Sunday, March 29, 2009

More Learning


At the end of February I wrote about being the Refectorian - the person who gets the refectory (dining room) set up for meals and puts the food out and all of that. It's a complicated and time-consuming job with what seems like a thousand details to be attended to, and one of the things about our life that the members of the community grumble most regularly.

So this week, there I was again, scurrying back and forth getting coffee brewed and supplying the fruit basket and making ice water, only one month from the last time. Because we each take a week in turn to do this job, it's usually more like 2 or 3 months between times, but so many people had been away in March, that the rota skipped through the community very fast this time, and only 4 weeks have gone by since my last encounter with this job.

Unfair!

Actually it's perfectly fair, according to our rules, it's just the way it feels. It's not rational - I understand that quite well.

I don't know where this idea came from, but somewhere in the week before I started in on the work, I decided to pull out an old concept that circulates around the Benedictine world - that of 'leisure'. Now, as it's used in the monastic life, 'leisure' is not the same thing as the modern American use of the same word: a time to relax and do nothing, or very little, or only do what you like. It's a translation of an old Latin word 'otium' (I think) and it originally means something like: 'living your life so that there's room in it for everything you do."

It's a revolutionary and counter-cultural concept, actually, this living a life of leisure (as the old texts describe the monastic life). Most people live with too much to do, and few see any hope of intervening in that situation. It's just a fact of living in this age, and maybe of living in any age. I remember a friend of our community who heard one of the brothers complaining about having too much to do and said: "Brother, get over it. Everyone has too much to do. The only people who don't have too much to do are the people who don't do anything." That comes close enough to the truth to be truly memorable; I suppose it was 30 years ago that I heard that exchange and I've never forgotten it.

It also indicates how truly extraordinary it might be to intervene in that pattern, and actually construct a life in which there was enough room for what you did, a life that is not over-full. You can see how the concept of 'leisure' got from that original meaning to its present connotation, but there isn't any reason why we couldn't go back to the original meaning and play with it and see what we can make out of it - if, of course, we had the nerve to try it.

So I decided that my project for last week was going to be doing the Refectorian's job leisurely - not meaning slowly but meaning I was going to make enough time for it so that I could do it without feeling pushed. I was going to take the time for that job. I wasn't going to rush from one part of it to another. I would have time to make the coffee, even on the mornings when we have 50 guests and they are consuming a fearful amount of coffee. I was going to have the time to do the restocking that is necessary - supplies of coffee, filters, honey, jam, fruit juice, eggs, yogurt, napkins, bread and a whole bunch of stuff besides - and to see that my containers were filled before they were needed, and I was going to have the time to do it without feeling like I was being run off my feet. I would do it leisurely - in the old sense.

Then came the horror of confronting the reality that if I did that, some other stuff was going to have to be left out. This was a barrier that I very nearly didn't get around. After all, everything I do is necessary and crucial, isn't it?

There there I was confronting some of the biggest delusions that I live with and around which I organize my time. And I know that this delusion is not just mine.

It was quite a process, this deciding what is actually crucial and what just feels that way. Coming to grips with the old concept of leisure requires a real sorting, a sorting of life. What needs to go out? What needs to be kept? And the sorting needs to be approached with the sure and certain knowledge that our minds are going to tell us that we can't possibly get rid of everything that actually needs to go.

Did I manage? Did do it completely right?. Did I get my time arranged so that I had a leisurely progress through this complex job for a whole week?. If you have read this column for a while you know the answer to that already. Of course not! I had, at best, a partial success. A life-time of addiction to having too much to do is not going to depart in one week, and it let me know that in no uncertain way.

But it was better. In fact it was a whole lot better. I made a true discovery that I could move through the days and have the time for all that the job demands, and even time to do some extra stocking, and arranging of shelves, and attending to tasks that are usually let go. I could, in fact, move leisurely through the task, at least some of the time. And it was enough so that at the end of the week, when Saturday Vespers came and it was time to lay the task down once again, I didn't feel exhausted, worn down and needing to recover. I really did feel that I had actually encountered the living of otium - the original leisure - having a good task and giving it the time that's needed. It was a whole different experience.

Now, of course, there is the call of the stuff that was put to one side while I leisured my way through the last week. And there's a call for action here. Am I truly resolved to get rid of everything that won't fit in the time I have to live my life? Can I admit to myself the dreadful reality that some things have to go, and soon? Can I actually unpack my closet?

Having had a taste of the freedom that awaits, I certainly want to try.

At one point in the past I remember that I went through a string of months when I happened to get the Refectorian's job nearly every time there was a huge crowd in the house. It happened over and over and it was so regular that other people in the community noticed and on one occasion one of the the Brothers asked me if I didn't want to arrange a switch with someone so I could have some rest. And I remember thinking: "Well, that would probably be nice, but this happens with such regularity that no matter what I do to try to escape it, it is probably going to go on happening until I have learned what I need to learn from it." So this is nothing new. I've been on the path of exploration offered by this job for many years. Being Refectorian has confronted me with a variey of things that I needed to know. It has taught me a lot.

Of such small learnings is the path to freedom composed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Newness

Last week was about the Clothing of Charles, our new novice. This week we skipped forward to what happens after a novice has been with us for 2 years and we had the First Profession of Vows of our Br James.

Jim has been attracted to the Religious Life for a long time - most of his life, actually. He started out in another community years ago, but he needed some other things first. So he got education and experience - much experience. He spent years in the theater - he even directed the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, if you can imagine. And wherever he was he got involved in ministry, too, usually with the poor and marginalized. His history has been well used here. He has directed some very creative modifications and revisions of our liturgical life, especially our Holy Week services. And those who follow this column regularly will also know that he was responsible for the founding of St Rafael's Place, our ministry to poor people with AIDS.

He feels like he's found his place. He's a man of prayer. He's a man of ministry. And he's found a place where both of these are priorities and where they can mingle and leaven his life - and ours. He is already the director of our outreach ministries. And if we know Jim, there will be more to come.

So on Thursday, the Feast of St Joseph, Br James Michael knelt before our altar and made his promise of Stability, Conversion to the Monastic Way of Life and Obedience. He had written his vow out in his own hand, and when he signed his promise he went to the altar and laid it there and then came back down from the altar to receive his Cowl - the long loose robe with large sleeves that professed Benedictines wear in choir.

This initial vow is for one year, after which it can be renewed. After renewing the vow somewhere between 2 and 5 times, he may decide to make his vow for life. The service is simple, much more so than the clothing which I described last week. There are - of course - the questions: "What do you desire?", and "Do you believe that God has called you?" Then those who are present promise to pray for him and uphold him, he reads and signs his vow, he gets his new clothes, and we hug him. That's it.

Simple or not, it was both deep and moving. There was no missing the fact that here was a man giving his life to God and to us, and that is truly major.

Our Church was packed with James' family and his friends, and with friends and supporters of Holy Cross. The affection for him and the love for us were so deep that you couldn't miss it. They sang their hearts out. They took multitudes of pictures afterwards. And, of course, there was one of Edward's superb meals, with everyone spread all over the house, because there were many more people here than we can accommodate in our refectory. I ended up with a group of community and friends in the Porter's Office, across from the Guesthouse Office, and it was lovely.

Other than the moment that James' cowl was slipped over his head, I have two principal memories of the day:

The first is the hymn that was sung while we got the altar ready for the consecration of the bread and wine. It nearly undoes me whenever we sing it, and this time it was so perfect for the profession of this particular man.

".... I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright,
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart."


The other thing about this occasion is much more solemn and dark. One of the women who works on our house cleaning staff has a 21 year-old son whom we have known for quite a while and who has helped out here from time to time. He recently finished his education and went off to California to seek his fortune in the movie industry. A great young guy, with his life just beginning. Then, 2 weeks ago, his mother got the awful news that he had died. It was very sudden. No one knows why at this point. It just happened.

And as it also happened, his funeral was taking place at St Augustine's Church in Highland, about 10 miles from here, as Jim was making his vows. It didn't diminish the joy, but neither did the joy diminish the sorrow. You just have to carry both at the same time. And it was hard, not being able to go to the funeral.

And of course there's even one more thing. Mark, a friend and Associate of some years, has found that he's gotten to the point where he needs to ask if he belongs here, with us. So he's here for 2 weeks, living as one of the community, so that he - and we - can take a look and see what we think. If it seems well, he may apply to enter the Order.

It's been quite a time these past 2 weeks. A man just beginning to ask the question: "Is this where I belong?", and a man formally beginning the journey, and a man - a brother - saying for all to hear that this is where he belongs. All of it wrapped in the joys and sorrows of those who we journey with and for whom we care.

And we haven't even gotten to Holy Week yet!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The New Novice

We have a new novice this week, to celebrate the coming of Spring. Charles has been a postulant since last September, and it was time for him and for the community to discern whether he should take the definitive step of being officially a monk - one in training, certainly - but a real beginning monk.

The whole process of receiving the habit unfolds deliberately. First, unlike the customs of many other communities, there is a time away, which we traditionally have called the "Postulant Leave". It looks pretty much like a 10-day vacation, but it has a couple of other purposes which we think are important to the process of commiting oneself to this Order. One is to let the postulant get away and back in his old surroundings, and see how much he has changed in the past six months, and then have some time to think about that. The transformation that is caused by joining a community, and in this case, a community oriented to seeking Christ, is something that happens slowly over time, and usually isn't a process that we notice on a day to day basis. But six months is enough for significant changes to have taken place and the Leave gives a Postulant some time to return to where he came from and to experience the reality that he is not the same person who left six months ago. Then he has to think about this; whether it feels like a good thing or not.

And then, of course, you have to decide to come back. This is the second reason for the Leave and it isn't a small thing. All the way along in the monastic life it's important for it to be clear, both to the community and to yourself, that you are here because you want to be. We are not a community that tends to be very impressed by people who say: "I really don't know if I want to do this, but God wants me here." When that happens we tend to tell a man to talk to God some more, because if God wants someone here, they will have a real desire to come. Otherwise they are likely to be dealing not with God but with the shadow side of themselves and with motivations that they don't want to be conscious. We want a man to be able to say: "Yes, I really want this. I really do. And I (and we) trust that God wants it as well, and our discernment process will include, as his training goes on, a continued search for the ways in which our will and God's will intertwine. This comes out again at first vows and again at life vows: both ceremonies start with a question that is essentially: "Do you really want to do this?" and the candidate has to answer, out loud and in public: "Yes, I really want to" (though it's couched in somewhat more formal and spiritual terms, of course).

Having decided to come back, there is then a four-day period of retreat in which the Postulant has time to pray and to think over the whole thing and to continue the process of confronting God and his own motivations and his hopes, and maybe his dreams. We give each Postulant a choice of where he wants to make his retreat. It just has to be away from here. Charles decided he would have his retreat with the Sisters of St John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey. They have a nice apartment which is roomy and comfortable and is perfect for the purpose, and it was just the right place for him to be. He says that he had a great retreat.

White he's doing that the guests start arriving. In this case Charles' family was well represented, including his mother from Florida and other family members and a friend from the west coast, and he arrived home to join in the process of collecting them and greeting them and to have some meals with them and to share the excitement (no, we don't keep the postulants in silence right up to the moment of the ceremony. We tried that at one point in our history and it really was counter-productive for the sort of community that we are.)

Then there is the ceremony itself. It happens in the late afternoon, just before Vespers. Charles stands before the Superior and commits himself to this path: the Superior asks: "Are you ready to enter the monastic life?" and he responds "Yes, with God's help." There it is again, the question about whether you really want to do this, and the response which is both an agreement and an acknowledgment that you can't do it entirely by your own desire or strength. Something else has to be part of the mix, and that is Grace, the presence of God's Spirit.

Then he hears the Rule. St Benedict specified that the Rule was to be read straight through to the candidate. Since that would take a couple of hours, we have decided to abbreviate it somewhat, but we did want some participation in this experience of having the Rule read, so we have chosen five rather lengthy readings, which includes passages both from Benedict's Rule and from the Rule written by Fr Huntington, the Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. Five of the Brothers read the passages and the candidate turns to face each reader in turn. It's enough to give a real experience of hearing our Rules laid out as the foundation of what a man is embracing by entering this community. In this day and age when we tend to communicate in sound bites, this kind of reading is pretty unusual and it provokes a variety of reactions. But Charles told us that he found it very moving, and I always do too.

Then the new habit was blessed and it was handed to Charles and he went out to change into it. We all sang a hymn, to give him time to get into his new clothes, and then, as the hymn is drawing to a close, in he comes, lead by the Novice Master, all clothed in white, with the hood up, so that you scarcely can see his face. At that point he's clearly A Monk, and the fact that our habit is white makes this point for all to see. This is a major change for all of us, for Charles first, and for all of the rest of us as well.

Then he's blessed and his hood is lowered so that we can see that yes, it really is Charles in that white habit, and he exchanges the Peace with the Superior and the Novice Master and then he's led to the choir, where he hugs all of us, and then we all sit down and do what monks do; we sing Vespers.

Afterwards, you may not be surprised to hear that, being Holy Cross, we have a party - in this case, one of our Chef Edward's marvelous meals. We're celebrating how good it is to have a new man to walk this path with us and to be one with us in our life. He looks perfectly natural in his habit. Not everyone does. Some men have to grow into the habit. But Charles looks like he's always had it on and after two days I'm having trouble remembering that he ever looked any other way. He tells me he feels the same.

So that was a very nice thing to crown our week with. And speaking of nice things, today is my 71st birthday! Also something to celebrate. So I will.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Week of Spring

This week has run us head-long into the contradictions of spring. People talk about March in terms of Lions and Lambs, and the word "cruel" is also bandied about a good deal, referring no doubt to promises given and then taken back. And we've seen a lot of that. The temperature has varied from 60 to 5. Several days have been balmy, and we've noticed that in the early morning there are actually birds singing. The Snow Drops are blooming and there are shoots of daffodils and tulips poking up, and the parsley is bright green and growing in the kitchen garden.

And tomorrow we are supposed to have snow, sleet, rain and ice.

But no doubt there will be beauty to be savored there, too, and the signs of life that are particular to this time of the year. The Hudson is still full of ice, and that will last until April, probably. It's all broken up by now and it floats up and down the river on the tides, but it's still heavy enough that the Coast Guard patrols a couple of times a day, making sure that there is a lane open for the tugs that stubbornly push barges north and south through every kind of weather. From time to time we get glimpses of eagles sitting on the ice floes, watching for fish, or whatever else they may like to eat. Over the centuries they seem to have learned that soaring over the river is very dramatic but sitting on a nice ice floe is a lot easier. This morning great V's of ducks flew over, high and tiny above the river, which they are following north.

There was also a display of beauty from the river which only comes at this time in March. When the ice is still thick on the Hudson and the sun is exactly right, there will be a few days when the ice pack is rich with sparkling light, as the sun catches the edges and points of the ice and reflects off the angles and refracts off pieces that are positioned just right. Then we see a magical display of flashing lights, hundred of points of light winking at us, and all the colors of the spectrum, too. Actually, we also get this effect sometimes at just the right time of the morning in the trees, too, after an ice storm. It was after one particularly breathtaking display in the trees that I all of a sudden realized where the idea for Christmas tree lights must have come from originally.

One Springy thing is certain: no matter how punishing this winter storm may turn out to be, at the end of it the Snow Drops will still be blooming on our hillsides. They refuse to be defeated. I don't know how many of you know about these flowers. They come from tiny bulbs, with flowers about half an inch long and they hang down on flexible stems. Early in their blooming their display is mostly in the form of white buds, which look like drops of milk. Later on they open up to display a little downward pointing flower with four petals (I think - I might have the number of petals wrong).

And they are absolutely indestructible. They begin sprouting sometime in February, depending on how thick the snow pack is above them. But they don't let the snow deter them, and if the winter has been particularly hard, they will come up right through the snow and ice. I think that each plant must generate a small amount of heat, because you can see the little circular free spaces around each sprout which it made as it melted its way up through the ice. They last a long time - several weeks at least - because the cool weather of this time of the year doesn't hurry them along. Then, as it gets warmer they fade and drop and give way to more showy spring flowers. One of the rituals of spring here is seeing the first of the Snow Drops. Then you know that winter won't last forever.

So the warmth, the light, and the first of the flowers have lifted our mood and lightened our load and we went through this week, which was, in fact, somewhat heavier than usual. We've had unusually large mid-week groups each week ever since January this year, and every weekend has been pretty full, as usual, and this week half the community has been gone. Robert is in South Africa, doing his yearly Visitation to the community in Grahamstown, Jim has been in Philadelphia conducting a Quiet Day and preaching at St Mark's, Locust Street, Bernard is in Maryland doing his residency at the Shalem Institute, training for the ministry of Spiritual Direction, Charles is at the Convent of St John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey, having his retreat in preparation for being clothed as a novice later in the month, and Lary is enjoying some vacation with the brothers in Santa Barbara.

So the 5 of us who were left here at home pursued the usual course of things: welcoming guests, providing programs and retreats for the groups that came from Connecticut, New Jersey, Manhattan and Maryland, doing piles and piles and piles of dishes and setting many tables. (Over the weekend we got some people in to help with the dishes and set-up, to ease the burden a bit). We also did a lot of smiling and chatting, and had innumerable conversations at the supper table and in the Pilgrim Hall and the Book Store, as we always do.

We've been in remarkably good humor through it all, and taken care to be kind and supportive to each other. This is a good time in our community life, and we are enjoying our ministry and our prayer and our life with each other. It's not an easy time in the world or in this country - and the Order of the Holy Cross shares a lot of the financial burden and worry that is the world's lot right now. But it's nice to see us navigate our way through this time like a small community of Snow Drops - pushing our way through all the obstacles and radiating a bit of beauty around us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Who's Looking for Who (Whom)?

I've always been attracted to praying in the middle of the night. Though I've read about this practice in books, it isn't anything I got from a book, it's something that seems to have been always with me. I have this deep longing for night prayer. Sometimes it's stronger and sometimes it's much quieter, but it's with me pretty constantly - just a drawing, a longing. It certainly isn't anything I can do much about, given the circumstances of this particular life - or so it seems.

Some years ago I got a chance to live out this longing as a life-style, not just something that I thought would be an interesting thing to do some time or other. I had a period of sabbatical and I went to live for half a year or so with the Sisters of the Love of God, who are an enclosed contemplative Order of nuns in England. I traveled to England regularly in those days and had gotten to know the community and admired them greatly, and in those days, they were able to welcome members of other communities into their convents. When it became possible to take a sustained period off it seemed like an offer I couldn't refuse.

I lived in one of their smaller houses in a village called Hemel Hempstead, near St Alban's - north of London. The convent was called St Mary and the Angels and it housed a community of 5 or 6 nuns. It was an ordinary largish house in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and it had a large yard ("garden" the English would say) that gave us some space to wander in. They were willing to have me, so off I went to England and settled in to a life that was purpose-designed for inner exploration.

One of the features of the life of that community was that the Office of Vigils each day was said at 2:00 a.m., and it was largely for that reason that I went to be with them. It seemed like one of the nicest things I could imagine - to have that night prayer be a part of my regular schedule.

I know - many of you think this is weird - or maybe just plain unimaginable. But I liked it - I loved it, actually. It seemed completely natural and I adjusted to the rhythm very quickly - each member of the community did the Night Office for 3 days in a row and went back to bed for a while. Every 4th night you had a night off to sleep through the whole night. We were all at Night Office on Sundays and on big feasts.

There is a special quality of silence and depth at that hour. It seems to me to be a time that is built for prayer. And, curiously enough, the world and its needs have always seemed closer to me then than at any other time. Prayer is not just a personal project at 2 a.m. Intercession flows naturally then. And it's all wrapped in a silence that seems alive. There's a Presence (with a capital P) to the silence in the middle of the night.

I never gave a lot of thought to what the neighbors thought about all this. England is a very secular country and the Church of England doesn't offer much attraction in the lives of most of the population. I assumed that most of those around us simply ignored us and considered us irrelevant to their lives. Certainly there were few, if any, of them who showed much interest that I could see.

Then came a week when all of us had the flu. We had suffered the sore throats, joint pains, fevers and sniffles for a couple of days when Sister Rachel Mary, the sister in charge, said: "Ok - we're going to take five or six days off from the Night Office and get enough rest to get well. Then we'll go back to it." So we did - and I will have to admit that a whole night of sleep, every night, was quite delicious. It takes a lot of energy to do the Night Office on a regular basis.

So we had our time off and had been doing it for a couple of days, when the phone began to ring. It was the neighbors, and a lot of them, not just a few. "What's wrong?" they wanted to know. "Why aren't the sisters in the chapel at night? We're concerned." It had never occurred to me that the people around us even noticed what we did at night, much less that it was an important touch-stone in their lives. I didn't imagine that a practice as exotic as praying at 2 in the morning was part of the fabric of a normal suburban neighborhood of commuters. The fact that they depended on our night prayer at some level of their lives was something I was unprepared for. It was then that I realized that my sense of the importance of praying in the middle of the night was not something as exotic as I had assumed. It seemed to be shared by lots of people. At some level, these folks depended on us being in church while they slept, and it seemed important - even necessary - to them. I've never forgotten that.

Now fast forward to this week. I've been having one of my periodic spells of insomnia and this week has been one of those times. The form it takes in me is simple inability to go to sleep. No matter how sleep-deprived I am, and how difficult it is to drag myself through the days, at bedtime I am wide awake and my body has absolutely no interest in sleep. So there I am. It's usually several hours before I manage to drift off.

So what to do? I've tried a variety of things - reading, walking, praying, meditating, looking out the window at the river in the dark. Sometimes I go to my computer and play some mindless games, which will soothe me enough so that eventually my body will consider sleeping.

There I was, 2 nights ago, in the midst of the night, huddled at my computer, poking away half-heartedly at this stupid game, not thinking about it much - not thinking about anything much, when all of a sudden, completely unexpectedly this thing happened, and it's hard to find words for the experience, but as close as I can come is to say that prayer fell on me. I did feel like something big and heavy came down and covered me. Something. What? Or Who? It certainly wasn't anything I started. Should I say 'God'? The word seems too small. I understand why the Buddha wouldn't use it. It seems irrelevant to the experience. I think I can't do any better than Moses could - 'I Am' seems to get a little closer. There in the middle of the night all of my years and years of longing for night prayer opened up. The Presence from the center of everything seemed to be right there with me - inside me.

Does my insomnia come for this reason? Is it just calling me to be there with that which I have always wanted? Am I so unresponsive and doltish that it finally had to kick me in the head to get me to listen? Or do I have to figure out a reason? Maybe it just happened because it happened. But do I need to be more serious about something I have always wanted? Perhaps I'm just being told to have what I have always wanted. If that's it, I have to figure out how to do it. Not simple with my life the way it is now.

In any case, I invite your own reflections on this curious experience. Prayer isn't basically something that we do - it's something that happens in us and the initiative rests largely with God. Prayer, at its base, isn't about my longing for God, it's about God longing for me. If I'm lucky I get to tune in on that periodically. And I think that most people know this at some level. You don't have to be a mystic to experience this, you only have to be human. God reaches out from the center of each one of us, and finds the time and place when we're able to hear this reaching out. Do you know about prayer reaching out for you? Maybe in just a tiny way? I bet it's there, if you look for it. And I'll bet it's telling you something about how you need to pray. And probably also about how you want to pray!