Sunday, November 29, 2009

Our History, Our Selves

When I first arrived at Holy Cross in 1964 to begin the process of seeing whether I had a monastic vocation or not, one of the jobs that was given to me was to be Fr Tiedemann's secretary. Karl Tiedemann was one of the Order's larger-than-life figures: a very big man with a booming voice that he used to good effect in the countless preaching missions that he gave all over the United States and in England. He was also the founder of our work in the western United States, first in Nixon, Nevada and then in Santa Barbara in the building that he discovered which became Mt Calvary Retreat House.

Not long before I arrived, Fr Tiedemann had been moved back to West Park from the West Coast in order to let Mt Calvary develop some new directions without the pressure of its founder looming over everyone's shoulder. He became the editor of the Holy Cross Magazine, which was largely a theological and spiritual journal in those days, though it also had some news items from the Order. It was felt that "KT", as he was called, could use some help with his voluminous correspondence and other paper work as well as with the editorial tasks of the magazine.

Actually the task that occupied me while I was a Postulant turned out to be rather different: he put into my hands a thick sheaf of paper which turned out to be a memoir of the Order's early days written by Fr Sturgis Allen, the Order's second member. It had just been discovered in the Archives and Fr Tiedemann was afraid that it was going to be lost because the paper was crumbling and the text was fading, having been written in pencil long before the days when typewriters were commonly available.

So it fell to me to make a typewritten copy of Fr Allen's writing, and that was no small task. The document was faded to begin with, and in places almost illegible. Add to that the frequent references to places and things I had no way of understanding (what, for instance, was a "Dupanloup Catechism"?). But I loved the whole task, from beginning to end. It took me from the Order's founding on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880's, through the times of wandering, when Fr Huntington gave up the work at Holy Cross Mission where we were originally located and he and Fr Allen had to find separate rooms to live in until the Brothers of Nazareth (a community that Holy Cross had founded) found them an apartment in a building next to the convalescent home which they ran "out in the country" - on 122nd Street. He then chronicled the move to Westminster, Maryland and the conditions of life there and then brought his reminiscences to an end just about the time the community moved to West Park early in the first decade of the 20th Century.

I was entranced. A sense of history has always come naturally to me, which I suspect was nurtured by growing up in the mid-South (Kentucky) as the son of a woman who very strongly lived from her Southern roots. People from that part of the country frequently identify my speech as coming from the South, though northerners seldom notice it, and I'm always surprised when it's pointed out to me. To say that southerners have an acute sense of history would be understating it a lot. I know exactly what Tennessee Williams was referring to when he said: "In the South, the past isn't forgotten. It isn't even past." Whenever I settle into a place I always start acquiring tales and information about my surroundings. It just comes naturally to me. I may be the only person in West Park who still knows where the Beulah Vale Baptist Church once stood and who remembers the jar of pickled eggs which stood on the bar in the establishment down the hill from us, which was the only remnant of a once flourishing Italian summer resort for people from "The City". I remember the old general store in the Village of West Park, long closed and abandoned when I arrived in 1964, I also remember its destruction when a train derailed in town in 1968 and one of the cars rolled over on top of it. I could go on and on. Sometimes I do.

So for me the history of my community which unfolded before me as I typed Fr Allen's manuscript isn't forgotten - at all. It really isn't even past. I have a natural understanding of why Holy Cross has almost always been willing to welcome whatever is new in the development of the Church. That comes to us from our Founder: that's what Fr Huntington was like. He welcomed new developments in Church and in society and he trusted people to make good use of them. And his love of adventure and the way he welcomed such a huge number of people into his life still mark us, from the sort of hospitality we offer in the guest houses of our Order to our stepping out and founding our new work in South Africa a decade ago. And the depth of the prayer of those first two men, which so obviously marked their lives and their ministries is still ours as well. We truly are the sons of that first generation. As I struggled to read that dim penciled text and preserve it from disappearing I learned not only about Fr Huntington and Fr Allen, I learned about myself and who I was going to be. I learned what it means to be a member of an institution with a century of history.

This past month has been rich with these reflections for me as we celebrated the 125th anniversary of our founding and this week celebrated the feast day of Fr Huntington, which is the actual anniversary of the founding of the Order. And this has been a time for exploring the future, too. This week, more or less by chance, there have been quite a number of men here exploring the possibility of vocation with us, more than we have seen in years. How many will actually come? How many of those will persevere? Whatever the answer, the march of the history of this one small and rather remarkable community appears to continue. It was quite moving to see them sitting side by side in the Guest Court of our Church, and watching them build the first ties of their lives as possible monks.

There are two things that always have to be held in tension: first, our past reveals a lot about who we are and shows us where we are going, and second, we can't be imprisoned by that. We have to be our own people with our own vision as we go to meet our own future. Both of those things have been strong in me this week as our past, our present and our future intersect and we move into Advent, which celebrates in its own fashion the ways in which past and future meet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Dark Time

The days are darker now, the nights longer. Often there's fog, mist and gloom. Conversations devoted to lamentation are part this time of the year, when the hours of summer sun seem so far away. It depresses lots of folks.

Usually I am quiet when conversations like that are going on since I can't join in with the complaining. The truth is that I love this time of the year. I'm very fond of dark, gloomy afternoons. I really enjoy the colors of winter, after the leaves are gone; the very subtle shades of gray and brown and dark green. Something in my soul wakes up when the days get shorter and the light gets dimmer. I've tried sharing my enthusiasm for cold, dim November afternoons, but you know what it's like when you're having a good session of grouchy conversation with friends and someone tries to be upbeat. Being quiet is the better part of wisdom at those times.

I can't trace my love of dim light to any one thing or event. I know that a dark afternoon with an easy chair and a lamp beside it always seems like an invitation to me: an invitation to read a really good novel or something that will take some concentration. And I have such good memories of childhood Saturday afternoons when my father listened to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio and my brother and I played on the living room floor with Lincoln Logs or our Erector Set.

erector set
Originally uploaded by tigerluxe

(Those who are as ancient as I may know what I'm referring to when I say that we had an Atwater Kent console radio which was regarded as being very fine for "good music", and good music was one of my father's great joys, and one that he passed on to me.)

Atwater Kent Cathedral
Originally uploaded by jschneid

Whatever its root cause may be, I have a fondness for winter's darkness. Coming out of Compline at this time of the year is a treat for me. The dark at the end of the day, the Great Silence which is so thick it could be cut if only I could find the right knife, dim hallways, far away lights winking on the river, all seem very welcoming to me. I often go out to our porch just to sit for a few minutes and wait for the express train from New York to Albany which races past at a brisk pace, or for the passing lights of planes or artificial satellites, while the constellation Orion presides over the winter stars. Even when it's cold, I go often go out. I guess my nice layer of fat provides good insulation. Then there's my room, with the light over the bed and a candle in the corner. It seems so welcoming, so peaceful, so enfolding.

Best of all is prayer at night. I really don't have to start praying, prayer is just there. Sometimes I have to look for it to see how I can tune in to it, but it doesn't seem to be anything that I "do". It's part of the reality of the night and if I have to look, what I'm looking for is simply a way to get into what's there. But more and more it's just there, and what I need to do is turn my attention to it and settle in. I've written before here of the sense of fulfillment that I had in the months that I lived with a community that got up for prayer at 2:00 a.m. That was 30 years ago, and I still treasure those nights and I seek those times when I'm able to do it now and then. There have always been religious orders that included middle of the night prayer in their schedules.

Some years ago I discovered a society in England composed of people who pray at night. Some of them get up to pray an Office, some just turn their minds to God when they wake up. Some pray on the way to the bathroom and back. I will do the Jesus Prayer on my beads for a while. I don't know whether the society still exists or not, and I can't find them on the Internet. The one person I know who was a member has had a stroke and no longer speaks, so I won't find out from her. But having some support in this endeavor isn't a bad idea and I wish I was in touch with them, if they still exist.

That's my time, and my way. Maybe prayer finds you on sunny afternoons at the beach, or whenever. There are times when all of us suddenly awake to the reality of it. Prayer really isn't so much something that we do as it is awakening to the reality of the world and ourselves. Prayer is a part of who we are and of the world we live in. We discover our way to it as we go along, just by practicing and seeing what happens. Monks sing Psalms day and night. Some people find prayer awakening when they hear a siren. Some people find that level of their being when they are in the middle of a crowd of strangers. Whatever. The times and places are unique to each of us. The important part of it is discovering what our times are and then showing up.

And it does change things.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

At Night By the River

Several weeks ago I blogged about being called into our Church one night when I was very tired and thought I was too tired to go. Well, it happened again this week, in a rather different way. There seem to be two factors at work in these summonses - night/dark, and tiredness.

We've all been worn out this week. The week before was glorious: 2 celebrations of the 125th anniversary of our founding, a profession of life vows, a really productive meeting of our Council. It was really good, but it was also a major disruption for people who live by a schedule, as we do, and it took all our energy. Not only that, but we started this week in the Guesthouse earlier than we usually do, and we had to hit the ground running because we had a group of about 40 people from the Diocesan Staff of the Diocese of New York. It was a great group, and from what we hear they had a wonderful time, but......

So we've been going through the week, each of us looking for the time or the place for some recovery, some respite.

This time it was after Compline one evening early in the week. I always love the sense of quiet that comes over our place after Compline. It almost has its own texture. And as I was headed for my room and savoring the evening silence there came again the sense of an intuitive invitation, this time to come outside. And this time I wasn't quite so worn out as the last time so my initial resistance wasn't awakened. I just turned down the hall and went outside.

When I got there I did the thing that seemed most natural: I went to the edge of the little bluff that our buildings sit on and looked out over the river. This is what I do every night from the window of my room, so it seemed like the thing to do. And I stood and looked.

Then I thought about my regular nightly exercise of praying for the people whose lights we can see across the river. I've done this for many years and it's part of my bed-time routine. But here's where my resistance came into play. Doing even that simple prayer seemed like it would take more energy that I had. It just didn't seem right somehow, and I'm in the process of learning that at times like this it's best if I follow the promptings that got me to this place. So I just stopped making any effort and looked at the river and waited.

The first thing that happened was a puff of wind from the cold front that was moving thought tousled my hair. It was just like someone messing my hair with their fingers, sort of saying: "Hi." "Hi", I said back. Then I waited.

Then I heard the sound of the river. Actually the river makes layers of sound. When it's moving there is always a sort of grumble; a low sound just about at the threshold of what can be heard, the sound of millions of gallons of water flowing. And because there was a cold front coming through and a fair amount of wind was blowing I could hear the noise of the wind and the sound it makes when the wind hits the surface of the river and then the sound of the waves stirred up by the wind. It was a restless, high sound, the sound of ceaseless energy.

Then I waited again. And I became aware of the lights across the river - lights from houses that are now beginning to be visible again since the leaves are dropping from the trees, and street lights and floodlights on the Vanderbilt Mansion and lights in the park land around it, and a couple of lights down by the river shore, and over all of it, the winking of the laser-like beams from the radio towers on the hills back from the river.

I watched all of those lights, just letting the sight of it sink in and became vaguely conscious of the people and the life that each of them represented. Then the next thing was spotting a winking light just above the horizon that was moving very slowly; a plane, so far away that there was no sound connected to it, probably out over the ocean, which is 80 or 100 miles away to our southeast. As it crept slowly along, so far away, I thought about the 200 or 300 people on board and wondered where they had come from and where they were going. Many of the planes that cross the North Atlantic pass this way, so there is always much to guess about when you see their contrails - so many dreams and expectations and lives.

Then the smell of the night came to me - damp, moist, fresh, overlaid with the smell of fallen wet leaves. This is unusual. I don't have much of a sense of smell and never have had, so I tend not to relate to the natural world around me by its smells. This was an extra little gift. And then another little gift, the feeling of the old, warm, moist air mingling with the cooler dried air being pushed in. I'm not sure I've ever been so aware of a cold front coming through and sweeping the old air out before it. And I saw the textures of the clouds, low and thick, sweeping along before the wind.

This gradually melded into a sense of the river itself, this great conduit of life that has flowed back and forth between these shores for a couple of million years or so. The Hudson is actually an estuary from New York to Albany, but it is so nicely river-shaped that no one thinks of it as anything else. The Esopus People who lived here before the Europeans came called it "The River that Flows Both Ways" and their story was that they originally lived to the West and were told by a prophet that they should move and should travel East until they found a river that flowed in both directions. And we are, in some ways, their heirs.

And then, slowly and gently, I became aware at last of the unity of all who live here or who have ever lived here - those represented by the lights across on the other shore, and those on the plane and those who came before electricity was invented, and those who lived here before people were here at all and those who live in the river and on its shores and in the air above. The great unity that joins us all became very evident to me.

This is one of the places to which the spiritual path is said to lead - to the knowledge of our unity with each other and with all life and with the earth and with God. I stood and felt that oneness.

Then I realized I was hungry and went to get a bed-time snack of a nice trail mix that I have that consists of some dried fruits and some raw nuts and some seeds. It seemed like the right food for the right time.

I tell this story partly as an account of one monk's experiences in the living of his life in this place, and partly just to say that I don't think that what I experience is particularly unique. I think that God calls out to us with the experience of unity pretty much all the time, 24/7. We just sense that call rarely. Only when the veil that is constructed by our minds and kept in place by the busyness of our lives is drawn aside for a bit do we let the reality of that call be heard. But it's there. It's always there - always. We just need to learn to listen. And how you do that is particular to your own circumstances and the conditions of your own life. But the testimony of the holy women and men of the ages is that we are drawn to this realization and we need to open to it to truly know who we are and where we are going.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Celebration Continues

I'm late this week because of all of the events that have been part of the past eight days. Yesterday we had our noon meal early and then got into cars as fast as we could and went to New York City to the Church of St Luke in the Fields, for the second of our celebrations of our 125th anniversary. St Luke's is not too many blocks from the neighborhood in which the Order of the Holy Cross was founded. The parish in which we worked in the 1880's was called Holy Cross Church, and it was from that Church that we took our name.

Their particular ministry was to German immigrants who were at the bottom of the social scale at the time, and for whose benefit Fr Huntington, our founder, began the exercise of the social ministry for which he became so famous in later years. Holy Cross Church has been gone for a long, long time, but we have a long history of connection with St Luke's, and presently the parish sends a large number of groups to our Guesthouse each year and the parish clergy are frequently here for their own retreats, so it was really right for our celebration of 125 years since the Order's founding.

The West Park community was joined by Br David Hoopes and Br Carl Sword who are both resident and ministering in the City, so there was a nice group of us to sing Vespers of our Founder, which has as its antiphons quotations from the Rule Fr Huntington wrote for us. The Office climaxes with the antiphon for the Magnificat which is comprised of our Founder's last words at the time of his death in the 1930's: "Ask them to forgive me; tell them I forgive them; I want them to have joy; I will always intercede." It was a wonderful touch that these words were reported to us at the time by the Order's dear friend Fr Schleuter who was then the Rector of St Luke's Parish.

It was a perfect time for Vespers. It was daylight when we started, and as the Office proceeded the outside light got darker and darker and more of the light came from twinkling lights on the chandeliers which light the inside of the Church. The acoustics of St Luke's are good, but very different from the Monastery Church, but we rose to the occasion and chanted well. It was a very warm afternoon for November and the doors of the Church were open and an interesting number of people came from the street as the service went on, to look through the back door or to come in for a few minutes. It was not all that different from the occasion in 1884 which we were commemorating when our Founder made his vows and became the first member of the first American men's religious order in the Episcopal Church.

An address was given by Dr Esther de Waal, the renowned author, who is an old friend of Holy Cross and a Companion of our Order. She put our celebration in the context of famous Benedictines of the past, such as Aelred and Dunstan, and talked of Benedict himself and his longing for God. It was unfortunate that, from our seats in the sanctuary of the Church, the reverberation of the sound system off the walls kept us from understanding large parts of the talk. But her obvious involvement with her material, and her echoing of the longing for the divine that characterizes the monastic vocation, were so clear that I found myself carried into that longing and into the love that those who seek God in prayer always hope to find.

A nice reception finished the afternoon off very well, and also provided some astonishment to the caterer who said: "You people actually talk to each other!" He does a lot of New York events, and apparently seeing those who attended actually enjoying themselves and communicating with each other was something of a curiosity in his experience. After that several of us had a relaxed dinner with our brother Carl in the City, and then made our way home, arriving not far before midnight.

And I haven't yet mentioned the other event of our week of celebration and that was the Profession of Life Vows by our brother Bernard Delcourt which took place on Wednesday. It was a wonderful, wonderful occasion which was more than anything an explosion of joy. Our Monastery Church was packed for the event, and Bernard's brother and his family had come from Belgium for the service.

There are a good many moving moments in a profession liturgy, but this time I think that the two things that most people have mentioned were the chanting of the hymn "Come, Holy Spirit" with the congregation kneeling and Br Bernard lying prostrate on the sanctuary floor, and the chant which Bernard and the Community exchanged with each other, repeating three times: "Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and let me live; and do not disappoint me in my hope."

Nor should I omit to mention the moment when Bernard knelt to make his profession, promising Stability, Fidelity to Monastic Life and Obedience for the rest of his life, and then signed the profession, which he had written out in his own hand, and rose to put it on the altar.

And then, of course, this being Holy Cross, we all went to the refectory for one of our chef Edward's magnificent spreads, which included an enormous Belgian Blue Cheese - which turns our to be both more mellow and more complex that the French blues that we are used to. (Bernard said afterward that he didn't know that there was a Belgian blue cheese - though he knows the town where it is made).

That, together with a 3 day long meeting of the Order's Council, of which I am currently a member, filled out a memorable and exhausting week. The house was very quiet today. We are all hoping for a gradual return to normal. Meanwhile we are savoring all that we have celebrated in the past 8 days.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How Do You Celebrate When You're 125?

You don't get a chance to celebrate being 125 years old very often. But this month the Order of the Holy Cross is 125. Fr James Otis Sargent Huntington OHC made his profession of vows on the 25th of November a century and a quarter ago, and of course we had to celebrate - a more modest celebration, certainly, than our centennial celebration 25 years ago, but some event was clearly called for.

So this afternoon we had the first of the events, and it was a Solemn Vespers of All Saints Day together with the Dedicatory Recital of the new organ in the Monastery Church.

As it turned out it was a truly marvelous occasion. Br Scott designed an interesting and imaginative service which combined the celebration of Vespers with the recital. Vespers and the organ pieces were interwoven with each other. There were two very familiar All Saints hymns at the beginning and the end of the service. Then the organ pieces were placed between the singing of the Psalms and the Magnificat and the reading of the scripture lesson. Our chant harmonized beautifully with the organ music, which was both stimulating and reflective. I've never seen anything quite like it - the closest thing I can think of is a service of Lessons and Carols which you sometimes see around Christmas, but this service had a well thought-out shape and a real feeling of both movement and unity.

The organist was Erich Borden, who is the brother of our own Br Scott Borden. Their mother, Jane, gave the beautiful Pipe Facade which is high on the south wall of the Church and encloses the speakers of the organ. The organ itself is a digital instrument made by the Rogers Company. It was given by our dear friend Dr Lalitha Manoharan, who was close to us for many years and now after a long time in this country is again living near her family in India. The organ is an instrument of extraordinary flexibility and wonderful tone. It sounds splendid in our church, certainly much richer than the instrument that it replaced.

The music that Erich selected was entirely modern, and included works by Sigrid Karg-Elert, Jehan Alain and Daniel Pinkham, all well-known composers of modern organ music. The pieces were carefully chosen to display the breadth of interpretation of which our new organ is capable, and they were not only lovely but quite interesting as well. There were some breathtakingly rich moments in the pieces and some amusing ones as well - as in the Pinkham "The wind from the West", which is Movement IV of his piece "The Four Winds." You could hear the locusts being cast into the Red Sea from the passage in Exodus 10 that was the inspiration for the movement.

One of the great advantages of a digital instrument is that the console is movable. For this occasion we put it at the head of our choir, positioned so that the keyboard faced the congregation. This gave everyone a full view of the instrument and they got to see how Erich managed the controls and what his playing technique looked like, which is not something you usually get to see at an organ concert. It also gave anyone who was interested an opportunity to come up afterward and inspect the console - several people were obviously very interested in walking all the way around it - and Erich stayed for a long time answering people's questions and talking with them about the concert and about the organ.

We finished the afternoon with a reception, Holy Cross style, which featured our chef Edward's platter of meats and cheeses and luscious home-made brownies by Lori, our Guest House Administrator. It was one of the nicest receptions I can recall. The group was a manageable size, so that it was possible to have a real relaxing social time, and that is indicated by the length of time that people stayed. We were all obviously enjoying the time with each other and no one felt rushed to go.

All in all it was quite an afternoon. What better way would there be to celebrate being 125? Creative liturgy, marvelous music and good food with good friends. A very Holy Cross sort of celebration, and a small example of why on this evening I am feeling so content and happy and so proud of my community.