decided to do it on one Saturday a month. We still advertise to people in the neighborhood and those who are in the Guesthouse to join us. Sometimes people do come and pray with us. Sometimes they don't. But several years later, we are still at it, keeping vigil for peace.

We begin at Matins in the morning. Before the service begins we light a candle and I pray a prayer for peace as a way of dedicating the vigil and this place to the quest for a more peaceful world. Then at the end of Matins the vigil begins. One of the brothers takes a seat close to the altar and is there for a half hour, praying for peace. We take turns, a half hour at a time through the morning. At noon we have a special Liturgy of Peace in place of our usual Office. There is a hymn ("Peace Within Us, Peace Over Us, Peace Under our Feet....") a reading from Scripture, some silence and then we stand and read the names of all of our troops who have been killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan during the past month. Then we remember all of the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed (though we don't have their names), and the families and friends of all of them. There's another reading, this time by one of the more famous figures in the Peace Movement (yesterday it was Oscar Romero), some more silence and a closing prayer.

It's quite deep, and sometimes pretty intense. It was particularly difficult yesterday because the list of names from Afghanistan was very long and the longer the names were read, the more difficult it became to stay with it without breaking down. Nearly all morning there were people from the Guesthouse and from the local area who were praying with us, and that is a bit unusual. People said, as they often have, how moving it was to see one brother get up at the end of each half hour and give his space to the next monk, because it made the sense of unceasing prayer more real.

And, of course, all of this brings up the issues of what it's for. Is this worth doing? Does sitting quietly in a church once a month change anything?

Well, just what is changed is always problematical and the "results" aren't always immediately evident. "Results" aren't a very good way to measure prayer. A better measure would be whether this is something we feel called to. And there does seem to be an imperative about it: for a community dedicated to prayer it really does seem like we have to pray for peace quite independently of whether we can see anything happening. We just must do it.

Then there is the fact that things are changing. Slowly, gradually, things are changing. War is no longer celebrated in the way it used to be. It no longer is regarded as a glorious adventure. It is more often seen as a failure - the last refuge when we can't manage anything else. And that is progress. Changing the world by prayer is often a matter of centuries rather than weeks, and it certainly does wonders for a sense of humility about one's place in the whole scheme of change.

Of course, there is the one change that I simply can't deny. One of the things that is changed by this Vigil is me. If you want to have peace, first you have to be peace. That's the way it works. And I see it working.

My approach to the whole issue of peace, has changed and deepened. My sense of a need to be involved grows steadily. My intuition that God is involved in this great sweep of history that is moving us towards reconciliation has also gotten more compelling. I am not the same Bede who started this vigil-keeping. God is at work here.

In the end we do this simply because we must. We make sense of it as we go along, as we can. God summons; we see how we can answer. Given our life and what we have been called to, this response makes sense to us. And it's growing deeper - to that I can testify. It is good to be part of this growing mystery of the road to peace.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Being Summoned

Sometimes things happen very unexpectedly. This is hardly news, but I think that often we have a tendency to think that it shouldn't be that way in the spiritual part of our lives. This week I came up against a completely unlooked-for moment when I was least prepared for it. Maybe that's exactly why it happened.

I'm getting over a cold. Right now I'm in that state that sometimes comes after a viral illness when my strength is very hard to get back. I feel great otherwise, but I haven't yet got any stamina. I'm in a good place, but very weak. I feel like I don't have the energy for even the simplest task.

Last night I was even more wrung out. A group of our Associates were here this weekend, so that has meant a lot of socializing and quite a few conversations in addition to everything else the day held. All of that took energy that I felt like I really didn't have. After Supper we had planned a reception for everyone. But when Supper was finished I went first to my room to lie down for a while, because I couldn't manage any other way. When I had a little rest I joined the reception for a time and then when it had begun to wind down I helped with the clean-up.

We finished all of that about 20 minutes before Compline. As I headed down the hall from the Guesthouse I was really feeling done in and I knew I was going to need some more rest. I decided to get to my room and lie down again, and I wasn't at all sure that I'd get back up for the Office when the bell rang. Where I really needed to be was on my mattress.

I went past the Church and glanced in as I went by. Someone had put on the lamps that we use for Compline and the light was low and the Church looked warm and welcoming. I love our Church at night and sometimes seek it out just to be there for a while because I find it so comforting. For me it's one of those Thin Places that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. But last night as I went by it got more explicit. It said: "Come in".

I hasten to make clear that I wasn't hearing voices. It was an entirely intuitive experience. But it was quite clear. An invitation was being issued and I heard it. I thought: "That would be lovely, but I can't manage it. I don't have any energy to put out. Just the amount of strength that it would take to get a bit centered is more than I have. This is an invitation I will have to politely refuse. As much as I love being in our Church at night, I'm not doing it this time."

The Church was having none of it. "Come in" it said.

"No!" I replied.

"Come in." it said. And all of the time I walked along the passageway that leads around the outside wall of the building it said: "Come in".

"Well," I thought, "it would appear that this isn't your usual thing. Looks like something 1s being offered. Maybe I can find a way to accept even with no energy." So when I got around to the other side of the Church as far as the north door I turned aside, put on my cowl and went in.

The light was soft and it felt good to be there. I took a seat in the gallery at the back. I was by myself for a few seconds and then one of the brothers came in and then one of the guests. The 3 of us sat there for some time in the silence that bathed the place.

It didn't take any time at all to know why I was there. The Church was full of a Presence. That's the only way I can describe it. Even saying the word "God" would be too limiting for what I found myself encountering. It was just a full, lively Presence. It was in motion, whatever that means. I guess it means that it didn't feel static. It was gigantic and it was The Divine, and it was also the sound of generations of monks who have chanted in that place and it was also the monks themselves. Maybe it was an angel or two - or two hundred. Who knows? It was the heavenly host. It was Life itself.

And it didn't require any energy to be there. I wasn't called in there to put out energy that I didn't have. I could just rest in what was being offered. I didn't have to take the energy to focus, because focusing wouldn't accomplish anything. All I had to do was be there, and let myself be filled with the Presence, the Life that had invited me in.

And as I did that, I realized that my exhaustion was vanishing. I was still tired - very tired. But that sense of having nothing left was slowly leaving. One kind of energy was being replaced with another. What a gift it was to be invited into that place, just when I was weak enough to actually perceive what was there.

Then more people came in and the bell rang and I went to my place in choir and Compline unfolded. Again I didn't focus - I hadn't the strength for that. What I did was just let the Office unfold and roll over me. And as it did all the familiar phrases penetrated my mind:

"that you will be our guardian and security",
"Hear my prayer, O God",
"for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see",
"as we sing your glory at the close of this day....."

And then I went peacefully off to bed and to sleep. I'm very glad I said yes to the invitation.

I will not haunt the Church at night looking for it to happen again. However tempting that might be I know by this time that it's futile. Whatever was offered was for last night. Period. Trying to recreate spiritual experiences is a waste of good prayer time and can be a serious delusion. Tonight's experience will be different and probably much less interesting. But it will be whatever is offered tonight, and tonight I need to be with tonight, not with last night.

But I will ask myself whether there is a point in not summoning up so much energy when I go to pray. Might it not be just as good, or even better, to just be in that space and let what is being offered wash over me? Is that why the invitation came, at precisely the time when I had no energy to resist what was being offered? Do I just need to be there? Am I being shown that the energy I use in focusing might be a block to deeper prayer? Some exploration is in order.

One more thing. I wonder if those of you who pray would offer a prayer or two for a very small child in Arkansas named Lynley. She has the H1N1 virus and when her dad called me Friday night her fever was over 104, her pulse was 181 and she was having trouble breathing. I don't have to tell you what her parents are going through. The fever is better controlled now and that has made the other problems recede, but it's still serious and there is still a chance of pneumonia. Her dad was one of "my" kids when I worked in the Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Kansas and he and I are still in touch now and then. He'll really appreciate it if people are praying. And, of course, there are a bunch of other kids in other places in this country in the same situation who could use prayer as well. Thanks.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A New View

One of the chief ways I relate to the area in which I live is through its history. I love knowing things about what happened around us, I read books about the history of this area, and the smaller and more obscure their subject matter, the better. (We actually have a volume in our library, written by one of our neighbors, entitled "The History of West Park from 3,000 BC to the Present"). I have read books about individual neighborhoods in Kingston (the small city to our north), about the ruined churches of Ulster County and about the ferry that ran from Highland (to our south) to Poughkeepsie.

So I've joined in the local excitement of this weekend which marked the dedication of the newest State Park in the New York system of parks. It's what New York calls a "Linear Park", meaning it's essentially a trail, but this trail is quite unique: it's called The Walkway Over the Hudson.

It is, in fact, the old Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, which spans the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie. The bridge was quite famous in its day. It was first proposed in 1855, but not completed until 1889 because, among other things, it went bankrupt 3 times in the process of its building. But when completed it was, for a short time, the longest and highest bridge in the world - and in fact is still one of the highest bridges ever to be built. It originally was for trains that carried passengers from Boston and New England to Washington, and it was a great improvement on the only other route, which was through New York City, and was very slow and tedious since none of the railroad bridges in and out of New York had yet been built so the journey had to be done partly by train and partly by ferry.

But the passenger business didn't flourish for long because the necessary bridges in New York were soon built and robbed the Poughkeepsie Bridge of its purpose. It did serve for many decades, however, as one of the chief routes for getting freight in and out of New England. But as the rail industry declined in the 20th century so did the fortunes of the Poughkeepsie Bridge and it was less and less used, and even less maintained. Finally in 1974 (I think) the railroad ties on the bridge, soaked with creosote and badly maintained for a long time, caught fire and the surface of the bridge burned. The structure was subsequently abandoned, the rail lines torn up, and it has stood as a monument to the past ever since.

There have been numerous proposals for its use: some said it should be revived as a railroad bridge, some that it should be rebuilt as an automobile bridge to relieve the pressure on the Mid-Hudson bridge which is nearby. A variety of other proposals have been floated, one of the most fanciful of which was to make it a gigantic shopping mall, complete with Condos in the piers. The big attraction was to be the view - because of its height the bridge offers views that are spectacular - and plans were drawn up and widely publicized, but it never came to anything. Finally, just a few years ago, a group of local businessmen who were interested pursued the idea that it could be a walkway - a 1 1/2 mile long trail, if you will - and they raised the 38 million dollars necessary to make it a reality, organized the construction, and this weekend it was finally dedicated.

There were fireworks - quiet a display, to judge from the noise they were making - there were 1,000 lights on the bridge, a hot air balloon all lit up, boats new and old floating by and the usual speeches and celebrations. I had some thought of going, but Friday night is not a good night to get away because of our weekend schedule, and as the numbers expected to attend swelled into the thousands and tens of thousands, it seemed less attractive.

Still, the project is exciting to me, and I'm going to wait a few days until the excitement has settled a bit and then some nice fall afternoon I'm going to take a couple of hours off and walk across the Hudson River seeing, from a height of 212 feet, a view of "my" river that I have never seen. The first reports are very enthusiastic, and it should be quite an experience. Randy is planning to go to take pictures, so those of you who follow his Flickr site will have a visual report before long. And hopefully, many of you who come to be guests here will take a little time one morning or afternoon to visit the new wonder of the Hudson Valley.

I make no distinction between the Hudson River and my spiritual journey. It is one of my most constant companions, and it weaves in and out of my prayer. It is one of the first things I see every morning and one of the last at night and it is there as my prayer greets each day and as I pray for our neighbors just before I get into bed. Its beauty exalts my sense of what is lovely and gives me great joy. Its history expands my mind. Just knowing that it has been here for a couple of million years, flowing back and forth as the tides change, day after day for all those milenia, awakens my sense of awe. I have lived much of my life beside this river and it has helped give shape to my thoughts and to my thought-less meditations. It is truly deep in my soul. It is wonderful to think of having a new, and breathtaking, view of the Hudson River.

I just have to follow all this up with an incident from the weekend. There was a group of teenagers from Toronto here from Thursday through this morning, led by our friend and Associate Tay Moss (who is our present Web Master). He asked me to do some work with the group, which I was very glad to do, and I got acquainted with them and of course liked them a lot.

During the weekend one of the girls came to me one evening and said that she wanted to know if I write poetry. I said that I didn't and asked why she thought I might. She said she had just seen how I notice small things and how I describe them lovingly and said that she associates that with poetry. We talked about that for a while and we agreed that I do write "poetic prose". Then, of course, I needed to ask about her poetry and she told me a bit about it. It was a lovely exchange and it reminded me, just one more time, how closely adolescents notice the adults around them. They are watching all the time, especially when we don't think they are, and they notice everything. My realization of that, and my comfort with it, has been one of the foundations of my work with teens for many years. It's one more link with the meditative life, and it's been full of rewards for me.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Short and (hopefully) Sweet

Some days there just isn't any time. Some weeks are like that, too. This week I've been away for two days. On one of them I went to Newark Airport to collect Br Bernard on his return home from a long visit with his family in Belgium, and yesterday I spent the day with friends and their extended families in New York City - mostly in Central Park. In the meantime there have been all the meetings, conferences, letters, emails and all the other stuff that make up the week, to be gotten into a week with two fewer days than usual. Today several of us had another meeting this morning, this afternoon we have the first of the Bach Vespers of the season and this evening we have a community social time.

So the amount of time available for writing spiritual reflections is very small, and I'm just going to bite the bullet and do the sensible thing: since I have a small bit of time, I'm going to write a small amount.

The experience of the past week that is now floating on the top of my mind is that a 2-hour train ride is a perfect time for meditation and spiritual reading. The beauty helps, in this case. The train trip between Poughkeepsie and New York City follows the Hudson River all the way, and in some places the separation between the rails and the water is a matter of a very few feet. It's one of the most beautiful train journeys on earth. Just looking at the view is enough to alter your consciousness.

And of course, you are a prisoner of the coach while you're on the way. There's not much in the way of alternatives, nor of distraction. You can't go to the dining car because there isn't one. I suppose you could have your computer with you, and all that goes with that, but I don't have a laptop, and that's deliberate. You're right there in your steel-enclosed chapel, with breathtaking scenery flashing by and nowhere to go but where the train is going. So what else are you going to do?

Thanks to my habit of wearing wrist beads, they are always at hand. They do their usual job of facilitating meditation whether your eyes are open or closed. The car was pretty quiet, and it usually is. The sound of the wheels on the rails is rhythmic, and that helps. If you want the time and the space for some inward adventuring, it's a pretty good opportunity. The Jesus Prayer, some more formless silent prayer and then some reading to let my mind refresh and ponder - not bad for someone who really needs to pray.

There was resistance, of course. There's always resistance. The mind doesn't give up its reign easily or willingly. It's good to recognize that for what it is, and the limitations of being on a train help in that process. Some planning helps, too. I only brought one book, and it was my current spiritual book, so I hadn't allowed for reading distractions. I had my beads. I deliberately didn't have anything else.

It worked. It was good. It was what I needed.

And I also have a belief that this isn't just about me. Everyone has places and times like this in their life. Maybe it's a church you go by on your way to work or home. Maybe it's a park that beckons as you go by. Maybe it's some place that I haven't thought about and wouldn't think about in my wildest dreams, but it happens to be your perfect spot, or your perfect time. Whatever, wherever, it waits for you to answer its call.

So yesterday I had 4 hours to pray and read. It's more than I get almost ever. It was really good.

So where's your place?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Like You Can

St Teresa of Avila had a lot of memorable sayings. One that was quoted to me very early in my spiritual journey was "Pray like you can, not like you can't". That must have been at least 50 years ago. It caught me then and it still does.

I suppose one of the chief reasons that it still is in my mind is that I have not yet gotten over my stubborn tendencies to try to pray like I can't. Like so many people with an intentional spiritual life, I have an interior vision of what my prayer could be - "should" be. I'm embarrassed at how much of it is composed of things I can't do. That is, I'm embarrassed part of the time. The rest of the time I'm trying to do it.

That's why last week I mentioned the whole business of spiritual practice when you're sick. The issue with illness is that you're removed from your usual world and deprived of your usual energy. Now who on earth would expect that you could pray in the same way as you do ordinarily? Well, among others, there's me. I really do believe, in my heart of hearts, that if I was being faithful I would do exactly the same things in exactly the same way that I do if I was well. I can't, of course, and this leads to all kinds of incrimination and dissatisfaction.

My short-hand description of how I dealt with this particular plight last week was "Lying Meditation", but that doesn't really cover the whole range of things. How do you pray with less energy? Well, clearly you use less energy. You have a low-energy prayer. Then my over-developed idealism comes into play. Is a low-energy prayer worth praying? Is it "really" prayer?

Luckily I can say that for last week at least it really is. Ok, just do it. Here we are. There's the window and the sun. There's the sound of the little fountain on my table. There's my icon. Here's my fever, my headache. Here's how weakness feels. Here's my nice soft blanket. Here's my dissatisfaction with this kind of prayer. I just touch each thing, each sight, each sound, each feeling, let it be there, and pass on to the next. That's all, except that sometimes one of the things that I touch is the sense that I am doing all this in God's presence. I'm just being sick with God.

And then, every now and then there it is - that opening, widening. What descended is the knowledge that I'm in a wider, broader, deeper (whatever any of that means) place. It means freedom, I guess: the sense of being released from the prison my my own expectations and delivered into a realm where I'm free to just be me, here and now, with God.

Is that really prayer? I'm just not going to go through all the things one could say about that. All I'll say is that I tried it. I got an answering experience. God was there. That's enough.

Only you know how you can pray. And that's the scary part about this journey. The responsibility is squarely in your own hands. Other people can help, of course, so can books. But the most helpful thing they can do is to help evoke what is in you, the gift of prayer that the Holy Spirit has placed in your heart. And the only way to get there is to go to your heart.

Easy to say..............

One of the great spiritual worthies whose books I have read is a Buddhist monk of Thailand. He says that at one point in his journey, when it came time to meditate each day all he could do is lie on the floor and cry. For a couple of years that's all he could do. Fortunately he had a wise teacher who didn't urge him to do anything else for a long time. He just sat with him while he did what he could do.

An Eastern Ordthodox priest who conducted a retreat for us some years ago talked about a parishioner whose mother had what we would call today some advanced mental dysfunction - Alzheimer's? Maybe, or one of the others. In any case she sat in the living room of their home all day long and mumbled the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Over and over. All day long. It drove the family bonkers. They were ready to scream. What should they do? "Well, said our retreat leader, you might try tuning in." And for me, that answer has been foundational. There it was, a real answer. Whatever else that situation might call for, it was at least an invitation to step into the possibility that I will be able to pray when my mind is gone. We so often identify prayer with the mind, but much, much more is involved. It's a promise and a hope that gives real joy to me. Tune in to the part of you that wants to pray, not the part that can't pray.

My own adventures in this realm have not been few. There were the times when all I could do was get up in the morning, have a shower, and then make a cup of tea and get back in bed. That's the only prayer I had. It was a great relief to have spiritual friends who understood and didn't chastise. There was also the time that I discovered a chapter in a book by Evelyn Underhill on darkness and depression in prayer that touched me so deeply that I cried. Someone else had been this way - I wasn't lost. I was just doing what I could do.

And of course it isn't all difficulty and pain. There are the moments of unexpected joy, the lightening of a burden, the forgotten song that erupts in your heart. These are times when what I can do expands. It isn't just "the only thing I can do", prayer then becomes so many wonderful things I can do.

But in the end, the only one who really knows how I should pray is me. I've taught meditation for enough years now to have discovered that everyone really has their own way of doing it. Everybody departs from the instructions one way or another, sooner or later. We find our way. The Spirit guides us, and sometimes pushes and shoves us. Books will help. Spiritual guides can be crucial. Friends are irreplaceable. In the end, though, Teresa was right. All we can do is pray like we can, not like we can't.

It's either that or spend our whole lives fighting ourselves.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Up To Date Monk

I'm quite up to date - I have the flu. Whether it's Swine or not, who knows? Probably is, since that's what's around, but we'll never know.

Not bad - I've had worse. Some fever - it was about 100 for a while, but has begun to abate. There's also a headache, which feels like someone is taking a hammer to my skull. I think that is also going now, and I hope so, because the ordinary pain killers don't help much.

What I have,of course, is plenty of time. My ordinary pleasures and distractions - reading, listening to good music - aren't much available because they take energy and I don't have much energy, and of course there's the headache. I can't practice Sitting Meditation because the sitting asks too much. So I practice Lying Meditation and that makes the space around me and in me seem vast. I have more of a sense of the day, and how much there is of it than I usually do, and I want to take that with me back to my usual life when it resumes in a day or two. I want to feel the texture of each day and each part of it and do my work, my play and my prayer in that context. So there's a gift here, too. Each part of the day has as much personality and "climate" as each part of the year. If it took the flu to get me to notice that, I won't complain.

I've always wondered why I didn't meditate for hours on end when I was sick, since I had the time. My teacher says that it's because it requires strengyh that I don't have at that point. True. But little bursts are possible, and that's enough to take me one more step. How much more do I need?

Hopefully I'll be better put together by next week. But right now it feels like I do have what I need to be where I need to be.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Portal to Another Place

Using a term sometimes found in Celtic spiritual writings, people talk about "thin places". A thin place is found intuitively. The philosophy behind it is that we usually live in the material world, but behind, or around, or surrounding that world is a realm of spiritual reality; a place when the Divine presence is deeply present. A thin place is a spot where the usual separation between these two 'worlds' is much less opaque and where it is easy to see through the material to the spiritual.

Some people call Holy Cross a thin place. It's not unusual for us to have people tell us that the first time they turned off the highway into our driveway and started down the hill to the monastery they had a sense that they were entering a place that was 'deep' or 'spiritual' or just 'special'. This weekend several people spoke of our monastery church in these terms. We have a place here that seems to promote the experience of the divine - a place that is "thin".

But there are thin places all around. There are even thin moments - a bit of time that catches you up and carries you away and then deposits you gently back where you came from, leaving you wondering why you never saw things that way before.

I'm thinking about one particular moment when I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago. I've already written about the 2 museum exhibitions that Adam and I visited and the deep impact both of those made on me. But there was another place, one that I wasn't expecting.

We had decided to see a show one night, and went around to the discount ticket place and got a couple of seats to the musical "Chicago". Then we were looking for somewhere to have dinner - a place that would be good but wouldn't cost the earth. As we were walking along, pushing our way through throngs of busy (and loud) people we passed a little church. It was St Malachy's, the "Actors Chapel". I've heard of it in the past, and knew of its work with theater people, but I don't think I've ever been inside it. I'm not really sure I've ever even been past it.

It was a warm day, and the light was fading towards evening. It was pretty hot. The door to the church was open and the interior was dark, but you could see candles burning inside. Then we noticed a sign that said "Adoration this evening", and gave the hours. One or the other of us said: "Let's go in". So we climbed the stairs to the front door and went in.

The church was dark. Candles burned on a small altar in the center of pews that were turned partly inward to make a sort of semi-circle a facing it. Back behind this arrangement more candles burned on a larger altar. A few people knelt there - mostly women. On the smaller altar in the center was the gold monstrance that held the host (consecrated wafer). In the belief of most liturgical Christians, the bread from the Eucharist, or Mass, is a place of encounter with the actual presence of Christ, and in some places the bread is put out like this for adoration of the presence of Christ.

I haven't been to Adoration in a long time. It used to be a fairly popular service, at least in some circles, but it fell out of use for some years. Now it is enjoying something of a resurgence. I'm familiar with the arguments for and against it, many of which go back into the Middle Ages. I'm not a regular devotee of Adoration, but I have attended from time to time.

Old instincts took over. We genuflected, got into a pew and knelt. I found myself with my wrist beads in my hand. "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." We knelt there for a while - I don't really know how long, but a while: long enough to get around 23 beads, and a while longer. It was very quiet and very focused in that church. People were there because God was very near.

After a while it felt like we were finished, so we went back out into the street. The same crowds, the same shoving and shouting, the same chaotic jumble, with people tired from the day trying to get somewhere. Adam and I resumed looking for a restaurant. But those few moments changed something in me. I'd entered into a thin place and it had touched me. I had settled and had been gentled down. I threaded my way through those streets with more gentleness and less impatience. There was peace in that church and it had entered my heart so that I could take it with me. The spiritual journey is often made up of transformational moments like this.

I've been looking for other moments since then, and I discover - rediscover - that they're there, if you just look:

- the day that the weather changed here from hot and humid to cool and crisp. Our first fall day. The sky was deep, clear blue from horizon to horizon. The kind of day on which the Tibetans use the sky for meditation, seeing in that clear expanse a reflection of the Presence that they seek in prayer. On the horizon was one tiny cloud, floating there all by itself. It stopped me in my tracks while I was walking from one building to another. It pulled and called to me for adoration, just like that church in New York. I had stumbled into a thin moment.

- one night last week I was sleepless and toward midnight I sat on our roof. The nearly full moon floated high above me and just at its feet was Jupiter, bright and steady. The two of them journeyed across the sky together. The river flowed along, gently ruffled by the wind. The world was mostly silent, with an occasional passing truck or car. And there a depth of peace. I love praying in the middle of the night, because at that time I find the access to that presence very easy. I once lived with a community that prayed every night at 2 am. I was with them for about 7 months, I think, and in the midst of it I had a conversation with the priest who was my spiritual director during those months. He said I looked quite good and I thanked him and said that I really was good. He said: "That must be because you are living a life according to nature." I wonder how many people would feel that getting up every morning at 2 was "a life according to nature", but that was, in fact, how it felt. God was very close.

The more often I look, the more often I find places and times that are thin. I find them in familiar and unfamiliar places. I find them in the eyes of friends or strangers. I find them in moments of relaxation and at times when I'm frantically busy. I think the truth is that God is always reaching out to us. I think all of the world and all of time is "thin". But we have to learn to see it.

That's why we pray - to learn how to be open to the God who is everywhere we go.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Whole Truth - or moving in that direction

There's a lot of talk these days about Living in the Present Moment. Everywhere you go, some magazine you pick up has something about it - usually about the joys of the moment and how much richer and fuller life is if we pause to notice the sunset, the chirp of the birds, the blue of the sky, the wonder of being alive. And it certainly is true. Life is richer and fuller if I take the time to be more fully present to what's around me.

But what I notice about this is that the experiences that are described have a certain sameness to them. I think that without exception the ones I see and hear described are of pleasant moments. I don't believe I have ever heard someone extol the virtues of the Practice of the Present Moment and then describe how they relaxed and sat still and opened to the world around them, and then heard the screams of some small creature being killed by an owl down in the woods, or heard the sound of a toilet being flushed, or became aware of a small persistent sound that meant that something was seriously wrong with the furnace. All of these have happened to me while practicing the present moment.

I have nothing against enriching my life with pleasant experiences. I like doing that a lot. But I also have a persistent aversion to the relentless optimism of our culture, especially when it's carried to the extreme that it quite often is, and becomes insistent that unpleasant experiences can not be admitted into consciousness. "Oh, you don't really feel that way." Ever heard that one?

This is an old and ongoing issue in prayer and meditation. People have a terrible problem using the Psalms in prayer because so much of their content is very negative, and Americans don't think that strong negative emotion can have any place in prayer. A great many people - myself among them - approach meditation with the unconscious expectation that what it's for is to make us feel peaceful. We work very hard at praying positively and making ourselves feel calm and then we're surprised that we have problems with our prayer and that our meditations are dry and difficult. Some years ago I finally had the grace to realize that was because I wasn't really trying to pray; I was really trying to keep my prayer from going where it was being led. I was really trying to perform surgery on myself, and my self was fighting back. It didn't want to be cut up, and it didn't want to be ignored when it tried to tell me something. God can be very persistent when we resist.

There are techniques that will allow you to put away anything disturbing and achieve a space of interior calm, no matter what is going on. But they are hard to do and they are always temporary. What is there inside waiting for us is always willing to wait a little longer, until we are available again.

This week has offered a wonderful example of this. I've been the refectorian again this week, and we had a huge group in the house, which has meant that a sizable portion of each day had to be spent attending to the multitude of details that go into getting a large group fed. I've written about this before and described the difficulties and annoyances of the whole task.

This week, right out of nowhere and completely unexpectedly I found that the job was a total joy. I loved doing it. I loved all of the details. I delighted in putting everything else aside and running downstairs for more peanut butter. I felt really good about needing to resupply the containers of tea, and finding where the coffee filters had gone to. It was a real foretaste of paradise to have my ministry this week be the care and feeding of my community and our guests. And not surprisingly my prayer was also flowing right along and my meditation time was an experience of serenity. What a great week!

Until Friday, that is. On Friday morning I woke up as usual, got 6 carafes of coffee made, got my shower and settled down for some meditation before the first Office, and all hell broke loose inside. Something in me shouted at every possible moment that disaster awaited around the next corner. Every time I tried to be gentle with my thoughts they told me that there were 20 different kinds of difficulty awaiting me in the refectory, and they were all going to be disastrous in their effects and they were going to cause trouble and embarrassment for me and for everyone else. The day hadn't even begun and my prayer was a shambles and it looked like serving breakfast was going to be a miserable failure. It was anything but paradise.

OK - I could have chosen the road of pacifying those feelings. I could have pushed them aside, at least for the time of the meditation, and by an effort of pure will, found a more peaceful place. But I was pretty sure that being ignored, my feelings would just take revenge later. What I needed to do was to take the present moment seriously. What I had was a big case of interior chaos. That's where I was - that was the present moment. That's where I needed to be.

So I turned to it. I took it seriously. I looked at all of the awful stuff that I was imagining and did my best to give it some open space in which to unfold. "What's this about?" "What do you need?"

Ah. Yes. I was feeling overwhelmed. This happens to me. It's part of my makeup. It's part of having grown up in my family, and being the child of two parents whose families were poor and who had survived the Great Depression at considerable cost to themselves. I suppose that it might have been something telling me something serious - every now and then it is. But this time it was the more frequent message that my system as just out of balance. It happens.

To point myself back in the direction of balance I've learned that I have to divide my tasks up into little parts. When I'm in this kind of mood I get overwhelmed very easily. So making the coffee for 50 people can easily send me into interior screaming fits. But opening one bag of coffee at a time... oh, I can manage that. Then putting the coffee into the filter. Yep, that's doable. Letting the machine pour hot water over it - seems simple enough. You get the idea. Everything has to be chopped up into small parts and accomplished one at a time. Then my insides will listen to me, and will settle a bit.

It wasn't pleasant - I won't pretend that. It was difficult and I didn't like the way everything felt. But it was possible, and it got done and even more important I did it without biting anyone's head off, which is always an issue. And even though it felt so unpleasant, it was also deeply satisfying. I was given a message, I heard it, I did what I needed to do to respond, and I got through.

And that was very good.

It also made for a much, much better meditation than pushing all of my stuff aside and forcing myself to be calm would have.

We all have to practice this as we can. We all have a different balance point and we can all handle just so much, and we have to work with that. My answer won't be your answer. But for me I know that the answer is that the present moment - as much of the present moment as I can awaken to - is better than trying to choose only a part of the present moment and trying to make myself fit into that. Wholeness really is more satisfying than surgery.

No doubt there will be more about this as time goes on.