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.

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