Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Serve One Another - Chapter 1,553

Benedict says in his rule that the brothers should serve one another. He also says that in this service nothing is more important that working in the kitchen and it is so important in fostering love that no one is to be excused unless they are sick. No one.

This is taken seriously in the Benedictine communities that I know personally, and it certainly is part of our life, and was part of my path this week. We have a hired chef, as many of you know, because the number of the guests (large) and the number of the community (small) don't permit us to carry on the ministry we have and cook too. But we all work at doing the dishes, and we all take our turns at a job which we refer to as "Refectorian". The Refectorian is the one who is in charge of getting the food served and making sure that the dining room (refectory) is set up right and has everything it needs for the meal. This was my job this week.

It's a major job, especially in a week like this one when we have between 35 and 40 guests every day. It takes a lot of time, and part of its difficulty is that the time it takes comes just at the times that I usually use for prayer, or for other necessary tasks. This sets up internal conflicts and discontent.

It also takes a lot of attention. Are there enough bananas? Are the hot pads put out? Is the dishwasher filled? Where has the extra peanut butter gone? Why has no one replenished the supply of cranberry juice? Can I make coffee faster than they can drink it? (and keep the cereal replenished at the same time?) Is there enough water - or too much water? Why aren't there enough soup spoons? It goes on and on. Sometimes it seems like it never ends. Up and down the kitchen stairs for supplies. On our knees in front of the cabinet in search of more supplies. Carrying racks of glasses and pushing carts of plates and making sure there are enough clean coffee cups. This much attention takes a lot of energy.

I think it's fair to say that few of us approach one of these weeks with a sense of delight. I know that I'll have to be up 45 minutes earlier than usual to get an adequate supply of coffee made. I know I'll be struggling all week to find prayer time. I know that keeping my emotional balance in the face of constant demands to provide this or that won't be easy.

This week I decided to take a more measured approach to things. I marked the week well ahead on my calendar and took no extra appointments and limited what I did. I made sure I had a nap time every day. I prioritized so that this was The Job for the week. That helped. At least I had a sense that I was taking care of myself. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than loosing it altogether, which I do all too easily in one of these weeks.

I also got something good for myself. A really fine lesson came my way. And it came by an 'accidental' coincidence in my having the refectorian's job and in a piece of Benedict's Rule that I happened to see in my reading this week.

If you were to guess what Benedict thinks is the most important thing a monk can do, you would probably think of something in the area of prayer or silence or spiritual diligence or something like that. Actually the Rule says that there is almost nothing more important than......................... remembering not to grumble.

That it? Just that?

Yes, just that. What's more, old Benedict is right. Grumbling destroys affection in a community. It undermines the base of mutual love. Giving in to the universal supposition that "they" are responsible for my unhappiness puts up walls between people and groups in the world and in our society and in a monastic community. It also damages my relationship with myself.

And so part of the way through this week I decided to focus on my own interior grumbling. I looked seriously at my sense that this job was too much or too hard. I looked carefully at the feelings that arise when I walk through the pantry door, and of how easy it is to slip into blame when things aren't exactly the way I need or want them to be. I also decided that I was simply not going to give in to the temptation to spend time longing for this week to end and for the job to be over. I said that this job was this job - no more, no less - and I had it for now, and now is all I have. I wouldn't - absolutely wouldn't - grumble about it. I didn't succeed perfectly, but the effort brought a lot to me.

The most important thing that it brought was a really beautiful realization of how much I am supported by the love and care of my brothers. People showed up early at mealtimes to fill the diswasher or make some needed coffee or help carry the food. I would dash into the refectory to get some pre-meal job done and find it already completed - I'll never know by whom. Someone saw that one of the tasks wasn't completed and took a few minutes to be helpful, and then went on their way. Sure - some things that should have been done weren't - and that caused more trips up and down the stairs or in and out of the refectory. But if there isn't care taken about our tendency to interior complaining - grumbling - those missteps and those careless omissions can become the whole story - they become what we experience as the essence of the job. And they aren't the whole story. The whole story includes the reality that this is a hard job and my brothers are making sure that they help to ease my way. We are "bearing one another's burdens" to use a scriptural turn of phrase.

So I come to the end of this week, most surprisingly, not worn out (though I'm tired) and not resentful. I am not even feeling like giving thanks that the week is over. My predominant feeling right now is thankfulness for all the ways in which love came to me this week and for the growth that has brought us to the place of being a community that has this love - that is this love. This is, after all, what this life is supposed to be about.

Being loving is important. Taking the time to know that you are loved may be even more important.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Around the Next Corner

This week's journey has been a continuation of last week's, with a certain amount of awakening added to the mix. I was much helped by discovering a reflection in the Insight Journal by Joseph Goldstein about the journey of his life:

(speaking of meditation......) "The idea is not to stop thinking, but to see the difference in your own experience between being lost in thoughts and being aware of them. Be mindful of the difference between when you are lost in thought and the moment of waking up from being lost.
That moment is critical. Most people awaken and say "Oh, I was lost again, what a terrible meditator I am." They just get involved in self-judgment, which is simply being lost again - such judgment is really useless. We all get lost in thought many times a day, but insights arise when we highlight that moment of waking up. Delight in it. Honor it. You are already aware in that moment. And as many times as we notice we are lost, that many times do we awaken."

Or in another tradition, Fr Thomas Keating once answered a woman who was distressed that she must have had "a thousand distractions" by saying: "How wonderful. A thousand opportunities to turn back to God."

These reflections are about the process of meditation, but it wasn't about meditation that I heard what I needed, it was about the related process of being realistic and gentle with myself. I don't know if you caught the subtitle of last week's post - I didn't catch it myself until Thursday of this week. The subject was the process of getting back into the monastic rhythm of life, but the subtitle was judgment. I judge myself negatively because it takes time to get used to our rhythm after being out of it for a while. Like Joseph Goldstein's meditator, I have been thinking: "Oh what a bad monk I am. I can't hit the ground running. Here it is two weeks later, and I'm still not settled into my routine and the sort of openness that I can usually manage. I must be doing it wrong." Both Goldstein and Keating are surely right in pointing out that that sort of judgmental state is useless. Far more productive would be to just look and see: "Oh, it really takes a long time to switch gears. What can I do while the gears are still switching?" Who knows, I might have found something really productive.

It all comes down to being aware, doesn't it? And there seems to be no bottom to this pool. No matter how my awareness of myself, and my situation, and my brothers and the situation in the community, and the guests deepens, there seems to be another depth of unconsciousness there waiting to manifest itself. I know I have been told over and over again that enlightment doesn't mean coming to the bottom of the pool. It's much more discovering that the process is the real point. We can welcome the moment when we become aware that what we are doing is really useless, and delight in that moment and honor it. Then the possibility opens up of doing something that might be really useful.

To give myself some credit, I actually did a bit of that on Thursday. When the moment arrived, in church at noon, when I finally came to the moment of realization that I'd been living with a lot of frustration just because I was getting in my own way. Getting used to another rhythm of living takes a while, and this time it has taken a long while. That's a fact. Trying to ignore that reality doesn't make it any less of a fact. I was actually kind of tickled to make that discovery. "Oh", I thought, "maybe now I can be a little gentler and more skillful about how I handle this." I obviously can't force it to happen on my schedule. It's going to happen on its own schedule. But maybe I can cooperate with the whole process. If nothing else my guilt level is less, and I have some more awareness that trying to force this process is futile, and I'm not trying to do things that are bound to frustrate me.

Jose, the teacher of the meditation group that I regularly attend, is always saying: "When you become aware that you have been lost in thought, just bring yourself back. And do it firmly and gently and without recrimination." The first time I heard that I was thunderstruck. Without recrimination? What would be the point if I couldn't accuse myself of being a bad meditator? I am a specialist in crimination (if there is such a word.) I criminate and recriminate. Abandoning this path of accusing myself because of my short-comings is a big change. It is a genuine conversion, and like all conversions there is both joy and regret involved, and often some fear. Nor does it happen all at once.

So I can see at least one reason why people abandon spiritual paths so often: they can't make it happen on their own terms. Waking up to what is going on requires some flexibility and some humor. One can see that trying to make my mind behave or my life behave is pretty hilarious.

And the journey is a little lighter now and I'm a little further down the road and I tread the path towards God with fewer burdens and more expectation. Who knows what will be around the next corner?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

And Today I Am...........................?

Getting back into the monastic routine after my trip hasn't been particularly easy. It's not that doing the things we do is difficult; I show up at meals, I show up in Church, I show up in the Incense department. But for me the first days after being away are lived basically on that level - showing up. The deeper connection is slower to reestablish itself.

I notice it particularly at the Offices in church. One of Benedict's instructions is to "sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices", and that's the harmony that I struggle to recover. Is this why Benedict is so wary of having people go away on trips? I wouldn't be surprised. When I try to recall my mind to the Psalms it rebels, and if I try hard enough I begin getting real resistance in the pit of my stomach; something that feels mid-way between disagreement and fear. Pushing at it any harder doesn't produce very good results.

It's slow to come around, this harmony. It takes a while. In this case it's taken a couple of weeks. I try to cooperate with what's possible. When a Psalm comes around that I can really get into, I jump on it with eagerness. Usually it's something about praise. I like praise and I do it with enthusiasm, so when a particularly praisy verse catches my attention, I let that place of praise and happiness down inside me open up and I use that passage, or verse, or half verse to let it flow. I'm also pretty good at the "help" verses, as in: "Why aren't you helping, God, why have you left me alone?" I can get into that really well. So I try to take advantage of the things I can be present for: "Come, let us sing to the Lord......" "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit......" "O God, why are you so far off......"

I also can almost always get into "Your Kingdom come, your will be done....." That one is so important and so deep, and it's almost always open to me. I can really get in there and pray that one with openness and longing. St Theresa advised people to "pray like you can, not like you can't" and I try to pay attention to that.

And then little by little the rest of it begins to open up. One of the verses that I keep my eye on is from the end of Compline each night; "Lord you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised." That is a tricky one - it almost always slips away from me. Each night I determine that I am going to stay with that one, and every night I get to the "Glory be" and realize that I've been completely absent. Why? Well, of course because it's about death. It's the song that Old Simeon sang when he realized that seeing the new-born Christ had completed his life and that now he could go - he could die. Does a 70 year old want to sing about that every night? Not really. On the other hand, does a 70 year old need to be paying attention to that? You bet. So I watch my mind trying to escape (and succeeding), and every once in a while I am open enough that I can sing in harmony with those words.

What a fascinating journey it is, seeing the things I welcome and the things I flee from. The angry Psalms, the judgmental ones, the pathetic ones, the violent ones; these are the last that I am able to open to. Is it because I have conquered all my anger, judgemental tendencies, my desire to be pathetic and my inner violence? Just the opposite, of course. It's that stuff I don't want to look at. It's there within me in very healthy amounts, but I'd rather deny its presence and float on a cloud of praise.

Of course the Psalms won't let me do that. They keep bringing up everything that I am, so that I have to look at it. Meditation helps, too. That's what gradually opens me up so that I can actually take advantage of the diet the Psalms are feeding me. One man I know says he meditates each morning so that he will know who he is that day. I experience that too, and the Psalms are always confronting me with my inner reality. It's a very powerful journey, and the end of it is still over the horizon.

But gradually the living of the monastic life brings me back to at least occasional moments when I can pray so that my mind is in harmony with the words, and so that the compassion that is the fruit of self-knowledge can take root little by little. Transformation. That's what it's all about.

And of course I also need to attend more carefully to what practices will keep the journey to self knowledge fresh while I'm on a trip. They will necessarily differ in significant ways from what I do at home. But developing my skills at deeper levels there is also part of what this journey involves.

Hmmmmm. Much to think about here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Aftermath

I'm back now, having been for a number of days at a meeting of the Order's Council in Santa Barbara and then taking some time off with friends in Kansas City. I've finished getting the Incense orders dealt with and am now coping with the pile of stuff that accumulated on my desk during the couple of weeks that I was gone. Not too bad this time.

As I thought about what this period of time had meant for me it was clear that Mt Calvary and the fire and the future were most clearly on my heart and in my memories. On the first day of our meeting we went up to the site of Mt Calvary to see it for ourselves. I'm looking for a word to describe the experience and having trouble coming up with something. It's hard, even now, to remember standing in those ruins and thinking of something that will explain what I saw and felt. So I guess that "unthinkable" is the right word. Bright sunshine, deep blue sky, warm, gentle breezes. And an occasional piece of wall; various objects of metal, the foundation into which the remains of stuff had fallen - that's what I remember. And I remember other things as well; a pot that once held a plant, sitting bright and blue beside one of the paths; the remains of some of the library scattered around the parking lot (how did those books survive?); little green shoots beginning to emerge from the hedges and the gardens and the lawn.

And black - black as far as you can see if you stand and look to the East, which is the direction from which the fire came. And bare. And to the west a bit of burned scenery giving way to the city of Santa Barbara, lush and untouched, right at our feet. We were so close to the edge of the damage. I hadn't realized how we almost escaped.

We were told that the estimate is now that the fire burned at about 3,000 degrees and probably lasted just about 3 minutes. Such power, so fast. And that helps to explain the little tricks that fires like this always play. There, several hundred feet below us, was a little oasis where the house had burned to the ground, but the trees and plants around it were alive and green. And up above us, near the peak of the mountains, was a spot where the ground was bare and desolate but a house had survived. And of course the artist's studio on our own property, just a few feet away from all the destruction, is completely whole, except for some cracked and broken windows on the side from which the fire came. Roy's calligraphy supplies survived there, and he's now at work in a studio that the Franciscans at the Santa Barbara Mission have graciously supplied for him, and Joseph is at work on his icons again. Nick hasn't resumed playing his cello yet - it's too soon.

We stood at the edge of the ruins and prayed: we gave thanks for the years of life and ministry there, and asked for openness and guidance for the future. It was good to do that. It was also good to walk away afterward.

I did realize one thing while I stood there; I realized that for me the view from that ridge is just a view. It's a world-class view, of course - how else can you describe being able to see 50 miles up and down the California coast and just as far out to sea? But Mt Calvary framed that view for me. The view was extraordinary because of the life of that place; the friendships shared, the rhythm of prayer that gave the house its special feel, countless meals eaten with our guests and with each other; silences kept in company with groups of people or with one or two others, or alone. Without the monastery the view is certainly very nice, but its meaning is mostly gone for me. I hadn't expected that detachment.

The next day several enormous machines moved in to clear the property. Now it's just a level field. For two days we could look far up from the foot of the mountain and see that tiny site and catch occasional glimpses of the huge machines moving back and forth. That was enough. I didn't need to be closer.

Then we moved to planning for the future. We began the process of considering the resources we will have available - financial, personnel, interests, energy. We poured over reports and dreamed dreams, and we made arrangements for a committee that will plan the meeting of our Chapter in June at which we will work at making the decisions that now must shape our lives for the next era in the life of Holy Cross. We're exploring the possibilities for a lease of St Mary's Retreat House that might carry us through the immediate future. It would give us a place to be and a ministry to exercise and would ensure us a continuing presence in Southern California. We should have news of that in the near future, but for now we are still working on it.

We worked hard, and at the end of the week I was quite astonished at how exhausted I was. Long meetings always require a lot of energy, and for one that took place in the context of so much emotional agenda, this one was even more demanding on the energies of a 70 year old. The other members of Council said the same thing. We worked well together, and we were pleased at how we gave ourselves to the task. And it took all we had. Then my Kansas City friends gave themselves to the task of helping me rest and recover.

As I was working on this post, Bernard stuck his head through the door of my office and said: "I hear the sound of blogging!" It's nice to be back to my accustomed Sunday morning task.