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.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Enlarging the Vision

I mentioned last week that I was going to have some time with Br Adam in New York City, and I've been musing on that time since I got back. As it turned out, the time we had together was a bit different that I was expecting. I had been thinking about some outside stuff - perhaps a Botanical Garden or two, but temperatures close to 90 and the humidity hanging around 100% wasn't very conducive to outdoor explorations. A nice cool museum seemed much more attractive. So we did a couple.

I wasn't prepared for what happened in either place. As it turns out, I spent 2 days being pretty well blown away.

The first place we went to was the Metropolitan Museum for the exhibition of the "Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan". I was mildly interested in going to this show. I had wanted to see it if it turned out to be convenient, and expected that it would be interesting, if not compelling. Afghanistan is not a place from which I expected art of terribly significant import, but it's a place that has always been obscure enough to interest me. I have a fascination with out of the way exotic spots.

Only, during the centuries that the Silk Road was the major connection between Europe and Asia, Afghanistan wasn't at all out of the way. It was, in fact, right in the middle of things. The world came to their doorstep, and it started coming very early. The exhibition began with a single case from a society that almost nothing is known of, the dates being 3,000 - 4,000 BC. The objects in the case were broken bowls - hardly anything new, right? Broken bowls from several thousand years ago. How many of those have you seen in museums?

Only these pieces were pure, radiant gold, figured and worked in a very sophisticated way. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were wandering around the Middle East when these objects were produced by a culture that is still completely unknown, except for these bowls. This part of the world had a rich and varied art, which means a prosperous civilization, when everyone else was just barely getting along. Who were these people? No one knows. Yet.

That was just the beginning. There was a city founded by Alexander the Great on his journey of conquest across the area, which became a center of Greek culture and learning for centuries. It was laid out for us in a computer reconstruction, and I never dreamed anything like this existed. A well-known school of philosophy, skillful colonnades framing courtyards and public spaces. Baths and market places. All in the middle of the desert.

And then, from another era, warehouses full of goods to be sold. Painted glass from Rome, carved ivories from India, magnificent and varied pieces of all sorts, some of which betrayed the influence of Greece and Rome and India and Egypt and China - all in the same work of art! They are still exquisite 2,500 years later.

And next a burial ground from a nomadic culture, obviously wealthy and developed. But they didn't want to settle down like everyone else, so they took their wealth with them - in the form of gold. Rooms full of gold. Carved and beaten and hammered. A crown made to be taken apart, complete with a carrying case. Again, a life I never knew existed. Aren't nomads supposed to be pitifully poor?

I came away feeling that I don't know much about the world at all.

That feeling only increased the next day. We went to the Rubin Museum for an exhibition of Tibetan Mandalas. I know a bit about them - I know something of the symmetry and balance of this art form, and a small amount about the symbolism involved. I also know a bit about the circles within squares within more circles. I was looking forward to learning more of the symbolism and the history of these curious paintings.

What I didn't know was that these mandalas are actually maps: two dimensional maps of a three dimensional picture. They are meant to be unfolded in your mind and expanded into a palace, each piece of which has a rich and deep symbolism. And this palace is....... me! It is my spiritual journey - or the guide to my journey. It is my central space. It is the palace at the center of my being - the "Interior Palace" that St Theresa writes of.

This is all unfolded by computer presentations that are the result of a collaboration of the Tibetan Monastery in Ithaca and the Department of Computer Science at Cornell. These wonderful presentations show how the mandala unfolds to make this interior structure. The spiritual discipline that accompanies these mandalas means having will to follow this path to the inner reality pictured by them. They have obvious connections to a similar, less well-known art form in medieval Christianity known as 'The Cathedral of the Imagination". Who learned what from whom?

My perspective was so altered by this exhibit that by the time I was half-way through it, I couldn't take any more. My mind was already completely occupied and I didn't have any more space for the scores of mandalas laid out for my admiration. That will have to wait for another visit - and I mean to make one. Meanwhile I have some inner realities to attend to.

I came away from these two days feeling enlarged. My boundaries have been stretched. My spirituality has been significantly affected. I am not likely to become an expert in the history of Afghanistan nor a devotee of the path of the mandala (or even of the Cathedral of the Imagination). Inner complexity is not my path. But every time my boundaries get expanded like this I feel my spirit stretching, too. The "space" in which I pray gets larger. My meditation takes place in a larger "room". I'm embracing more of the world, and seeing more of the wisdom of those who have gone before.

I don't believe that I'm mistaken if I think that Jesus takes me this way, too. Investigating paths that are unfamiliar has the potential of surprising me into new insights, and gives me new eyes for the way in which the Christian path also expands my view of living and loving. I meet the Lord of Life everywhere, it seems. Now I just need the willingness to be faithful to those meetings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Quiet of August

The hallowed halls of Holy Cross Monastery are very quiet these days. And that doesn't just go for the Guesthouse; the whole place is very much at rest. This year an unusual number of the community left for their private vacation time right after our Long Retreat ended last week. This has left only 5 of us here at home for most of this week, and soon, for a brief period, there will be only 3 of us at home. I'm going to be one of the departers. Sunday after the Eucharist is finished I'm going to New Jersey to spend time with some friends for a bit and then I'm going into Manhattan to join Br Adam who is having his holiday there, and we will do a few fun things in the City - though it remains to be seen how "fun" the City will be with the temperature in the 90's, which is what is predicted. I'll be back in the middle of the week and then some other of the brothers will begin returning and things will gradually look a bit more normal.

This year, with our numbers so low, those of us here are having almost as much rest as the people who have gone away, and it's been very nice. The schedule is quite informal by the standards of the rest of the year. The Offices go on, of course, though the singing gets a bit ragged now and then. And among the vacationers is Edward, our chef, so we are cooking for each other(with pizza and Chinese take-out allowed, too). It's nice to be providing food for each other, and the meals are relaxed and there is good conversation.

August offers us a good alternative to the pace of our Guesthouse work, and we need this time - it's part of our rhythm. By the end of the month we'll be ready for it to end, but for now it feels luxurious to be so quiet and unruffled. Some would say that it's "more monastic" but most of the people who say that wouldn't be monks themselves. The hospitality that the Guesthouse provides during most of the year is our ministry, and it's an important part of who we are. It's also very hard work, so an alternative pattern is quite refreshing.

But all is not complete calm. There has been a transition of some consequence in the Incense department that has needed to be dealt with. Earlier in the year I had a telephone call from the company that provides us with resins and perfume oils for our various blends of incense. The call was to say that we needed to make a change. The Rose Perfume Oil that we have used for many years in our St Augustine Incense was not going to be available any longer. The current world financial situation has reached its tentacles into the perfume industry, and some of the ingredients used to make that oil are now either unavailable or have become so expensive that they can't be used any longer. So they have ceased to produce that particular oil.

They suggested a Red Rose Perfume Oil as a possible substitute. So since the Spring I've been sniffing and blending and experimenting and finally got to the place where I thought I could do some test runs for production. It takes a while: St Augustine has always been slow to cure and the new oil seems to be even slower, so I will have to be allowing a month to a month and a half for production now. But finally last Sunday I was ready to test it out publicly, and trotted a sample out for Vespers, and in the midst of a raging thunderstorm we smelled the first results.

The reception was pretty enthusiastic. The new blend has a definite rose scent, which is important because that is why people buy that particular blend. It is also different. The former blend was complex with overlays of a number of scents. This blend is less "dark" as one of the brothers said. And overall, people seemed to feel that the lighter smell of this one goes very well with the rose scent that we want to predominate.

So we'll go into production now and introduce it gradually in the course of the fall. We can blend a bit of the new St Augustine into some of the former one and give people a gradual introduction. I estimate that by the end of the year we will have moved completely into the new incense. And then, we'll see. Because we're dealing with a smell, everyone who smells it will have their own reaction. Inevitably there will be those who like it a lot and those who don't like it at all. We'll see where it comes down, and it may be a while before we know. Liturgical Incense if not a high-volume business and most parishes order infrequently, so the new scent will get out there gradually. But some change had to be made, and I think we've got a pretty good one. The customers will have the last say on this one. And we still have our blend called Sancta Crux, which is made with Rosewood Oil and it also has a rose odor to it, though a more 'spicy' one.

Change comes everywhere, if you are around long enough.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Cup of Beauty

On Thursday, two days before the end of our retreat, several of us made a trip to a place east of here near Millbrook, not far from the Connecticut line, called the Innisfree Garden.

Innisfree is a place I stumbled on one blazing hot day in August about 10 years ago, and have been visiting regularly ever since. It's a place of tranquility and loveliness and it's quite unlike any other place I have been. It's located on the grounds of a former private estate which is now owned by a foundation and opened to the public for most of the year. The design was conceived by the American artist Walter Beck, who ultimately gave up his artistic career to devote his life to the creation of the garden, together with his wife Marion, who had inherited enough money to make the project possible, and who was an enthusiastic botanist and provided the knowledge that made the plantings successful.

Innisfree Garden is based on Chinese garden design, though it is a unique concept, not a copy of a Chinese garden. it is loosely based on the concept of what is called a "Cup Garden". Innisfree itself is cupped by the surrounding hills. It is a large valley with a glacial lake of about 40 acres in the center and surrounded by hills on all sides. Within this large cup there are many small "cups" which compose the garden. You come upon them, sometimes by surprise, sometimes by seeing them from a distance and setting out to go to them, and then finding more cups on the way.

And what is a cup? It is a little piece of garden: an event, if you will. You turn a corner and find a small waterfall. When you trace its course it turns out to come from far up the hillside you are walking beside. On its way down the hill the water traces its paths through several different sorts of flowers and wild plants. Further along you come to a corner of the lake which is planted in lotuses, in full bloom at this time of the year.

Lotus Blossom 1
Originally uploaded by Cloister Walk

Turn back and you come to a meadow which is cut by a meandering stream which curls and curves and embraces plantings of different flowers. Then you realize that you are standing on a stone which has a dragon carved into it. At the top of one hill is a "water sculpture" - a fountain that blows our a mist of water that blows and moves in the wind, going here and there depending on how the breeze moves. On hot days it is delicious to wander through the spray and let it cool you off, while you see the rainbows that the sun creates in the mist. Over to the side is an arrangement of huge rocks that look like hulking monsters or basking animals or just like an arrangement of some sort, waiting for you to make something out of it. On the lake are Canada Geese, paddling along, along with an Egret and a Heron, standing still, looking for fish, or gliding gracefully over the surface of the water. This, and many other little moments of discovery are the cups that make up the Cup Garden. The view changes every time you move and the place is full of surprises. You never know what is around the next tree.

Egret In Flight 3
Originally uploaded by Cloister Walk

In some ways the design is not unlike the concept of Japanese gardens, which are more familiar to Americans, but it doesn't have the compactness and intensity of Japanese style. The broad lawns and meadows and the large lake give it an openness and spacious feel that is unique to this style. It is truly one of the most lovely places that I know.

If you're intrigued, look at their web site - They have a wonderful collection of photographs that will give you a better idea of what it's like than my words can. Maybe it will even convince you to come to Millbrook sometime! (or perhaps to go over one afternoon, when you are at Holy Cross).

This time I discovered a little glade that I hadn't noticed before. It's off to one side of the water sculpture, and it's made up of a bit of lawn, and some hanging plants on an arbor, together with some Asian cedars and other evergreens, that you gradually notice are quite different from most evergreens that you are familiar with. The fountain is viewed through a planting of several tall and slender trees, which make a sort of wall that you look through to see the water spraying and drifting in the afternoon breeze. I don't know why I've never discovered this enchanted place before, but I had it all to myself, so apparently not many people do discover it. I sat there for a long time, in a comfortable wooden lawn chair thoughtfully provided for those who wander in, and let my soul relax. I don't know how long I was there. That's one of the gifts of a day at Innisfree; you don't have to know how long you linger at one of the cups.

We went for the day. We left after the Eucharist in the morning and came back in time for Vespers. Everyone took a sandwich and those of us who felt like company had a picnic together at lunch time. Others wanted more solitude and didn't show up for the community meal. We were perfectly free to make of the day what we wanted. Several of us who had never been to Innisfree before walked the path that goes all the way around the lake (that takes about an hour and a half if you're not in a hurry) so they could see everything. Since I've seen everything before I didn't feel the need for that walk. I just prowled the hillsides and meadows, and when I found something that called to me I settled down and stayed there as long as I wanted.

We had been in retreat for 8 days at that point and my experience was that this expedition was not a "break" from the retreat but a continuation of it. It relaxed body, mind and spirit. Prayer came naturally and wordlessly. Beauty was everywhere, within and without.

And it was August 6 - Transfiguration Day.

On the way home we stopped for ice cream (I had peanut butter cup and mint chocolate chip). We got home just in time for Vespers of the Feast of the Transfiguration and slipped seamlessly back into the silence of the retreat. What a blessing.

p.s. Our retreat is over now. Today we're having brunch at the local diner in Highland. Tomorrow about half the community leaves on their vacation. Those of us who remain will have lots to do, but there will be a sense of quiet and leisure about it. Guesthouse closed. Only a few of us are home. Nice conversation at the meals, which we will be fixing for each other. Time to explore the neighborhood or maybe the Catskill Mountains, go to a Sunday concert or sit by the river. The rest of August will carry on the spirit of our retreat. It's a wonderful time.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Our retreat is half-way through now. We began last Wednesday and we finish on next Saturday morning. I thought I'd just peep out long enough to tell you what it's like.

As far as the schedule goes, it's simple enough: lots of space & lots of time. We say the Office of Matins together in the mornings and have the Eucharist. We sing Vespers in the afternoon. We have our meals. That's it. Silence reigns. Much quiet, and everyone fashions the time according to what he needs.

I have a simple and pretty basic organization of things for myself: the mornings are for prayer, the afternoons are for work and the evenings are for study. It works nicely.

For the prayer time, I do a classic meditation retreat sort of schedule: Sit (45 minutes)- walk (15 minutes), sit,walk, sit,walk. I do that between the Eucharist and lunch, and cap off the afternoon with another little go-round. And what happens when you spend that much time just sitting? Well everything, actually. Joy and sorrow, interest and boredom, happiness and gloom, engagement and "isn't this ever going to end!!!!!" But over it all is a deep feeling of rightness. And occasionally I penetrate to that level which Catherine of Genoa referred to as "that in myself which is not myself", and John of the Cross talked of as "the Beloved"; the place where the divine and yourself are one. And every now and then I also glimpse the blessed truth that what is inside is much more vast that what is outside. And that is when I know why I want to use all this energy just sitting.

The work I do for retreat is cleaning out. I've chosen a couple of spaces that are overloaded with stuff and I'm sorting and cleaning and pitching. It's good retreat work. It's physical, and it's necessary and it's the sort of thing that you can do slowly and attentively, if you do it right it deepens the silence. And of course there is always incense stuff to be done - blending, and packing and shipping.

For study I am working with the Book of Revelation, guided by some scholars who are working on what First Century Christianity was really like. It's so often assumed that Revelation was written to people who were in the midst of persecution, but recent historical and sociological study makes it clear that the persecution of Christianity so early was very sporadic and not at all consistent. It seems likely that Revelation was addressed largely to Christians who were well-off and comfortable in the world of the Roman Empire, and it was meant to jolt them out of their complacency. Not too different from right now, which brings up a lot of stuff to think about.

I'm also reading Toni Packer, who is an ex-Zen radical for whom nothing is more important than awareness of the present moment and what is happening to and for you right now. I tend towards radicalism myself, so I find her perspectives pretty attractive, even if I can't follow her all the way. But it's good basic stuff, and it helps integrate the prayer and work of the day.

There it is - prayer, work and study. What more could a Benedictine want for a retreat? Now I'm going back to it. See you next week.