Tuesday, July 28, 2009


A brief post to catch up on the happenings -

This past weekend Jose Reisig, the teacher and leader of the meditation group that I go to on Wednesday evenings, conducted a meditation retreat here. House business and appointments meant that I couldn't do the the whole retreat with the group, but I wanted to be involved as much as possible, so I meditated with the group whenever I could slip away. That's why I didn't do my usual post on Sunday.

It was great. I got a fair amount of time to be with the group, to meditate, to walk, and especially to hear Jose's talks, which are always something to treasure. I think I moved another step ahead in knowing about how to be where I am. My particular work this weekend seemed to be to learn more about my resistance to meditation. You probably know about those feeling of "how much longer is this going to last?" and the terrible anxious distractions and "wiggles" that everyone gets in the last 10 minutes of a meditation session. This time I was able to just sit and be with all that stuff and to enter more fully into the feelings that are underneath all of it. It did feel like something real was happening. And it also feels like a good preparation for our community retreat which is about to begin.

Then Sunday afternoon the guesthouse closed for a month. We do this each year, at the time when guest business would be very low anyway, in order to give ourselves a break from the pace at which our lives normally move. We really need to relax, stretch out and have the place to ourselves for a while. And the day on which we close down is a special day for us, one of the high points of the year. We sang Vespers early, got the group out of the guesthouse, got everything closed down and then went over to the town of Gardiner, about a half hour from here, to the home of Toni and Jim Taylor. Toni is the monastery's bookkeeper and Jim is our plumber and they are both dear friends as well, and every year on the day of our summer closing they throw a wonderful party for all of us and a few very close friends. It was the greatest time. Several of us cavorted in their beautiful pool and we all relaxed in their lovely home and had abundant food and abundant fun. It's become a much anticipated tradition of each summer, and it's a fine way to celebrate the close of another good year in the guesthouse and the beginning of a relaxing time for us.

And now, as always, our summer time begins with our Long Retreat. Tomorrow we begin 10 days of silence and most of us are looking forward to it with great expectation. More about that anon.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Full Week

I'm late this week - I spent much of the past weekend with a group of our Associates who were here for their summer retreat and I've been catching up since then.

A while back I was out for a long walk on a Monday afternoon. At the end of the walk I came down our drive and as I got close to the building the front door opened and six people in saris and Buddhist monastic robes came out of the guesthouse. They smiled as they went by and the eldest man, who was at the end of the line, and who was clearly a monk of some variety, pressed his hands together and bowed to me and said: "Good vibes here!"

Well he's right. There are good vibes here, and there's plenty of testimony to that. This week had a whole bunch of stuff that added to the vibes.

Originally uploaded by AstridWestvang

First of all the flutists were here all week. Some of you will know that during the summer we have a couple of weeks when we host Flute Master's Classes when 20 or so flute students study with Gary Shocker, who is a world renowned flutist and composer. Each week we get 2 concerts out of it, too: Gary does a recital on the first night of the class, and on the final day, which is Sunday, there is a recital of the whole group, which is always quite a joy, and features a performance or two by Gary, as well.

It had never occurred to me until we began having the Master's Classes that there was music for flute ensembles, but there is and it is unlike anything I've heard before. All kinds of flutes make their appearances: little ones, medium sized ones, tiny ones, and one great whacking bass instrument that is so long that the column is bent about 2/3 of the way down so that it can be held and played at the same time. The sound of 20 flutes playing together is mellow and lovely.

So there are weeks during the summer now when the place is literally full of music. We sound like a conservatory. We're quite used to it at this point, and any feeling of being disturbed has passed away for most of us. It's part of our life. And next year we are adding guitar to the mix. It should be quite a time.

I sat one day in our church and listened to the music float in and around our buildings, and realized how the sound of this music has now merged with the rest of the atmosphere here. It's become part of what Holy Cross is. It's part of our vibes.

Then on Wednesday, Tay came.

Tay Moss is an Associate and a close friend of the community and of mine. He and I have family connections: his mother was the nurse at the senior high camp that I worked at for so many summers. He began coming here while he was in college. His first visit was to come for the whole of Lent, which, to put it mildly, is more of an exposure than most people take on the first time they come here. But this was part of a semester that he spent at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal and then with us, so he was up for it.

Then later he came back, and came back, and came back again. He lived here for several summers while he was in college and then in seminary and did all kinds of technical stuff for us. He is what I have just learned to refer to as an alpha geek. He's never had a computer that he didn't build himself, and his present set-up is truly breathtaking. He is responsible for a lot of our present computer network and other set-ups, so he has given us as much as he has received. He and Betsy, his wife, were married here several years ago, and Betsy's absence this summer while she learns Byzantine Greek in Athens (yes, that's another story!) gave him the opportunity to return.

This present visit will be a month long and he is using it to redo our web site. We've been wanting to update the site for a long time now, but our options have been slim, since we don't have any money to pay for someone to do it. Then, all on his own, Tay came up with a bunch of ideas for making the site much more workable. In the few days that he's been here he's come up with a new layout, which is much easier to use and is very attractive and also uses a lot more of Randy's pictures. He's been recording (both sound and video) some of the Offices, having interviews with people and soliciting text contributions. We never know what combination of equipment will be in the Church when we arrive for worship. While the whole site won't be available for a while, a good deal of it will be up before very long and will be quite an improvement.

And then, having Tay around here again is great, too. He fits right in, as always, is a joy to have around, and he even helps with the dishes!

Added to all of that, over the weekend a bunch of our Associates were here. Our Associates are people who have a special bond with us through prayer and through relationships that have been built up over time. There are 3 Associates' Weekends during each year and the summer gathering is fairly informal. I usually meet with them over issues of communication, and this year, Tay was along for that meeting and we talked about the web site and how it can facilitate their relationship with us, and we got some really good ideas.

We had an ice cream social after supper one evening, which was a nice social occasion, they helped out with various tasks around the place and there was a nature walk for those who wanted to go. It was a good time, and their gathering seemed particularly rich too me - full of bonds of affection and closeness. A number of the Associates stayed for the closing concert of the flute group, so that worked in nicely with everything else that was going on, and gave the flutists a bigger audience that they would normally have.

Good vibes, indeed. Music floating around the corridors and stirring in with the echos of prayer that permeate the place. Plans for the future and for making our life more accessible to those who want to find out about us. Friendship and spirituality. It all went together so naturally and so beautifully. And it seemed to be so much of what we are about here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Bead Saga Continues

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on my experience of wearing some wrist beads as an aid to prayer during the day. Some really interesting stuff has happened since then (at least I find it interesting) so I thought I'd let it be known.

The practice continues to grow on me. The feeling of having the beads on my wrist is an almost constant reminder to prayer. One of the people who read the original post commented that the beads "compelled" you to pray. Yes! And as a result I've become aware of more and more little bits of time that I usually just lose: waiting for the water to boil for tea, little spaces of time that are too small for anything else (it's 1 1/2 minutes to my next appointment, for instance), and the many lines I stand in or doctors I wait for. As I get more used to having the beads on my wrist and using them when I have spaces of time here and there, I find more and more little cracks of time into which prayer beckons.

Even more interesting is that I have the same experience when I don't have them on. At the same time that I'm getting used to the feeling of having them on my wrist, I'm also noticing the feeling of not having them on my wrist, which serves exactly the same purpose, I find. I forget to put them on sometimes. Or when I've been using them I absent-mindedly put them in my pocket instead of back on my wrist (and then have to hunt for them). I didn't put them on when we went to New York for the ecumenical service last week, and all the way to New York City I could feel the absence of the beads. So I didn't have anything to put in my fingers, but I had the same reminder - what do you do on a long car drive when no one is talking? How about a little prayer? And of course the more I do this, the more little empty spaces my mind finds and sometimes it starts up the prayer all by itself, which, of course, is the whole point. This is a training device. A way to be trained to "pray at all times".

Then, there are times when the beads call me and I respond with something that my mind/soul/body doesn't want to do. For instance, the time is there, the pressure of the beads on my wrist is reminding me of the opportunity to pray, so I put the beads in my hand and start saying the Jesus Prayer and............ my heart says: "STOP!" It doesn't want to do that. It's the wrong thing.

When I look at this I find that it's usually the wrong thing because, however simple the Jesus Prayer is, there are times when it's too wordy. My heart is open and I feel something, usually at the pit of my stomach, and it feels like a combination of joy and longing. When I've sat with it enough I discover that it just wants to express itself, and it doesn't want words to do it. My heart just wants to long for God.

We'll, that's certainly a good old standard thing. How many times have I read in some classic about prayer that "to long for God is to find God". Prayer is basically longing for God, after all, and all the forms we have for praying just serve the purpose of setting our hearts free to do that longing. So I can hold that bead and feel my longing and let it be there and not try to fill that space with words. We are empty without God, after all, and sometimes we need to feel the emptiness and not try to fill it up with anything.

Then, at the other end of the scale, there are times when I feel that I want to fill the space where I am with more words. This has been quite a discovery for me. Through the years I've sometimes been at liturgies where the service was going on and people were fingering rosaries or beads of one kind and another, and I've usually thought: "Oh dear, don't they know that this is a communal event? There they are trying to make a private experience out of it." Now I find that there is more to be said for that than I knew. I have, after all, experienced the texts of the Eucharist, for instance, a couple of thousand times, at least. I don't need to know them any better. But I may need to pray them better. And when, in the midst of one service or another,my beads have called out, or pressed gently on my wrist, I've responded, and taken then in hand and discovered that there are two levels of things operating here - the words of the liturgy and the response of my heart, and that my blessed beads have helped me to be more attentive to communal worship rather than less. I'm not privatizing the liturgy at all, I'm communalizing it (if there should be such a word). What the beads do for me in this situation is to make me more attentive to all of the levels of myself that are praying, and that's something that I have often missed.

This turns out to be quite a journey. And who knows what comes next? There has certainly been a lot more to my wrist beads than I dreamed about when I went into the Tibet store in Woodstock and rummaged through the bins of beads, looking for ones that seemed just right. If anything more comes up I'll let you know in due time. In the meantime, good luck in searching for your own version of this path. There are lots of ways to get there. Your heart will likely tell you when you need to set out on such a journey.

And by the way, I've dealt with the absent-mindedness somewhat by draping my beads around my watch whenever I take it off - to sleep, to shower, etc. So when the watch goes on my left arm, the beads to on my right. I may be old, but I'm not too old to have ideas - yet!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Blast From the Past

I did something this week that I haven't done in many, many years: I went to a big ecumenical service.

When I was young in the Order - say in the 60's and 70's - these things were the staff of life. This is a heavily Roman Catholic area and there were lots of religious communities around. We used to see each other a lot. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was widely observed, and we had big services to promote it. We invited each other to community celebrations and anniversaries. We had parties with each other. The local Catholic and Lutheran and Methodist churches were friendly and we knew the clergy, many of whom came here for retreat and or rest time. The scene was very alive and active and full of hope. Christian unity seemed just around the corner.

As you know, it's a very different scene now. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly observed at all now, if anyone even remembers that it exists. The Christian Brothers moved their novitiate away from West Park, and that building is now vacant. Their property is looked after by a couple of retired brothers whom we never see. The Cabrini Sisters now have one sister at their school. The Redemptorists closed their seminary and used the building for a novitiate and then moved their novices to Toronto. The place is now a conference center, run by a handful of priests and brothers, whom we hardly know. The Marist Brothers, with whom we shared parties and conversations, continue to exercise their retreat and summer camp ministry on the property next to us, but we don't see each other much, with the exception of one brother who is a distinguished spiritual director, whom several of our brothers see. Our only really active relationship is with the Redemptoristines, a community of contemplative nuns about 3 miles from here, and who are, miracle of miracles, even smaller than we are. We have an affectionate and good friendship with them, and our lives go along together: we share anniversaries, and important services and educational opportunities. They even sometimes come to our Bach Vespers.

The parish scene has changed as well. The increasing conservatism and hard-line course of the Roman Church has made associating difficult. We haven't been invited to one of the local parishes in years. The Lutherans and Methodists with whom we were so friendly have disappeared as well - we're all having more trouble maintaining things now and priorities are different. Their place has been taken, interestingly enough, almost entirely by clergy and lay people from the Reformed tradition - Presbyterians, the Reformed Church (whose Dutch ancestry makes them quite strong in this area) and the United Church of Christ. But these are mostly not local friends but people who come to our guesthouse from various localities, both far and near, drawn by the sense of spirituality that we offer. Still, the relationships are good, and we value them. But we are in an ecumenical winter.

Then all of a sudden, right out of nowhere, comes the Church of St Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, wanting us to sing Vespers for them. What is this about?

It turns out that what it's about is that this past year as been The Year of Paul in the Catholic Church. (Did you know this? I hadn't heard of it until a month ago). The close of this year of celebrating the heritage of the Apostle Paul was last Monday, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and after a year of special Masses, seminars, lectures and discussions, they wanted something special to close the year with. They thought a sung service of Evening Prayer would do nicely. But who would sing it? They wanted it to be chanted. Only they didn't know anyone who chants. No one they knew had any ideas either. The official position of the Roman Church is that Gregorian Chant can only be done with Latin words (something of a surprise to Anglicans, who have been singing it in English for a couple of hundred years), so their liturgical music tends to be simplified and modernized. It wasn't what they wanted. Didn't anyone know some group that chants?

Their new organist and choir director is, of all things, an Episcopalian. Not only that, but he's someone who is very familiar with Holy Cross and has been here from time to time. Yes, he said, there is a group who chants, and who does it well. But they are Episcopalians. Would that do? God bless the Paulist Fathers, they didn't even hesitate, they just got their organist to call us up and invite us.

So off we went in our van last Monday to sing Vespers at the Church of St Paul the Apostle, which is near Columbus Circle in New York. It is a huge church and very beautiful. It also provides quite a comment on how the religious scene has changed for all of us. It used to seat 2,000 people and had simultaneous masses, upstairs and downstairs, on Sunday mornings, every hour on the hour. Now they have renovated it and it seats more like 1,000. It has a beautiful baptismal pool and a free-standing altar, and lots of open space. They also now have one mass on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday morning. The congregation seems to be largely from the Philippines.

They were the heart of hospitality. We were welcomed very warmly and after we had done some rehearsal time we were given a very nice tour of the church, complete with a history of the Paulist Fathers. Then we shared supper with the resident community in their refectory and then had Vespers.

And Vespers was no small thing, either. When Episcopalians say they don't know how many are going to turn out we mean is it going to be 20 or 25? When the Paulists say it, it turns out to mean how close to 1,000 is it going to be? And it was reasonably close, as it turned out. The church wasn't packed, but it was comfortably filled. And they sang very nicely, too, and joined in the chanting with ease. We chanted the Psalms and the Canticle, then sang the Magnificat. The sermon was by Fr Jim Kowalski, the Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. They don't do things small at St Paul the Apostle! The whole event was warm and lively, and people seemed delighted to be there and were most complimentary about our singing. The reception afterwards was quite splendid, with wines (and alternatives) and bountiful food. In many ways it felt like the good old days. It felt like we were truly fellow Christians on the path to God, and that we could enjoy going there together.

And now, what of the future? Well, I'm always looking for the next opportunity to seize, so before we left I had a few minutes with the organist and said that he should keep us in mind if they needed more chanting. And I told him that my agenda was that, with the ecumenical movement in its present doldrums, I thought that any connection that felt real and lively was worth cultivating, and that this one did. He couldn't have agreed more and was grateful. Will anything happen? I don't know. It's a delicate situation right now. But if there's any opportunity for us to love one another (or even to like one another, or even to just know one another) I'll take it.

And... one of the people who was at the service was so intrigued by our existence that he came to the guesthouse this weekend to find out what we are all about. You never know.