Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Craft Is..........?

I regret not posting last week. It got caught up in a complicated series of events involving a birthday party on Sunday that I was going to, but never actually got to. It was over in the Catskills, a couple of hours away, and we learned shortly before the event that 200 people had said they were coming. I was in a fair state of exhaustion, which my friend Elizabeth saw the minute I walked into her place (we were going to ride over together). She saw how tired I was, and confessed that she was almost that tired herself, so we had to decide if we wanted to drive that far for a party that was going to be so mobbed - the place it was being held in is not large. In the end we opted for a day of naps and an evening of Chinese food. A day or so later we discovered that 300 people had actually showed up for the party and that people were just grateful that we had decided not to add to that number. We'll go over and see our friend later in the year and wish him a happy 90th. We'll all enjoy it more that way.

But I kept looking all week for an opportunity to get my post on and the general level of work around here at this time of the year simply prevented it. It happens every now and then. Apologies and regrets.

This week I've been thinking about crafts and crafters (if that will do as a gender-neutral form of 'craftsmen'). This is probably because on Monday I went to the Ulster County Crafts Fair at the Fair Grounds in New Paltz, our local town. There were people from all over the country exhibiting, and there were some wonderful pieces of work - pottery, art, jewelery, furniture, weaving, canoes, and on and on. Of course I bought a mug. I always buy a mug, whatever the occasion. I collect mugs, and I have altogether too many of them, but there it is. It's a fascination of mine. Almost all of my mugs are hand-made. I have a couple that I've bought in department stores, and they are quite lovely, but I don't have the same feeling for them that I have for the others. There's something about the connection with the artist that makes the piece attractive to me. The mass-produced ones just don't do it, no matter how good they are. I suppose that it's this feeling about the connection of a person to something he or she makes - the sense that something of the person resides in the work - that makes Craft Fairs so popular. Even with the economy the way it is, we heard reports of good attendance and good sales from a number of the exhibitors.

So I've been thinking about crafts and people's relationships to them. And it was in this atmosphere that I had my latest haircut. My last post was about my last cut, and it's hard to think that a month has gone by and it was time for another. I deliberately picked the day and time to coincide with what I knew of Joe's working hours at the Hair Palace. I wanted to see if what had happened before was a fluke. Maybe he'd turn out to be the ordinary barber after all and I had just hit a lucky day.

Well, if that's true, I've hit it lucky twice now. He didn't have me in his chair very long before he knew that I'm not a fluke, either; I really do have an interest in his great fascination, and he was off again. This time he talked about days when his customers' hair fights back. Either they want him to make them to look a way that their hair doesn't want to be, or they have hair like mine, which grows in several different directions. That's a particular difficulty, because you can't cut the hair the same way all over that head. It has to be different in different places, and getting that to blend together is a demanding and it takes skill.

I also made him a bit nervous because I mentioned that he'd given me a really great cut the last time I was in. It was then that I found out that there's as much luck as there is skill involved in this. He never knows when a cut is going to be really great. He can have off days and on days. And if he has to "perform" for someone who wants something special, that can be a particular problem. And he knew, even though I never said it, and would have denied it if confronted, that I was expecting something special. True, I was after the conversation and the meeting of minds and hearts that I find in talking with him about hair. We have a connection that is, as I said in my last post, essentially spiritual, and I don't find that often at the Mall. I wanted that, especially. But of course, I wanted a really special job on my hair. Of course I did, no matter what I said, and he spotted that before the words were half out of my mouth. The thing he doesn't know yet - or maybe he does - is that I value what we have found in common more than the actual haircut.

Because............ and this is what I realized this week........... he really is a craftsman. Hair cutting is his craft, not just his job. There's a sense of respect in him for what he does and how he does it. He pays close attention to his customers' hair and to the way that hair is going to respond to scissors and clippers. He gets joy out of making people look good. I don't have any idea of what his inner state is while he's doing that, but I know that mine is a lot better for having the contact with him. He's not just a hair cutter. I respect the fact that cutting hair is a craft for him.

Was this cut magic, like the last one? In a word, no. It's a good cut. Good enough that people have commented on it. But it's not the last one, which was extraordinary. And that's ok. He can stop being nervous. It's fine. And I really will be interested in seeing the ups and downs of this hairy relationship.

The other thing that was happening this week is that it was time for me to be refectorian again. Time to get the coffee made and the tables set and the food served. 30-45 guests all week, and that takes time. Lots of time. All my time. It's a demanding job, and we all wrestle with it, especially on weeks like this.

And this week was different. I'm sure it has something to do with my having taken the time and the effort to work at sharing my reaction to this job. Because I'm basically an extrovert, I don't figure things out by just thinking about them. I have to talk about it to know what I really feel, so some stuff has happened that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't blogged about being the refectorian.

Essentially the transformation that I've wanted for many years actually happened. Being refectorian really became a craft for me. It was work, and it was a lot of work, but it was more than that - it did reach down further into me than I have experienced before. The rhythm of it got into my bones. The value of it (well I'm feeding people, after all!) got into my heart. I cared about it. The change has to do with having become conscious of the link of this task to meditation - the eternal return to what is here and now. Put aside what else you have to do. Draw away from the fantasies of what else you could be doing. Just be there, where you are, and when you notice that you've drifted away, come back, gently, firmly and without recrimination.

And then, as with hair cutting, as with mug making, as with the fashioning of incense, my heart can open. I can do the job because it's a good job, well worth doing. Feed your brothers. Serve your guests. Is that not deeply worth the effort?

So I wasn't even particularly wanting the week to end - and that is a big change, believe me. Yes, knowing that I have some of my time back is a relief, and some stuff that has been put to one side can now be reclaimed. But I could also have gone on quite happily. It would have been worth doing. It was my craft.

I'm glad that people like reading this blog, and people have said that it has been a revelation to them in different ways. Now I discover that it's a revelation to me, too. It helps keep me where I need to be, in the stuff of my life. Good stuff. Good life.

You know what this means, of course. This blog is my craft, too.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An Angel With Scissors

Suzanne Guthrie says that I have to blog about my last haircut. Well, she knows about spirituality, so here's the story.....

My hair is unruly. Always has been. Over the years I've learned that because it's thick, and it's curly and that it grows in several different directions. It's not easy hair to have and it's not easy to cut. Over the years I've developed some instructions for whoever cuts my hair (#3 clipper on the side, scissors on the top, short, thin it at the upper sides, etc.) I give high marks to the people who actually listen to what I say - and they don't always.


Bad-hair-day Monk
Originally uploaded by Con Ryan

Anyhow my hair had gotten to the stage where its unruliness was about to get out of hand, which is the usual sign that it needs cutting, so on a Wednesday when I had some time, I went off to the mall in Kingston to the Unisex Hair Palace (should a monk get his hair cut in a place called the Unisex Hair Palace?).

Paul, who usually cuts my hair, wasn't there, but Joe was. I've seen Joe around, but he's never cut my hair. However, he was what was on offer if I wanted a guy to be my hair cutter, which is what I was feeling like, so Joe it was.

He asked what I wanted and I told him. "Yes," he said and nodded sagely. "That's right for hair like yours." Zounds! He not only had listened to what I said, but paid enough attention to my head to have my hair scoped out already. This did not appear to be the usual barber.

So we had a little conversation about hair, and about my hair. He said that you have to pay attention to hair, and it was obvious as the talk proceeded that he not only did that, but took some real pleasure in doing it. "After all," he said, "it's my job to make you look good." He talked about hair like mine and said that there are 2 ways to do it: 1) keep it short so it can't cause trouble, or 2) let it get really long so the weight of it will control what it does. "Anything in between will be a problem." It took me 60 years to figure that out! And here is this guy who has my head figured out in less than 5 minutes.

He talked about his whole philosophy of haircutting, which has to do with careful observation, to attending to the way that hair wants to grow, and about respecting what he's presented with. He talked about dealing with balding men, a particular problem. He said: "For instance, if you have a receding hairline, like mine, you don't let your hair grow long. That just draws attention to the situation. You cut it pretty short, and then it looks OK. It doesn't make people focus on it." I couldn't believe it. I had noticed that his hair looked really good - short, and really suited to him. I would never in a million years have thought to describe him as "balding". But when I looked, there it was; yes, the male pattern receding hairline. On him it looks good. He respects his hair. I told him that. He smiled and said: "Thanks."

So on we talked of hair and its ways. He pointed out a spot above my left eye which never blends in with the rest of my hair. He said that it's a place where my hair grows in a different direction and I shouldn't brush it the same way I brush the rest of my hair. That one spot needs to be brushed forward, because that's the way it grows. And presto - when he did that it blended right in. I often talk to barbers, but seldom of anything significant. And here we were, having a fascinating conversation about the life of hair.

And then a completely unexpected thing happened. There was this nice feeling, slightly above my stomach. Felt good. Felt like this conversation was an important thing. It took some reflection afterwards to unpack what was happening, but then I realized that I had to describe it in the famous phrase of John Wesley. I was feeling my heart "strangely warmed." It crept up on me without my knowing, but here I was, reacting as though I was having a spiritual conversation of particular significance. I read about spiritual conversations and I've often felt slight guilty that I don't really know how to have one. I know it sounds whacky, but the Life of Benedict by St Gregory talks about Benedict and his sister Scholastica being caught by a storm and spending the night "talking of the joys of heaven." I've often wondered how one goes about having a conversation like that. And here I was, talking to Joe about hair, and my heart was open and alive and joyful.

Well, of course! We were talking about mindfulness and respect and attention. We were talking about all the stuff that makes meditation effective. We were doing what I spend so much time teaching, just attending to what is before you, knowing that the heart of wisdom is there, wherever you are, and that God is always at the center of that. Imagine, having the Holy Spirit descend in the right-hand alcove of the Hair Palace!

When we were done I knew I wanted to give some signal that this had been a really good time, not just a haircut. One doesn't hug the barber just out of nowhere and I had to consider the occasion, and the fact that he was not (probably) having the same experience that I was. So I did give him a good handshake, which is unusual enough at the end of a haircut. But this hadn't been the usual haircut and the handshake was enough for us to signal to each other that we both recognized something of the significance of what we had exchanged.

God is such a surprise. I always say that the spiritual things that happen to me never happen when I'm meditating. My life grows and transforms, but I don't see that in meditation - it always happens somewhere else, when all of a sudden my eyes open and I realize that something has happened or is happening. Scripture talks about this sort of occasion as an encounter with an Angel, and the word "angel" just means "messenger". A little brush with Reality: someone comes along in your path and your eyes open and God is a little more real. So you pay the angel the usual 12 bucks for the haircut and go on your way, with more depth to your life, knowing that God can meet you anywhere at all - even in the Unisex Hair Palace.

And by the way - speaking (as I was) of Suzanne Guthrie, she has a really cool web site that some of you may enjoy. It's called At the Edge of the Enclosure (the name reflects the time she has spent here at Holy Cross and with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit with whom she and Bill now reside). It's an exploration of the ways in which the Liturgical Year is a reflection of the way the soul grows along the mystical path. It has a set of meditations for each week, and wonderful art and different little things to help you along in the spiritual journey as it we encounter it in the church's liturgy through the year. You can even subscribe and it will come to you every Monday. It might even be your angel!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Meditation Retreat

I'm a bit late posting this week because over the weekend I was conducting a meditation retreat with my friend and colleague Mary Gates and it didn't end until lunch time on Sunday. The afternoon was for a nap and in the evening several of the brethren went to a local Mexican place where we found ourselves the only Anglos in the midst of a birthday party for an elderly woman. Great fun and the food was terrific. Then we made a pilgrimage to the new Star Trek movie - definitely a spiritual occasion!
If you aren't familiar with our Guesthouse offerings, these meditation retreats are designed to teach the meditative traditions of Christianity, and Mary and I have been conducting them for about eight years now. They had their origin in a crisis: at the time our Guesthouse was hosting several meditation retreats a year in the Insight Meditation tradition (Vipassana), which is one of the Buddhist meditation techniques.

The leader of these retreats had a daughter who was going off to college and he found out very close to the date of one of the retreats that he had to be at the parents' weekend at that time. So he couldn't do our retreat, but canceling it was going to be a considerable financial hardship for the Guesthouse.

That summer Mary and I were both taking a class in Buddhism with Jose, the leader of the meditation group that I talked about in my post last week, and at the class one Monday evening we were were talking about the situation. What could we do? It was Jose who said: "Why don't you do it yourself? You could certainly do that." And so the Christian Meditation Retreat was born: a Buddhist teacher authorizing 2 Christian students to conduct a meditation retreat in their own tradition. This must be America!

The retreat was designed to be an introduction for those who had very little experience with meditation, or who didn't know much about the meditative traditions of Christianity. We were pleased and not a little surprised when the retreat, even though it was advertised at the last minute, attracted a substantial enrollment. It looked like we had an audience.

Those who came were very enthusiastic, and were soon asking for more. So several years later we added a sequel; a version of the retreat for those with some previous meditation experience which would be a bit more rigorous and would have more time for meditating and less talking/teaching. So this has been the pattern for several years now: the introductory retreat in the fall and the retreat for those with experience in the spring. Eight years later both retreats continue to be popular.

The spring retreat is a typical meditation retreat. We meditate for most of the time. The sessions alternate between times when we sit in meditation and times when we walk. In the afternoon there is a conversation time when people can ask questions, share experiences and get some guidance on what to do. In the evening there is some teaching and a further opportunity for sharing or for questions. The rest of the time is for silence, with a very small amount of comment from the leaders. It is a demanding retreat: people are at our sessions for most of the time while they are here. There is an hour or so of free time after lunch. Otherwise we meditate. All day, all evening. Except when we're in the Church for Offices or at meals, we meditate.

From the beginning we have taught principally in two of the most familiar of the Christian traditions. I teach the ancient discipline called the Jesus Prayer, which I have taught for many years and about which I have written. Mary teaches Centering Prayer in which she likewise has many years of experience as practitioner and teacher. Over the years we have also experimented with including the form called Christian Meditation, associated with the name of John Main, and with the Labyrinth, since we have a labyrinth here that is large enough for groups to use, but in this version of the retreat we concentrate on the forms we know best.

For those of you not familiar with these ways, the Jesus Prayer is a form of prayer that goes back into the early centuries of Christianity and which had been mostly elaborated and practiced in Eastern Orthodox Christianity until the last century when Russian refugees brought it to Western Europe and then to America after their Revolution. It is a phrase: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy."

It's used in many different ways, but when used for meditation it is done in the traditional way; the prayer is said, silently or aloud (sometimes even sung), often being timed with the breathing, and simply repeated over and over with attention. When attention drifts away, you bring yourself back, and the meditation is an endless series of returns to the prayer. Eventually the prayers carves out its own space inside you and becomes part of your life and of your breathing.

Centering Prayer is more formless. It is essentially a prayer of Intention. You simply sit with the intention of being with God, and of being open to God and to God's action in your life. You choose a word that expresses that intention, like "love", or "peace", and use that word to draw you back to your attention when you have drifted away. It too, has the power to transform your interior life.

Sounds simple doesn't it? Simple, maybe - easy, not! It is amazingly hard work, and the people who come to these retreats always talk about how worn out they are at the end. But it's good work. Meditation sets you on a journey into your own depths, and in those depths you encounter yourself, God and the rest of the world. Meditation puts you on the road to major change in your life and the journey to compassion. It's the beginning of a journey that has a goal but no end; it's journey into the divine.

Many begin this journey. The number of people who continue it is much smaller. The journey does involve a rigorous discipline, and that turns out to be more than many people bargain for. It involves encountering difficult things about yourself as well as the delightful stuff. Like Christianity itself, it ultimately asks for the gift of your whole self in the service of God. It asks for you to become Love. It is no small thing.

This group worked hard - very hard. The reward was a very pronounced atmosphere in the room where we sat; an atmosphere of depth and of peace. The retreat finished in a burst of joy. The retreatants were very full of what they had given and what they had gained. Each time I help to lead on of these retreats I emerge really tired and really contented. I get much more than I have given.

The experience of working hard to seek God with a group of people is quite amazing, and very fulfilling. To hear the stories of the yearning that people bring with them and of the ways in which their yearning is answered is reward enough in itself. It also makes it quite clear that the goal of meditation is the opposite of the self-absorption that many people identify with deep prayer. It really is a call into God into order to love the world and the people in the world. Being called to do this work is a very great privilege and one which I don't take lightly.

I'll be happy if these retreats go on for a long time. It's an experience that doesn't get boring with repetition. It's a grand thing to be able to offer as one of the fruits of this kind of life, and those who come for these retreat frequently end up as good friends of the community. These contemplative retreats and our work with the poor people with AIDS are two poles around which our life circulates, and that is a very stimulating and exacting call.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

On a Wednesday Night

For somewhere between 10 and 15 years now, Wednesday nights have mostly meant one thing; the meditation group that meets at Jose's. Actually, to be proper about it, we meet in the artist's studio of Jose's partner, Raquel. I hadn't been for several weeks this time. Last week I was teaching meditation myself in a local parish, two weeks ago I was still recovering from Holy Week and Easter, the week before that I was in New York with Br James attending a Holy Week service at a parish that was taking up an offering for St Rafael's Place, and so on. I don't always get there. I always miss it when I'm not able to go.

This week I found myself remembering the dark and stormy night in March, all those years ago, when I first went to that Wednesday night meeting. Jose and Raquel's house is in a rural and hidden area, and locating it the first time is no mean feat, especially in the rain and dark. I remember two things about that evening. One is Charles, the first member of the group to speak to me, and what a kind and gentle presence he was that evening The other thing is Jose's speech. Jose makes a small speech at the beginning of meetings when someone new has come, just introducing the sort of meditation that this group does and giving a few helpful instructions. In the course of that he said: "Let your breath be your anchor to your experience of the world", and I thought: "Yes"! This is what I've been looking for all this time." And I've never changed my mind about that.

The group is - loosely - Buddhist. We practice Insight Meditation, which concentrates on simple mindfulness, or concentration, on whatever arises during the time that we are meditating - our breath, our emotions, the sounds around us, our boredom, the kids in the yard next door, whatever. I may have mentioned that over the years I've discovered, much to my initial surprise, that the number of Episcopalian fellow-travelers is second only to the proportion of Jews in the group. Few of us are Buddhists or intend to be Buddhists. Mostly we are looking for a way to deepen our meditation practice and our lives.

How did I get there to begin with? It's a long and tangled story and even I don't remember it all at this point. I was in the midst of a long and serious illness, and one of my doctors had suggested this kind of meditation. I had known something of Buddhist practice on and off for a while and knew that I was attracted to Insight Meditation. When I discovered that there was a group in the neighborhood it seemed natural to explore it.

And it was also the result of the way my life was moving at the time. One day a while back I got into conversation at Sunday dinner with a young couple at my table who turned out to be transitioning from Buddhism to Christianity. The woman said: "You know, after all these years of this intense contemplative practice, we felt we needed......................... something more." And I said: "Isn't that interesting? After all these years of this intense contemplative practice, I felt that I needed.................... something less." Christian prayer and meditation forms tend to be centered on words. I've known more than a few people who sooner or later found that they needed to drop the words, but still find a way to stay centered. And it was that path that brought me to Jose's door.

Occasionally someone will say: "Isn't it sad that you couldn't find that in Christianity?" Well, no, actually. I've never found it sad, nor have I ever thought that my path was some sort of judgment on Christianity. It isn't at all unusual for us to discover that we need the freshness of exposure to people whose perspectives are quite different from ours in order to continue growing in our own tradition. My involvement in Buddhist spirituality has not loosened my connection to Christianity or to the Episcopal Church. If anything it has deepened my appreciation of the Christian mystical tradition. I never read in the Buddhist spiritual tradition without spending some time exploring what the Christian take is on this or that issue, and the very difference of the Buddhist view often sharpens my appreciation of just what it is that Christianity is getting at. The same applies to Jose, interestingly: he has found some things in Christianity, through his exposure to me and to Holy Cross (he now conducts some of his retreats here) that have moved and attracted him very deeply.

Jose is a wise teacher and some of his wisdom is now mine forever. He uses a simple phrase: "bring yourself back, gently and firmly and without recrimination" to guide people in dealing with what Christians refer to as "distractions". This simple phrase has become a guideline for my life in a much wider sense than just in prayer. Whenever I get off the path, when I wander into paths of distraction and lostness and then realize that I'm really far away from where I want to be, I try to stop, center myself and then bring myself back, gently and firmly and without recrimination. In that way, Jose has changed my life. And then there is his saying that I quoted just a few weeks ago: "You can do two things with meditation; you can use it to get more involved with your life, or to get less involved with your life." I knew when I heard that, that I had just heard something that was crucial for me.

And I've had an experience or two that were quite unexpected and when I went to places I didn't think I'd be going to. One night - another dark and stormy night - I was leading the group. Jose and Raquel were both away, so I had volunteered to open the house, make hot water for tea, put out the chairs and the mats, turn up the heat and then, when people had gathered, say "now we''ll start" and 45 minutes later say: "now we'll stop". That is all I had signed up for. There were just a handful of people there that night - 4 or 5, I think- and we were just about to begin when the door opened and two young people came in whom none of us had ever seen before. They were in their late teens or early twenties, and the young woman turned out to be the person who was helping Raquel in her garden. Her boyfriend worked in a local natural food store. Neither of them had ever had any exposure to meditation in any form. They just knew that a group met there on Wednesdays. So there they were, bright and eager, and the teacher was gone. It was clear that we couldn't just let them flounder - we had to welcome them in as best we could. So I opened my mouth and embarked on my first experience as a teacher of Buddhist meditation! I didn't do too badly, either. At least they came back.

I know that there are people who are upset by the explosion of interest in Eastern religions and by the many, many Christians who draw insight and nourishment from outside our own religious systems. I can only say, once again, that my own Christan practice and my commitment to my monastic life has just been deepened by my wandering in the Buddhist fields. And who knows, the deepening that I have found might never have happened in any other way.

I'm now one of the "old hands" in the meditation group. There are a few people who have been involved longer than I have, but not many. I don't think that I want to conceive of myself any more apart from that Wednesday night group, it is so deep in my experience of myself and of the world. And I am deeply, deeply indebted to a gentle, lovely old man named Jose, who has led me deeper on my own path and guided me wisely.

And this next weekend I am leading, together with my friend Mary, a retreat on Meditation in the Christian Tradition here at the monastery. The world is full of intersecting paths.