Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Day Is It?

Long,long ago, when I was looking around at various Orders trying to decide whether I was going to be a monk or not, the Superior of one of the communities that I visited said: "In monasteries there are two kinds of days, Sundays and not-Sundays".

So, is this Sunday? Well, it must be because we had a cooked breakfast and a high mass with sermon. That's what makes it Sunday. Isn't it? But what was that we had on Friday? And yesterday didn't feel at all like Saturday. It's very confusing to the body. It is every year. And of course we'll do it again towards the end of the week, with New Years Day coming. That won't be Sunday, either.

Still, however the days have been arranged, we've had quite a celebration. It began with our Service of Lessons and Carols last Sunday, sung by Kairos, the acapella choir who are are artists in residence at Holy Cross. This has become one of the artistic events of this part of the Hudson Valley and there were somewhere around 200 people in our Church and that doesn't count those who had to be turned away. You understand that our Church usually seats 35 - or 40 if we squeeze. The Service was magnificent - just plain magnificent! People were so happy.

Then on Thursday we decorated: a huge tree in the Pilgrim Hall, which is the social center of our Guesthouse, and a smaller one in the Monastery Common Room, and everything looks beautiful. The Midnight Mass was also very grand. In recent years the Lessons and Carols Service has taken the place of Christmas Mass as the event that everyone comes to, so the crowd, while quite good, was not such a strain on our facilities, and that was nice.

We had a reception after each of these events. So many people come whom we don't know very well. They come from all over this part of the Hudson Valley and we have such a different relationship with them than we do with the guests in our Guesthouse. These are people who often come only when there are big musical events, or who drop in to light a candle or to come to the Bookstore, or who sit on the lawn and enjoy a moment of quiet by the river, or who come on Christmas Eve. And so we feel that we need to incorporate these folks into the life of this place and every once in a while we invite them to socialize with us. Since we remodeled the Pilgrim Hall, it makes a wonderful place to have a reception, and it can be set up and taken down in very short order. Because of the size of the crowd for Lessons and Carols we could only manage cookies and cider, but we're talking about Edward's spiced cider and Lori's cookies, so people felt quite well provided for. (Edward is our magnificent Chef and Lori is the Guesthouse Administrator, and also a professional pastry chef). After Midnight Mass, Edward provided something more elaborate, with meats and cheeses and eggnog and more cider - quite grand.

It is really wonderful to be able to talk with people who may not see us often, but for whom this place is part of their lives, and who feel a tie to us that is important to them. People who stay in the Guesthouse often have a chance to talk with us, to confide in us, and to become close to us, especially if they come here often. But there are many people who live much closer to us, and for whom Holy Cross is important, but with whom we don't spend a lot of time. The receptions are for those people, so that we can welcome them and enfold them in the prayer and hospitality that make the life of this place. These are special and important times, and we work hard to make them special.

And now we go onward until New Year's Day. We don't close on Monday this week. We're open straight through until the end of the year - and that's going to make it even more difficult to tell what day it is. After today it will be fairly quiet with only a dozen to twenty guests for several days, which will be nice both for us and for the guests who are here, and then there will be a New Year's Retreat that will have a sizable group in attendance. Then the Guesthouse will close for a couple of weeks, as we usually do in early January.

I still don't know what day it is. Tomorrow I'll try to take a long walk in the hills and see if I can't convince my body that it's Monday, since that's my usual Monday recreation. But maybe that won't work at all, and that's ok. Knowing how to deal with the unexpected and with surprises is part of the spiritual journey. God is always surprising us with something, big or small. We have to be ready to see it. We get to practice every year at this time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Quiet Before........

Today is a whole different sort of time from last week. Last week I was feeling the pressures of the season in a big way. This week it's hard to imagine being more relaxed.

Our retreat was the big factor, of course. We have retreats for our community four times a year. Our major one is in the summer and that one lasts 10 days. Then scattered through the rest of the year we have 3-day retreats. It's been our custom for some years to have one of the retreats during the 3rd week in Advent. It's usually a slow time for the Guesthouse anyway. People are busy getting ready for Christmas and with other Holiday activities, so the number of guests would be low in any case. It's a good time to close the Guesthouse from Tuesday through Thursday and give ourselves a break. A spiritual break. The house is in silence. The daily schedule is somewhat relaxed. Most of our daily jobs don't need to be done - though at this particular time I do need to keep up with incense orders. The big push is over, but there are always a few last-minute orders.

One of our friends, who was a priest in one of the local parishes said that she always delighted in dropping in during the middle of December, and right in the middle of one of the busiest shopping weeks in the year seeing the sign on the Book Store door: "Closed For Retreat". She thought it was a wonderful counter-cultural statement. And so, I suppose, it is.

This time I knew very clearly that I didn't need more intensity. Sometimes during retreat I make a big push for meditation, study, a special project or something of the sort. That didn't feel like it at all this year. What I needed was space. I needed a bare minimum of stuff to do, with plenty of time around each thing, so I could move slowly, gently, and with a lot of attention to each small thing. I needed to stretch interiorily. And I needed to feel a lack of pressure.

I did have some projects, of course. One hardly ever escapes projects. There is a room next to my Office that has been a store room for quite a few years and it has been crying out to be cleaned and sorted for a long, long time. Some of the stuff stored there is important - many of the files and papers of the last Prior, who died suddenly and without time to do his own sorting, had yet to be gone through. And there was a collection of miscellaneous stuff in there that has gradually been getting higher and deeper. This seemed like a perfect time to do it. I also did some study in the teachings of Marcia Rose, a very talented spiritual teacher whom I have recently discovered. Those two things, some Mozart Concertos and the few incense orders were plenty to occupy the time.

Predictably, my latent guilt got activated. I should be busier. I should be praying more. I should be more intensely focused on my study. Fortunately I was burned out enough that I couldn't pay much attention to that voice even if I wanted to. So I just had to trust that I had what I needed: a few things to do, and silence.

It worked quite thoroughly, even beyond my expectations. Though I didn't feel very "spiritual" during much of the retreat, and my goals for myself were only partly met, by Thursday evening I realized that I was centered, I really was bathing in the silence, and that I had got my self back. God had blessed this retreat, and me.

The rest of the week has just carried this blessed time forward. Many times we emerge from retreats on a Friday morning, just of the edge of a full house of guests descending, and the transition can be quite a shock. But this time, because it was the last weekend before Christmas, we had only 5 to 7 guests. So the quiet has continued to be the overriding part of the atmosphere, and things are relaxed. Imagine having a week at this time of the year just to get back to yourself before Christmas is celebrated. On a regular basis, being a monk is certainly wonderful!

Now things will shift. (Don't they always?) This afternoon is our annual Lessons & Carols Service with Kairos, our Artists in Residence, singing, and that will be a wonderful occasion. If it's anything like our usual experience, the Church will be standing room only and The Holidays will be in full swing again.

And then the countdown to Christmas begins. A great tree stands in the Pilgrim Hall waiting to be decorated on Christmas Eve. Yes, I know it's outrageous, but we really are so old-fashioned that we don't decorate until Christmas Eve. We believe in letting Advent have it's full voice for all four of its weeks, and not doing Christmas until its time. If you've never tried it, it really is a wonderful rhythm. Guests will be flowing in all week, bringing every possible sweet pastry with them, ready to help with the decorating and humming carols. The usual energy of the place will get restored as the week goes on, and will come to a climax at the Midnight Mass on Thursday evening when we are joined by people from all over the surrounding area for our traditional High Mass.

I'm ready for it. I think the whole community is ready for it. We've done a good job of letting Advent prepare us for Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


My friends are complaining about this time of the year. Most of the complaining doesn't use the word "Advent", even from among the most religious people I know. It's about "The Holidays", which are a different set of things altogether.

The complaining is about the craziness of our behavior at this time. This year there seems to be a lot of discontent with the party scene. You, know - you are invited to a Holiday Party and so you have to have a Holiday Party to invite all of the people who invited you to their Holiday Party. All of this starts at the end of November and has to be done before the 24th of December. I have one friend who has been to 2 parties a night, 6 nights a week, for the last 3 weeks. He was also invited to parties on the 7th night of the week, but that is where he drew the line. He thinks it's crazy, but doesn't see any way of dealing with it.

And of course, there is the usual complaining about all the commercialism and the craziness of the shopping scene, but the last I heard, the amount of shopping was going up faster than any of the financial experts had expected - about twice as fast, according to one report. And when I did my own shopping last week, the stores were pretty packed - and this was on a Monday, so the complaining doesn't seemed to have changed that, either.

I do draw a line between Advent and The Holidays, and there have been times when I wrote passionately about the differences between them (see December postings for the past couple of years, if you're interested) but this year I'm musing on whether they might not be just two two different ways of responding to the same situation.

I wonder if Advent and The Holidays aren't two different ways of responding to chaos. Advent has all those apocalyptic themes - the end of the world, battles, wars, everything falling apart, and I wonder if this isn't at least partly a response of inner symbolism to the outer realities of December in the Northern Hemisphere. At this time of the year our whole world gets steadily darker, and colder and more difficult. On a semi-conscious level things are headed "down". There is a part of us, which goes back to the days of living in caves huddled around small fires, that has to be wondering whether we're going to survive this. We're feeling threatened and vulnerable and death lurks at the back of our minds. Many people respond with depression, and that's perfectly natural. I think there's also a variety of other responses.

Advent responds with archetypal symbols of chaos: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, plagues, dissolution of civilization. The Holidays respond with behavior that we hope will keep us from thinking about this stuff: we party so we won't have to confront our mortality, we shop so we'll feel provided for and won't have to think about our fragility. We do various things to shore up our feelings of security and let ourselves know that we will get through it.

And we do have our secular apocalypses, too - 2012, for instance. There are always apocalyptic movies around at this time of the year. These themes are always with us.

Looking at it this way makes several responses available to me:

1) I can investigate the various apocalyptic scenes that the liturgy provides me with and see what interior stuff is being evoked. It's not a bad thing to root around in my feelings about death, helplessness, vulnerability and such. This helps me realize what I'm responding to, and provides opportunity for enlarging my prayer. Yes, there's lots to pray about and meditate on in this stuff. Advent insists that it's better to have this stuff be conscious than to let it control us in other ways.
2) I can look at what I'm doing with my shopping and partying. You may think this amusing for a monk to be saying, but I have all those responses, even if my opportunity to act on them is more limited than those of most people. But I have old friends for whom I always buy small presents, and I am invited to various social occasions. And among all the wonderful reactions that God has provided us with, I have to assume that the ability not to think dark and dismal thoughts 24/7 has got to be one. We're created to face anything that comes along, and also to be able to have a respite when it all gets to be too much. How am I using these facilities? What do I need to face, and when do I need to give it a rest? How do I want to do my resting? Much to think about.... and to pray about.
3) Decisions. What do I want this time of the year to be for me? Like everyone else, I tend to get out of control in December. My calendar for this last week was a real nightmare. Why would any sensible person agree to everything I agreed to in the week following one of the biggest retreats of the year? Where was my time to do some recovery? How was I supposed to deal with the work that got set aside while the Advent Retreat was being planned, set up, conducted and taken down? I planned all of this past week in a state of unconsciousness. Do I want to do that again next year? Or even next week? What do I want to do to see that doesn't happen again? Much to think about, and to pray about.

I love Advent. I really love it. The Holidays aren't bad either. There is so much to be involved with. So many opportunities to deepen my humanity and my faith.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sharing the Peace

Years ago, when I was a young monk, I knew a nun who was also young and quite new in her order. She was going through a time of confusion and perplexity, as young monks and nuns do, and went to talk to their chaplain, an elderly and very kind man, and laid out her dilemma: "People come here and talk about how peaceful it is, how serene the sisters are and what a place of holiness this is" she said: "I know the reality of our life, and it doesn't look or feel like that to me. The life isn't like that. We aren't like that. I never know what to say." And he replied: "Ah yes, but you see, the peace isn't for you. The peace really is here, and all the rest of it is too. But it's meant for them, not for you."

No doubt under the influence of psychological analysis and systems theory and much else, we'd use different words to describe the situation now. But I've still always remembered a point well made. No matter how acute the observation of our guests may be, and sometimes it is amazingly accurate, still many of the gifts of this place are for them, and not for us, at least not directly. Our perspective on this place will always be somewhat different, and usually less starry-eyed.

I'm applying this directly to this weekend. This was the annual Advent Retreat, which I have been leading for many years with the author Suzanne Guthrie and Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit. It's usually a popular event and the guesthouse is most often completely full, as it was again this year. We work hard on providing creative programming and with Suzanne's gift of vision and Sr HM's very creative music, we most usually succeed. We certainly seem to have succeeded this year, if one can judge by the feedback. But the peace of this weekend retreat was definitely for them, not for me.

We organized this retreat around the theme of pilgrimage and the relationship between architecture and the interior journey. We processed them all over the place. In the course of examining themselves and our buildings they went upstairs, downstairs, through the chapel, into the monastery, down to the library. Our buildings are 1/10 of a mile long and we went from one end to the other, more than once. We worked hard and so did they, and their contributions were enlivening and sometimes exciting. It was wonderful to be part of a very creative time.

But moving 40 people around this set of buildings is no small deal. It was wonderful for examining the spiritual journey from a variety of perspectives, but I didn't anticipate how much energy would need to go into carrying things back and forth, setting up a different room every few hours, and providing candles, water, paper, books and ideas every few hours. My principal gift from this weekend appears to be exhaustion.

Was it worth it? Of course. It was a gift to be able to offer a truly creative opportunity for people. It may take a while to recover, but I will remember this time with pleasure and with gratitude. And there was one moment above all the others that I will keep with me for a long time.

Saturday night we provided a pilgrimage to the Crib. Our Creche was set up in the Library on the bottom floor of the monastery building. Close to the entrance of the Library is a sunken octagonal area that the building's architect thought was clearly important to the Library. Heaven knows how he thought that space would be used, but his original idea is now long lost. For us it's a puzzle and we've never known what to do with that area. We've tried artistic displays, couches, study tables and much else, but nothing ever really works. Except for the Creche at the Advent Retreat. It seems to belong there.

There are pillars around "the Pool" and with some dark cloth Suzanne created a sort of cave and the Nativity figures were placed in it. Our Creche is a modern one, done in a semi-abstract style, which I find very beautiful. The light was soft and low. Sr Helena Marie's music was very evocative. The atmosphere was quiet and deeply peaceful. We provided a candle for everyone who wanted to offer one before the Nativity scene.

As I went forward to offer my candle I also went down on my knees and touched my head to the floor. It's a natural gesture for me and one that I use with some frequency. Some years of yoga practice have made me unselfconscious about using my body however I want to in worship. Besides, I thought it might give people permission to do something out of the ordinary if they wanted to.

And it did. As I stood and watched, retreatants came before the Child, with Mary and Joseph and all the animals and the Wise Men. They bowed, they knelt. Some did a prostration like I had done. Some reached forward to touch the figures. A few caressed the head of old Joseph, or kissed the crib or the baby. People really did seem free to express the depth of feeling in their hearts and to do it in ways that are rarely seen in church in this country. It was an hour of meaning, and depth and tenderness. It was then that I knew without any doubt that we had created for those people the sort of retreat that we had hoped for. And, for a few minutes, it was a bit of retreat for me, too.

I was on the edge of tears for some time, just watching the scene and seeing how all of those people expressed what was in their hearts. And for those moments I didn't have to provide anything or teach anything or arrange anything. I could just be there at the Crib with everyone else. It's rare when a retreat leader can enter into the experience of the retreat, and I never expect it. Usually it's really important that you stand aside from that and make sure that things are going appropriately. But there, for a moment, I could just be at the manger with everyone else. It was a rare gift. And Advent has changed and deepened for me now.