Sunday, April 26, 2009

Away From Home

Wednesday night, I went to do a program on the Jesus Prayer in a parish west of here, and I've been thinking that this is a part of our life that I haven't said much about in these columns - mostly because I haven't done a lot of this work in recent years, because of a long illness, and then because I was doing other work.

But I did for a long time - for more than 25 years, in fact. I can remember a conversation with Fr Baldwin when I was a novice about his unease that many of the novices didn't seem to want to be mission preachers (which we called it in those days) and I said: "Father, I am glad that there are people in the order who want to do retreat and mission work. And I hope they do a lot of it. But I'm not interested." That was followed, of course, by more than 2 decades when I did more retreat and conference work than nearly anyone in the Order. (How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans).

At one point in the Order's history it's what we were known for - members of the Order covered the United States (and Canada and various other countries) doing retreats and conferences and quiet days and parish missions. It is said that Fr Whittemore, when he became Superior in the 1940's, tried to institute a policy that every member of the Order had to spend at least 2 weeks a year at home - and he was unsuccessful in getting it done! We were everywhere (except the monastery). It's what we did.

These days we are more interested in being home, and with the Guesthouse at its current state of occupancy, there is certainly plenty of work here to keep us going. But the things we do away from home are still a very important part of our life, even if they are less frequent. Br Bernard works with the staff of a parish in Florida, helping them to develop their own spiritual lives and the spirituality of the parish, Br James recently did a Sunday morning program at St James Church in Manhattan, and Adam, Randy, Scott, Robert and others have done their share of this ministry in recent months.

Parishes ask less frequently, but when they do we always try to respond, and it's sometimes surprising to me to notice how many places we've been in the course of a year. And my beloved Diocese of Kansas is showing some signs of being interested in reviving my teaching mission there, and that does make my heart sing!

So there I was, at the Church of Christ the King in Stone Ridge with some parishioners from that parish and a few from St Andrew's Church in New Paltz - about 15 of us in all, which isn't a bad number - exploring the place of meditation and meditative prayer in their lives.

The Jesus Prayer, in case you haven't encountered it, is simply the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy." Some people make various adjustments to it: some shorten it, sometimes all the way down to just the word "Jesus". Some substitute "Word of God" for "Son of God" and some make other changes.

But however it's used, it is usually repeated over and over, used as what is commonly called a "mantra" - though strictly speaking it's not really a mantra. It's used to focus the mind and to open the heart, so that we can be available for the encounter with Christ, who lives at the center of each of us.

We did a session of meditation together in the traditional way: relaxed posture, feet on the floor, straight spine, eyes closed. Then we spent a few moments settling in, getting quiet, letting the noises around just be there and breathing slowly. Then we began the recitation of the prayer, slowly, with attention. When you find your mind has drifted away, the instruction is just to bring it back - gently but firmly, and without blaming yourself ("without recrimination" as my teacher would say). And this last part is crucial.

Meditation is so often regarded as a task of conquering the mind, and in my experience that is entirely counter-productive. Minds wander. Distractions happen. That's how our brains are structured. True, meditation can have a calming effect on the mind, but it seldom results in the elimination of distractions - nor is is supposed to. Meditation is really the process of coming back, over and over, with gentleness: "a thousand opportunities to turn back to God" as Fr. Thomas Keating is supposed to have said. Being accepting and gentle with ourselves in this process really does aid the process of centering and helps to promote a spirit of interior openness.

For 20 minutes we did that. The noises from people gradually decreased, nervous movement settled, the silence deepened. For a good deal of the time the silence was deep enough that you could sense the "texture" of it - it had its own 'weight' and 'feel'. Fifteen people were praying, but also in some ways there was only one prayer - the meditation that we were making together.

Then we gradually ended our prayer and came back to things as usual. And we had some sharing. It was good to know of the experience, and the struggles, of people in the group. One woman has used the Jesus Prayer most days since she read 'Franny and Zoey' many years ago, and finds it a center of calm and quiet in her morning prayers.

Some others use it as they do repetitive tasks during the day or when they wake at night. The Jesus Prayer, which came to this country with Russian immigrants after the Revolution, has worked its way into the consciousness of a lot of people who, I think, would be surprised to regard themselves as contemplatives, but who have gradually carved out a space within themselves where they can be quiet and search for God.

I finished with some suggestions about other uses of the Prayer - to accompany people through the day and through the night, and in praying for others, especially when you don't know what to pray for. Just putting a person in your consciousness and praying over them: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy" is a wonderful way to intercede, and helps us to turn loose of the manipulative approach to God that troubles many of us when we pray.

And then we went our ways, around the mountains that surround Stone Ridge, or back down the hill to New Paltz. I loved the evening and came back both relaxed and energized. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share something of what 50 years of meditating have taught me, and to learn from others who quietly and without any notice pursue this way of prayer. I think there's a lot more of this out there than we sometimes are willing to believe.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Working - and not working

I've been musing this week on the rhythm that's set up by times of work and times of not-work. This alternation is a regular part of the rhythm here.

A Sunny Morning
Originally uploaded by Randy OHC

Now, one needs to say at the beginning that this is a different practice than that of a lot of monastic communities. In many communities, especially those that lean towards the contemplative side of things as this one does, each day is pretty much the same. The offices go on as usual, the Eucharist is celebrated, the framework of the life is largely unchanging, though there may be some adjustments made for Sundays and feast days. I know that there is provision made, in some places, for "time off", but that seems to be more a private arrangement than a community thing.

Here we have chosen a different route. We have community non-work time. Each Monday is what we refer to as "sabbath" time. Prayer is private on Mondays, and according to one's own rhythm. The guesthouse is closed, as are all of our offices. We're free to do what we like. There's a lot of quiet, and people relax, by themselves or in small groups.

We also have longer periods from time to time. This week the Guesthouse was closed until Friday. After New Year we are usually closed for 2 weeks, and we are closed for a month from late July to late August. We have picked these times from the times of the year that few people would be coming to the guesthouse anyway. These times are not free in the same sense that our Mondays are, but the schedule is more relaxed and just the fact that the house isn't full of guests provides an automatic amount of quiet and rest.

From time to time I notice how much this rhythm is part of the living of my life and the life of this community. It all begins with Sunday afternoons: by and large the guests leave after the noon meal - though the Guesthouse is officially open until after Vespers - and napping or doing quiet personal stuff is very much the order of the day for Sunday afternoons. Towards the end of the afternoon we meet for a social time which we call "Tea" (being Anglicans, of course), and we actually do serve tea most of the time. But this time is more of a time just to relax with each other, and it leads into the Sabbath day very nicely. Especially lately the afternoon gathering has been a fun and relaxed time that we seem to be enjoying.

Then comes Vespers. Most weeks there is just us. Occasionally a guest or two from the neighborhood will be there, and sometimes someone who has spent the weekend with us will linger for this last office, but usually it's just us. It's a time when my body is slowing down enough that I'm aware of fatigue, and also aware of how much I need the time that is coming. One of the things I also notice is that Sunday Vespers is one of the most beautifully sung offices of the entire week. Our singing standard is pretty high, and the beauty of our offices is something that people comment on regularly, but Sunday Vespers can be ethereal - the sound (and the smell! - remember our incense) of heaven.

The evening is social time for many of us - a time for pizza or sushi at a local place, or for phone calls to friends we want to be in touch with, and sometimes for a movie in the TV room. And then to bed- usually not too late.

Monday is for a whole bunch of things: quiet in one's room, reading, walks, going to one of the local towns for movies or shopping or eating, either by oneself or with brothers or with friends outside of the community.

By Tuesday we're moving back towards the usual pattern of things, but slowly. The morning office is later than usual, and then we're back in the work mode, though the Guesthouse doesn't actually open until early afternoon. And then we're into the week.

Usually this takes place pretty automatically, but from time to time I do actually notice how much this rhythm is part of my life, and how much even my body lives this rhythm. If we have to move the Monday sabbath, for instance, even by as little as one day, I really feel it, physically as well as emotionally. And on occasions, once or twice a year, when we have to miss it altogether, the stress is considerable. On those occasions we often have what the community refers to as "rolling days off", meaning that we take a day off by ones or twos. That helps, of course, but it definitely isn't the same, nor does it give the same feeling of rest and refreshment. Our work and our sabbath has wormed its way into our lives, our prayer, and our bodies.

I also notice something else. I usually hide one deep and pretty important thing from my conscious living of this time, but occasionally I open up and let myself see how I (and I'm not the only one) will fill up my sabbath with stuff to do. I have to be very conscious and very careful to avoid this one. Laundry is a favorite. Incense making is another. And even more insidiously, I have a tendency to describe even the relaxing things I'm doing in terms of work. I "have to" walk the labyrinth. I "must get exercise" (describing a good long walk). I "really have to get to" email messages or letters to friends. And there's always the long-neglected area of study, not to mention the computer, can be used for communication, but which often just fills my time and does nothing for either my sense of productivity or relaxation.

If I don't watch it, I will pile these evasions and work-substitutes end on end so that they fill all the day and the time for genuinely free and relaxed space disappears. I really resist having a genuine sabbath. And of course that dilutes the relaxation and joy that I could be having. Something in me really fights having the sabbath time that I need.

I'm not alone in this, of course. It's pretty universal to feel the stress of not having enough free time, and then to fill up all the free time there is with stuff to do. If you know anything about Jewish spirituality, you know how fierce they can be about doing no work on the Sabbath - like not pushing a button to call an elevator or turning on a stove. No Work, that's the rule for the sabbath in Orthodox Jewish homes, and they can be very insistent on the smallest signs of labor creeping back in to their beloved shabbos. They know what we will do if given even the tiniest opportunity.

Of course, my reaction is to say: "I have to work on that." Oh, lamentable tendency! When will I learn? Tomorrow? I could start then, couldn't I? And that might make the value of this rhythm even deeper.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


It's done! It's completed. It's celebrated.

I am totally exhausted.

This is partly because this year's Triduum (the 3 days that celebrate Jesus' arrest, trial, death and resurrection) started a day early for me. A parish in Manhattan asked for some brothers to be with them for their service of Tenebrae on Wednesday, because they were taking up a collection for the work of St Raphael's Place - our work with poor people with AIDS. So Br James, who is the director of St Raphael's, went with me to the City on Wednesday afternoon and we attended the service in the evening.

It has been years since I went to a Tenebrae service, and it was lovely. It's a service of Psalms and Responds and Holy Apostles parish has a superb choir which sang the Psalms to Gregorian Chant and Responds to the music of Victoria - and a better combination you could not get, at least for me. It was quiet and rejuvenating and I left the church feeling rested and glad we had come. Then on the way home we ran into construction work on the New York Thruway and spent an hour driving at 3 to 5 mph, and arrived home between midnight and 1. Up the next morning at 6 for the beginning of the Three Great Days.

Thursday night was the all-night Vigil, and for many years I have kept the watch between 2 and 3 am. If I'd had any sense I would have forgone it this year, but I couldn't stand the thought. That time is too precious to me. So I was up for an hour in the middle of the night and glad of it - though my gladness didn't last the whole day, I must admit. Friday night I had a good long sleep, but by that time my body was feeling like I was playing a cruel joke on it by giving it enough sleep. And last night, for whatever reason, I was jittery and couldn't settle down and finally fell asleep at 1 am - and was up again at 4 to get ready for the vigil.

So I apologize if I am less coherent than usual. Put it down to an excess of liturgy. It's one of the occupational hazards of Benedictine monks.

My chief memories of Holy Week this year are of Good Friday. It's mostly because I wasn't part of the ceremony this year, for the first time in many, many years. Oh yes, I did play Pilate in our reading of the story of the Crucifixion from John's Gospel, and I sang a couple of things, but otherwise I was free to just be there; to participate, to witness, to worship. I had the leisure (remember a couple of posts back?) to notice what I was experiencing.

As I have written before, I always find myself caught up in seeing those who come to participate in the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. Half-way through the service a large wooden cross is set up in the front of the Church, and people come to it one by one. Most of them kneel in front of the cross, spend a moment there, and then kiss it and return to their seats, but there is variation in what happens. Some can't kneel, some press their head to the cross, some just hold it for a while. But no one holds back. Everyone reaches out to that symbol of awful, unjust, painful suffering, and in touching it somehow bring it into themselves. Because I know so many of the people who are here for Holy Week, I know what many of them bring to that cross:

An old friend whose life is now bound to a wheel chair by disease, and the husband who has cared so lovingly for her for so long.
A man who has struggled long years with addiction, and who struggles still.
Several people whose lives have been shattered by death or who are facing the end of their own lives.
Some black people and some gay people who come bearing years of scorn and mistreatment.
Young people, who haven't had a lot of suffering yet, but who approach the cross tentatively and reach out almost shyly, clearly feeling the importance of what they are doing, often for the first time.

I pray for these, and others, as they go past me on their way to the cross, and I always cry a bit, as I pray for them.

And this year there were some other moments, because I wasn't busy organizing anything or keeping any ceremony in order and flowing smoothly, and just had the time to be part of it.

When we had the confession and absolution just before Communion, my heart opened and I felt the wonder of forgiveness. It wasn't that I felt forgiven of any particular thing. It was a different experience than that. I seemed to be feeling the reality of the eternal forgiveness of God, not the forgiveness that God does, but the forgiveness that God is. It's knowing that God is a love that is so immense that forgiveness flows as part of it. And I knew that love is always there and surrounds me at every moment, no matter whether I feel it or not - which, as often as not, I don't.

And then we prayed the Lord's Prayer, which I pray at least 3 times a day most every day of my life. I have prayed that prayer literally thousands of times. You'd think that the meaning of it would have forsaken me by now, but actually it is quite the opposite. And on Friday I felt a deep wonder at the yearning it expresses for God's Kingdom to come - right here, right now, in the midst of us.

That was my Good Friday.

And the Great Vigil this morning. Oh, my. As we rehearsed yesterday I said to the people who were here that the Vigil is one of the greatest experiences of the reality that faith is not a matter of what we do with our heads. We don't have faith by thinking about it. We have faith by sitting in a dark room hearing the story of our people as they struggled through the years, looking for God. We get faith by processing, and by dancing and by singing and by shouting "Christ is Risen". Faith comes to us in the rising of the sun, coming over the eastern horizon with a mighty presence and bathing all of us in light as the Vigil draws to a close.

And in the shout - the yell - that came from all of us this morning: "He is risen, indeed" it seemed to me that faith was so thick that it could have been cut with a knife.

I'll sleep later - after our celebratory meal, after I get my friend Eleanor to the airport, after we have the joy of our Easter Bach Vespers and the scores of people who will be here for that. My exhaustion will wait. For now, I have been overtaken by the Resurrection and the renewal of life that comes with it.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

The World Comes to our Doorstep

It's not unusual for us to have a lot of people here. And often the guests are quite a mix of humanity. But this week was unusual. At the beginning of the week we had a quiet few days with just a handful of people, and they were an interesting assortment: among others there was a priest and his wife from Toronto, here for some relaxation and spiritual refreshment, another priest who is having a sabbatical time from her parish in Iowa and is here to spend the end of Lent and Holy Week with us, and a young man who is on his way to Bangladesh for 3 years on a service project organized by the Mennonite Church. He was here to be quiet and reflect on what the next 3 years will mean to him, to get himself together for his adventure - and to do his laundry.

Then the weekend came and with it quite a pile of guests, with one of the most widely (not to say wildly) diverse mix of people that we've seen in a while. There was a group from a parish in a small city in western Massachusetts, here on their first visit. We also had a boisterous 12-Step group composed of people from all over this part of the Northeast. They have been coming here twice a year for nearly 20 years, and are some of our most devoted friends. Then, just to round things out, there was a Vestry from a Caribbean-American parish in Brooklyn and a group of teenagers from Princeton. The racial, cultural, age and social mixture would have been hard to enlarge on.

Two of the groups were organized by people who regularly come here themselves, the Massachusetts group by a priest who has been a friend and associate for years and who organizes groups to come to Holy Cross wherever he is - this time in rural Massachusetts - and a seminarian from Princeton Seminary who comes each year on the seminary retreat, and is now bringing kids to see what a monastery might be like.

It was a huge group, for our capacities. Every room was filled. The refectory was full at meals and so was the small dining room that we use for overflow, and some of us were eating at various places here and there at one point. The number of dishes to be washed was prodigious and the coffee flowed like the mighty Hudson. It was a perfectly Holy Cross sort of week. It has been exhausting. It has been exciting. It has been inspiring. And the Palm Sunday liturgy was really marvelous.

I've been contemplating our guests all week and as I watch and turn them over in my heart I marvel at how many reasons there are for people coming here - as diverse as the people themselves - and what kind of search each of them is involved in. And I got some direct reflection from the Toronto priest whom I mentioned. His name is Tay Moss. He is an old friend, as are his mother and his 2 sisters, and he's an Associate of Holy Cross. He has been coming here since he was in college. He lived here for several summers and was instrumental in developing the computer networking that we presently use. He was married here. He refers to us often on his blog, and when he got home this week he wrote again:

"On my mind this evening--the feeling in my gut that this time is precious. Precious for how it can change me. Already I can feel the Pavlovian-like reflexes toward holiness kicking in. Already I've prayed, kneeling with arms outstretched in front of the chapel high altar, for openness. Amazingly I got my answer right away: "of course!"

"You have to be careful about what you pray for around here. The results can be terrifying in their sweep. I suspect the reason for this is partly situational--prayer is answered here because it can be answered. It's the nature of the place that people are more receptive but also that they have the supports in place to deal with massive upheavals. I've known many guests who have gone through massive internal changes while here. I often thought that those changes had been the works for a long time, but here the person finally had permission to change.

"I'm very excited about being here. I can't wait for Matins (Morning Prayer). Such a relief to be here" (if you're interested, check out Tay's blog).

Then, for a very different approach to the inner search, I cast a loving glance towards the 12-Step group. Religiously they range the whole gamut from devout to uninterested. Spiritually they are - individually and corporately - amazingly alive. They are deeply devoted to us, respectful of our life and its meaning, and they feel that being here is part of each person's own journey, whether they share our particular approach to faith or not. They are totally committed to decreasing the amount of suffering that each one of them causes for themselves and for the people around them, and they have a great sense of the place of God in all of this. I have known and loved several of them for a long time.

As Benedictine Monks we are here to engage in a search which is called the Monastic Life. As Holy Cross we live this out by a determination to create a place where anyone can search for God or search for their own Self. It's quite amazing how many people respond. And the mix of ages, races, cultures and beliefs of those who respond keeps getting wider and deeper. We're not a large community, but we seem to mean a lot to a lot of people. Spending my life here has given me more than I could even have imagined, and it keeps getting more exciting. Holy Week will no doubt bring more to experience and think about.