Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Few Good Beads

Beads are pretty ubiquitous in religious circles. Most religions that have a developed tradition of meditation also have some form of prayer beads. There seems to be an irresistible urge to get your body involved in meditative prayer and beads fill the bill just right - they give you something to help with your concentration, and something to fiddle with, to deal with stray emotional energies.

I've been thinking for a good many months now about getting some wrist beads. They are a sort of bracelet that is worn just above the wrist. I've liked the idea of having beads so close to hand - literally. I've had tiny rosaries that you carry in your pocket, but they don't "do the job" for me - I just don't have my hand in my pocket that much, and I find myself carrying around forgotten beads most of the time. So I thought that the wrist model might do the trick. They certainly would be available, and also visible, and presumably having them on your wrist would keep them in the back of your mind.

There are Christian versions of these rosaries, usually with wooden beads strung on a flexible cord and with a little cross tied in where the two ends have been joined. We've even had them in our store from time to time, but we don't have any right now. However, I knew just where to find some. I have a friend who is a Tibetan rug weaver and he has a store in Woodstock that has bins and bins of wrist rosaries - Malas the Buddhists call them. So I popped into The Tibet Store when I was last in Woodstock about 3 weeks ago and said hello to Galla, and rummaged through his stock of wooden, plastic, jeweled and other miscellaneous types of malas. I picked up a few - you need to have a spare, because if you use a cord rosary very much it doesn't last long. The cords fray and break, and then you have to gather up the beads and restring them.

Wearing my wrist rosary has been a fascinating experience. Having used prayer beads in formal meditation for years and having carried some around in my pocket, I thought I knew pretty well what it would be like. But I didn't. For one thing, the wrist beads are more "insistent" than any other kind. You feel them all the time. They accompany you through every minute of the day, and since your wrist is a pretty sensitive part of your body, they don't go out of mind very easily. They call pretty insistently.

And I find myself answering the call pretty frequently. That's why I got them, after all. And they are so easy to use. A flip of a finger and they are in your hand. When you're done, an easy slip of the fingers through the mala and they're back on my wrist. And that very easiness of use has put them in my fingers more than I thought they would be. Standing in lines is a very good time to use them. Walking is also good. It is about 1/10th of a mile from one end of our buildings to the other, and I do that walk a number of times during the day, and often as not I'm by myself. So just in this short time I've found it pretty automatic: I start off walking and the beads are in my fingers, sort of all by themselves. Any kind of waiting time is also good. The beads seem to be doing their own waiting there on my wrist for an available moment to come along - before and after Offices, in silent moments at my desk, in the Incense workroom. And at more public times, when actually fingering the beads would feel pretty ostentatious or inappropriate, their gentle pressure is still there, asking for a little attention.

I usually use the Jesus Prayer to pray with my beads: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." A prayer to a bead, sometimes really focused, sometimes just as a sort of background accompaniment to the task of the moment. The beads draw my heart to Christ, and they serve as a way to intercede for the people around me and to express whatever is in my heart as I walk along. I have found that they have filled a lot of my day with prayer. Do you need to have beads to do this? Of course not! Do I need to have beads to do this? Well, the embarrassing answer would appear to be "Yes". At least a lot of the prayer I might have been doing didn't get done until I had them. How often do we say - even monks - that we can't find the time to pray. The beads are gradually teaching me that the time is there, just waiting for me to turn my attention and my heart towards God. Quite a lot of time, in fact, is there,in which God calls to us. The beads are a way to answer.

And they accompanied me on quite a journey this past week. On Wednesday afternoon I had dental surgery. It's been scheduled for quite a while because it was going to take a whole afternoon, and we had to find a day when the Periodontist had that much time in his schedule. I had to have a tooth pulled, and a good deal of accumulated infection cleaned out from my jaw and then the pocket had to be packed with bone fragments, which will act as a 'scaffold' on which my own bone will begin to grow back. I knew it would be quite a process, but I wasn't worried about it. The doctor is very skilled and I have a lot of intuitive trust in him, though he has never done this kind of work on me before. But I have had this sort of work done before, and, all things considered it isn't what I would choose to be doing on a Wednesday afternoon, but it's not the end of the world, either.

So I wasn't particularly anxious. Or so I thought. I sat there in the waiting room. And sat. And sat. This apparently was going to take some time. Four other people were there. One by one they went in ahead of me. Ok. I got the message. I slipped my beads into my hand and began to pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy"..... The woman next to me had her attention on her book. A teenager was looking out the window. The woman across the room was wondering what on earth I was doing. "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy."

The first thing that happened was that my anxiety was revealed to me. I was carrying it around under a veil of denial, and one of the first things that meditative prayer can do is reveal what you are really feeling. There is was, a great lump of it, and it felt pretty overwhelming. "...... have mercy". But it was there, and I was there, so it seemed that we should get acquainted. I felt my anxiety in my chest, and my stomach and my throat. I felt my surprise that it was there. I just let it be there and kept company with it. "......... have mercy."

And then, surprisingly, in a very few moments, my heart opened wider and there was a feeling of spaciousness and calm - a nice big space to be peaceful in. And as that happened, the door opened and a nurse said: "We're ready now."

So into the little room, and into the usual dental chair. The paper bib. The mouthwash. The the nurse said: "Can I get you a magazine?" Obviously this was going to take some time. So out came the beads again as I refused the magazine and said: "Nope, I'll just use the meditation beads." And her face lit up and she said: "Wonderful" and went on her way. Maybe some day I'll find out what that was about.

By the time the doctor appeared I was ready. I really was relaxed this time, and confident. It's just as well. The procedure took 2 1/2 hours. That's a long time to keep your mouth open!

And you may not believe this, but it was also interesting. I had the most fascinating dialogue with the doctor as he did the surgery. When he discovered that I was actually interested in what he was doing and that I had a scientific background to back up my interest, he began talking with me about the operation and what he was doing. He described it for me step by step. He showed me the pieces of the tooth that had come out. He showed me the granulated bone that was going in and the little collagen blanket that he was going to spread on top. I even got to see some of the infection that he scraped out.

And then we had a long talk about which pain killer to use, and how to treat the site and what to eat (surprise! - no soup. Or, no hot soup. Only cold things. Ice cream is perfect. What a nice doctor!)

But there was so little pain. Nothing like I expected. In fact, most of the rest of the day was a breeze. At bed time I took a couple of Tylenol, and that was all I needed. I slept like a baby the whole night long.

Did my experience with the beads have anything to do with that? Well actually I hadn't even connected the two things until I sat down to write this. But now that I think of it, the connection seems pretty clear. I think probably it would have been a whole different experience if I had gone in there with all that unacknowledged anxiety to cope with. I think it might have been a very different 2 1/2 hours.

Especially since I didn't do anywhere near as good a job of being with my own unacknowledged agenda the next day, and I found it a whole lot harder. I had a lot of problem getting my strength back (why is this a surprise? After all, I'd been through a pretty long and traumatic experience the day before). I felt depressed and "complainy". I dragged through the day and didn't get anything much done. Wouldn't it have been better to let the beads do their work? Someday I may learn.

And so that's been my experience this week. I recommend beads. Even more, I recommend whatever will draw you to the prayer that's waiting for you and calling you. You'll have your own version. Some little idea will call to you. Some little prayer-invention is lurking around somewhere. It will come to you in good time. Just have your ears (or your heart) open.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chapter - and the Aftermath

Chapter (the annual community meeting of the Order of the Holy Cross) was a big deal. No surprise there. We had a lot of very high-profile stuff to deal with, most of which was occasioned by the California Tea fire and the destruction of Mt Calvary Retreat House.

We needed to talk about that, of course, and about the future of our ministry in California, but broader issues of our future, and what we are likely going to be able to sustain was part of the conversation, and what we want our life (and our monasteries) to look like came up for consideration. In addition we had a substantial amount of grieving to do for recent deaths in the community and for the loss of one of our most beloved houses.

To go straight to our conclusions, we made a formal decision to continue our Santa Barbara ministry, for the present, in the way it has begun to move since the fire. We are going to lease St Mary's Retreat House from the Sisters of the Holy Nativity and see if it will prosper under our direction. We need to see if a number of things can be made to happen, not the least of which is whether the ministry will be vigorous enough to be self-supporting. This will mean increasing the number of guests and cutting expenses, and the Santa Barbara brothers have already begun working on both those processes. St Mary's has a great deal going for it: it is very beautiful, with striking grounds and a wonderful view (not Mt Calvary's view, but then, what is?). It is also in a very historic area, right next to the Santa Barbara Mission, and it is quite easy to reach, which Mt Calvary was not. Whether the great affection in which Mt Calvary was held can be transferred to St Mary's and renewed there is what we will need to discover. We are going to give ourselves 3 to 5 years to find out.

One of the most interesting outcomes of our time together was our near unanimity in our desire to have our Benedictine roots express themselves more directly in our buildings. This is something that has been growing in Holy Cross since we acknowledged our Benedictine nature in 1984 and took up Benedict's Rule. We have a history of acquiring great old buildings and making them into retreat houses, with the guests occupying the bedrooms and the community in the servants' quarters. It works, in a way, but it directly mitigates against the development of a strong community life, and in one way or another we always find ourselves living around our buildings instead of having our life facilitated by them. This has been true just about everywhere we have been except West Park, which was built, and has been remodeled over the years, to directly express our life, and South Africa, where the same thing is true. It was clear that at this point we need to work to make this true in all of our locations. We need buildings that will support and nourish our monastic vocation first of all, and then to enable us to carry out the ministries to which we give ourselves. This is going to have direct repercussions in the future of our life at St Mary's, as well as in other of our houses. This is a very hopeful and welcome development in our lives.

The Mt Calvary property will remain as is for the present. It was bulldozed some weeks after the fire and now is grassland. We will continue to evaluate the future of that piece of property as our life develops at St Mary's.

We worked hard. We worked very hard, in fact. And you could see the effects of our days of work in the faces of everyone present. We didn't have the day off that has usually been a feature of our Chapters, and we felt the pressure of that. By the end of our time together, many of us were operating on sheer will power. But we are more united in our vision of our life and the direction in which we are moving. And, in a very hopeful sign for our future, during Chapter our Br Bernard told us he was intending to apply for Life Profession, which announcement was greeted with a hearty and prolonged burst of applause. With any luck, there will be several other such events within a few years.

You may not believe that any sensible person would behave in this manner, but the day after our meetings ended, I spent the day taking John and Andrew to Kennedy Airport to begin their journey back to South Africa. I was in a very curious state when I got back.

Since then it has been recovery time. The next morning I got up, had a cup of coffee, made myself breakfast, and then went back to bed and slept into the afternoon. I have slept well and long and still awakened each morning feeling like I hadn't rested much. I've been unable to make myself do anything productive for most of this time. I have had wonderful intentions, but my body has not been willing to cooperate. Others in the house have been in the same state. Fortunately the number of guests has been low, due to a mix-up in some of the reservations, so the demands on us have been minimal. This morning I woke up feeling rested for the first time. I assume I'm on the way back now.

Which is just as well. The guesthouse will be full beginning Tuesday of this week, largely with a Flute Master's Class, which is always great fun. So here we go again, on our way to summer. The extraordinary weather, with day after day of torrential rain and cool temperatures makes it hard to realize that it's the end of June. Surely that won't be permanent.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

This week I've had a couple of encounters that have enlarged my perspective about the current situation of the world. I, like many people, recognize the state we are in because of what we have done and are doing to our planet. Just living by the Hudson River lets me know, year by year, that we have participated in the changing of our climate and that the pace of that change is accelerating. Just going to a gas station lets me know that we are fast using up our resources. Taking a walk in our woods and seeing the small plants that never used to grow here is an indication that big things have already happened, and where that is leading is unknown.

And what to do? If I am like so many others in recognizing the changes we have wrought in the natural order of our world, I am also like many in wondering what on earth I can do about it. The possibilities I see are all so small. I'm a big believer in the reality of small things, but when it comes to our globe and our climate I wonder whether I've reached the limit of what I can imagine is being accomplished by small changes.

Tree I'm about to plant in a park - Originally uploaded by Palmou

Then this week I was sent a copy of a speech. It was a commencement address given at the University of Portland by Paul Hawken, who is a well-known and much-published environmentalist. I really don't know why I read the speech. I get speeches and articles from friends and strangers alike, and I just don't have either the time or the interest to read most of them. It was probably a combination of the person who sent it to me and the way she described it in her email that made me take a look and browse through the paragraphs. One look and I was caught. He spoke right to the dilemma I find myself in. He says, in part:
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn't bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn't afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic ab out the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and the incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, 'So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.'

There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in ideas, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
from Paul Hawken's 2009 commencement address at University of Portland

And there it is: a fresh way of seeing, new faith, a way to go forward. My perspective altered.

And then on Tuesday I was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York at an exhibition of Korean Art from the 1400's and 1500's, It was Art With An Agenda, done in the service of a culture with a leadership that had rejected the Buddhist religion in favor of the simplicities of a neo-Confucianisist outlook. There in the midst of this art was a scroll painting. It showed a mountain scene with forests, waterfalls, rivers, flying ducks, clouds and mists. And down in one corner there was a tiny group of men seated in a circle on the ground. They occupied less than 10% of the total area of the painting. The title of the work was: "A Meeting of Government Officials." I called my friend Elizabeth who was with me and pointed out the scroll to her and she looked at it for a while and said: "Well, he has the perspective right." Can you imagine a European painting of a conference of government ministers? Do you think there would be any trees or waterfalls in it?

My most important job will be to keep my perspective right. If I can see the importance of my own agendas in the light of that perspective, I won't have any trouble seeing where my efforts belong in the struggle to save the earth.

Hawken also quotes an old rabbinical teaching that says that if the world is ending and you hear that the Messiah has arrived, first plant a tree and then go and see if the story is true.

Keep your feet rooted in the earth. Plant a tree. That will teach all of us what needs to be done. Today I will change one small part of my behavior. That is where I will begin. This is my path for now.

My post next week will be late. Our Annual Chapter happens this week and runs through Monday of next week. It's a big one for us as many of you know. It happens in the wake of the destruction of our monastery in Santa Barbara in the fires of last fall, and it has to do with taking stock of where we are and imagining our future. If you would pray for us we will be very grateful.