Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Christmas Rhythm

Suzanne Guthrie told me to remember that this week my readers would want to know if I ever got my room cleaned. Well, .................... no. But I did tackle a desk drawer. More about that in a minute.

Our Christmas rhythm alternates between demanding and relaxing. We've been through the demanding part, and the relaxing part started on Friday.

Our guesthouse is open from a couple of days before Christmas until New Year's Day - straight through - no pause, no sabbath day, and a lot of guests. It's great in many ways. We see lots of familiar people, and a good number of people we've never met before. We get people who are looking for an intensive living of the Christmas season, people who are tired and need some place to decompress, even people at loose ends during this season and wanting something to do. So for many years now we've been open during this whole season, and we welcome a hoard of people, and it's very interesting.

It's also demanding on the monks. We are used to a rhythm of 6 days "on" and 1 day "off" (when the guesthouse is closed), and not to have that alternation saps the strength. It is a joy to have people who want to share the season with us, and there's lots of happiness in having people come to be part of our life. It's also quite a lot of work to be "on display" for an extended period of time. This community does not keep itself separated from our guests. During Christmas we provide some programming for them each day, we socialize with them, and. as always, we share our meals with them. It takes energy. You can feel the community wearing down as the stretch of time gets longer. We do have a series of what have come to be known as "rolling days off" when one or two of us will be free for the day, and that helps, but it's not the same as being closed for a day.

Why should it take so much energy? Actually, some time ago I found a way to explain our experience to a friend of mine who was puzzled about why we should regularly feel so tired when all we did was run a guesthouse, and that didn't seem very demanding. So I told him to imagine remodeling his rather large basement so that it had a dozen guest rooms. And I asked him to imagine having someone there all the time - sometimes friends, sometimes people he'd never met before. He'd have plenty of help - there'd be someone to come in and cook, and someone to help with the cleaning, but those rooms would always be used for guests, and there would always be someone occupying them, and there would always be non-family at the table. He quite literally shivered and said: "No thanks". And he hasn't asked about it since. Hospitality is our vocation, and it is a wonderful one and we treasure it. But some down time is also a real necessity.

On my rolling day off, I decided that what I really needed was to do very little and to do that very deliberately. So when I wanted something to do I looked around for a task that really needed to be done and decided on the desk drawer in my room. Over the years it's collected a mighty pile of things, most of which seemed like they needed to be saved at the time, but whose usefulness or interest has long since expired. Lately it's been a struggle to open and close it, much less to find anything in it.

So I had a really wonderful morning, deciding, sorting, throwing away, and saving. No pressure to get it done. There wasn't any "next thing" when I finished that task. That was it. I could put my whole attention on one small job. At the end I washed and wiped the drawer, simplified and cleaned what was on top of the desk and then just sat and enjoyed how much better it looked. It was fun. And it continues to please me to look at it.

And then I took a nap.

So - my room hasn't been cleaned, but maybe I have a whole new way to approach that. Maybe I won't get the time to clean the whole thing, but there's always something that's particularly demanding. I can do small pieces of the task. I have an electronic air purifier, so the amount of dust really is minimal, and I don't have to keep after that all the time. I really can pick out a part of the whole thing, and do what can be done in the time I have. If I'm careful about how I approach it, if I do it deliberately and with attention, I find that I actually enjoy it. It even feels connected to the part of my life that is given to meditation and meditative tasks. And it looks really good when I finish. I think I may end up giving thanks for all the things that have gotten in the way of cleaning my room. I learned something more important.

And now New Year's has come and gone. The guesthouse is closed for two weeks. The whole place has sighed and relaxed. It was easy to feel how much we needed this time and we even proved that to ourselves - On Thursday we kept our Sunday schedule instead of the regular daily one, and as the day went on we realized that all of us were falling into this space where we couldn't tell whether is was Thursday or Sunday. I even called a choir practice that had been scheduled for Sunday and everyone came! (Years ago, when I was considering the monastic life, a monk at St Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan told me that there are only two kinds of days in a monastery - Sundays and not-Sundays). But some relaxation will fix that, and we're on our way!

And I am on my way, too. The next three Sundays I won't be here, so this column will be in abeyance for a while. I'm going to Santa Barbara for a meeting of the Order's Council, at which we are going to do a lot of business, part of which will be reflecting on the process by which the community will decide our future on the West Coast after the fire that destroyed our Santa Barbara monastery. On the way home I'm stopping in Kansas City to see some really good friends. But I'll be back, and as my mother used to say: "It will come soon enough."


Richard said...

"Hospitality is our vocation, and it is a wonderful one and we treasure it."

Honestly, you really might want to look at that -- I have been visiting Holy Cross for close to 20 years. I come to the bookstore, visit the chapel, stay for prayers occasionally, and have been to several (wonderful) concerts. I've been there dozens and dozens of times. Never once have I been made to feel welcome. Often times in the bookstore, I get the strong impression I'm an inconvenience to the monk working there. I always feel like I'm intruding. Usually, I've been entirely ignored by the monks, sometimes I get a blank stare, once or twice a nasty look, never a smile, never a "welcome." Holy Cross is a beautiful building and property, but "welcoming"? No, I don;t think so.

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

Richard - I'm sorry you've had that experience. I know that many, many people would disagree. Hospitality is what we are known for, and week after week people express to me, and to us in general, how very welcomed they feel here. If you make yourself known to us when you are here next, I'm sure someone would be glad to speak to you about this.
Br Bede

MEH said...

We all need breaks from the intensity of Christmas/New Year's. I have been to West Park for many, many Christmas-es. They are shining times in my memory. And, even the first time visited in 1974, I was made so welcome I was over-whelmed.
Cleaning is good, but thinking about it is better!!!
Enjoy Santa Barbara; enjoy Kansas more!!!

Richard said...

Br. Bede,

With all due respect, showing up at your doorstep IS making myself known -- and, as St. Benedict writes , each visitor to the monastery is to be received as Christ.
My point was not that I need to be gushed over the next time (I don't), or that I have a deep desire to speak with anyone about this -- it was simply to express the disconnect between what you describe as your defining charism and my consistent experience at Holy Cross.

Fr Markus said...


I understand your frustration. I know many people have similar experiences when they come to churches and nobody greets them.

Ever since I have been on the other side of this equation (I am a parish priest), however, I now understand how difficult it is to make sure everybody does feel welcome. None of us is perfect and we all screw up. And I also have learned that when I show up in a place I am not God's answer to people's prayers either. Hospitality is a two way street. And in a busy place like Holy Cross, you ARE one of many who are coming each day. I do want to point out, also, that you are walking into the home of the monks - and this in itself is already showing a lot of hospitality in the monks' part.
Now, this does not mean that you should be treated as an inconvenience or wit a nasty look. But I bet if you talk to the monk in question, you might get a different perspective... and, remember, even monks are allowed to be imperfect and have a bad day.


Richard said...

Fr. Markus,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I understand what you're saying, but I am not talking about one or two experiences when someone (or even a group) is having a bad day. I'm am speaking about dozens of visits over a very long period of time. I find the place to be distinctively UNwelcoming. Remember, also, that I'm speaking for the most part about visits to the bookstore -- a place where even in a secular setting people ought to go out of their way to welcome.

I would not have written anything at all about this, but for the fact that this is at least the second time Br. Bede has described hospitality as the defining characteristic of Holy Cross. Saying it (writing it) does not make it so.

Felicity Pickup said...

Thank you to Richard for prompting this discussion! My experience in my two areas of service (librarian and church volunteer)is that it's always dismaying and mystifying when we get such feedback.

This summer, eaves-dropping on a chat among a group that included some of our parish's most committed and outgoing volunteers, I was really surprised to hear another newish parishioner say that when he first joined the parish he'd attended seven after-Mass coffee hours before anyone spoke to him. (My experience had been the exact opposite). He said he'd deliberately waited and counted to see how long it would last. Immediately the group broke out into a chorus of "Oh no! How could it happen?" followed by another chorus of soul-searching, "Was it I? Was it I?" And finally acts of contrition, "I'm sorry." I'm really sorry this happened to you."

I can fault this parishioner for always standing aloof and giving off a distinct air of "Leave me alone". Even of being difficult to engage in conversation. On the other hand, he told me that he had been newly bereaved of his life partner when he arrived, with their dream of a happy retirement in our city shattered. Very much alone and grieving. Still hurting, I guess.

When this happens in the Library we don't do as much soul-searching. We can generally each clear ourself of blame and then look for someone or some other category of staff (new, student-worker, inadequately trained, overworked, burned out) to pin it on. Then we issue a round of directives and reminders about how not to let this happen again.

About Richard's comments on the Monk's Cell Book and Gift Shop, I do have a clue about how that happens. Their policy seems to be to leave customers to browse in peace, until asked for help. And very peaceful is the atmosphere in there, which, myself, I find welcoming. But obviously it does not strike everyone that way.

About other times and encounters, I gather Richard has been around HCM enough to know about times of silence and individual monk retreat days. I've found an aggressive smile (silent, just in case)is always answered. And so is a demand for a hug!

But isn't it funny (funny weird, not funny ha-ha)how a mission of welcome and hospitality can produce the exact opposite effect?

No answers to this from me, but thank you for wading through such a long and self-indulgent comment.

Felicity Pickup said...

Oh, just remembered! For us on my side of the service counter. I find that wearing a big "ASK ME" button (which I picked up during frosh welcome week) really helps people to believe that I DO want them to approach me. Even if my facial expression or posture of preoccupation aren't giving off a desirable air.

Br. Randy Greve said...


The question of the meaning of hospitality is an important one for monks. Hospitality in the monastic sense is not the same as the commercialized and sentimental social warmth that is sadly the cheap imitation. At it's best hospitality invites us beyond mere feelings to the unfiltered facing of our hearts. One of the purposes of a monastery is to provide as quiet and unobtrusive a place as is humanly possible for guests to encounter God's presence without the usual distractions and agendas that obscure it. Our desire is to be present and helpful by facilitating your experience of prayerful solitude and silence. Our first instinct is very deliberately and carefully to give people the space they need to be in God's presence. If our guidance can add to that and is sought out, then we're honored to help but rarely before then and not without an invitation. In this respect we seek to be decidedly different than a secular environment that is looking to close the sale. While on earth our Lord sought out the solitude and space He needed to be with the Father. It is in nurturing that holy solace that we welcome our guests as Christ.
You perceive that we have ignored you, but you continue to return - perhaps because something deeper of Christ's presence here still tugs at you despite our behavior.
I hope that this bit of theological context will invite you to see that our reaction to you is not a personal insult. God is inviting all of us into grace beyond our expectations and the reactions of those around us.

Br. Randy OHC
Holy Cross Monastery

Richard said...

Br. Randy,

Mine was a simple observation of my own experience of a place over the past twelve years (and as recently as this past fall). I have sufficient knowledge of theology (a bit more than you) to put the matter into "theological context" without your help. I also have sufficient knowledge, first hand, of religious life in general and monastic life specifically to place it in that context as well. Perhaps I'm not being plain enough: I've not EVER been welcomed there. Not once. In twenty years. My initial post was simply to suggest that you may want, as a community, to look at that -- has "hospitality" become just a word or an idea?

I do return often to Holy Cross. The bookstore is always worth a look, the chapel is beautiful, as are the grounds. The recent series of Bach Cantatas have been magnificent. Those are all wonderful things about Holy Cross, in my experience. Hospitality -- indeed, common courtesy, has not been.

Kim said...

Finding order even in small things does bring simple peace, doesn't it? And when complimented with a nap, that is a fine life.

There are a whole bunch of old friends having a fine time in facebook, Bede, and we miss you very, very much. I am so glad to read that you are so well. There are some parts of the world that are as they should be. There is peace in that, too.

Love always,

Kim Morse

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

I want to thank everyone for participating in this discussion, which has been a very energizing one, as the spike in our readership clearly indicates!

We receive Richard's comments as a gift, and will treat them with respect and learn from them, and we have already begun this process in the community.

We do exercise an extraordinary ministry of hospitality here, and we are confirmed in that not only by the continuous stream of feedback from our guests but by the professional advisers who help us with the operation of a large and busy guesthouse. Our life is known quite widely, and the quality of the welcome here is deeply affirmed in many ways and by many people.

But not everyone experiences things in the same way, and it is always useful to have another voice added to the conversation. For that, we will always be grateful - that is another part of the Holy Cross way!

C. Elsworth said...
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Cliff said...
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Richard said...
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