Saturday, December 25, 2010

Memories of a Beautiful Christmas

What a wonderful time! On all sides, from the community and from our guests and from visitors and people who came for the Midnight Mass I hear what a beautiful time it was. And certainly that resonates with what I have been feeling.

To begin with there was a sharing at the heart of it. This year we decided to share our celebration with the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit from Bluestone Farm in Brewster, New York, which is about an hour east of here. They are good friends of ours and we see them from time to time when they visit here or we go there. And we have some deep bonds with them in Suzanne Guthrie and Bill Consiglio who are Resident Companions of that community. They live there and share their lives with the sisters. Bill and Suzanne are also old, old friends of ours and Associates of our Community. Through the past few years both communities have talked about doing more together, and this year we decided that the time had come to do something major together - such as Christmas.

Of course, it had to be here: the Guesthouse business demanded the full attention of the Holy Cross brothers, so it only made sense that the sisters would come here. In the end they had a smaller presence than we had hoped because half of their community had a really severe virus and were too sick to travel. But two sisters, Sr Carol Bernice and Sr Helena Marie, came along with Suzanne and Bill, and their presence was a joyful deepening of our celebration.

For one thing, Sr Helena Marie is a very talented organist and her music was a tremendous addition to the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Before the Eucharist began she was joined by Suzanne on the flute and our Br Andrew on his Celtic Harp and our friend Reynaldo Martinez Cubero who added his beautiful voice. They provided a grand program of music while we all waited for the beginning of the mass.

Just having other Religious with us really changed our experience of this feast. We made every effort to really include the sisters as part of a joint community celebration, and just making that effort, I think, had an effect on us. Whatever it was, it was very positive. At every turn I hear the monks saying what a difference it made to have the sisters with us, and I also hear the sisters, along with Bill and Suzanne, saying: "Now next year we can...." So I hope we've started something. And I think it will be something good.

The service itself was jammed. For several years attendance at the Christmas Eve worship has been declining. I've put it down to the growing interest in the music programs we provide, a number of which occur in Advent. I thought that was satisfying people's desire to come here for some worship. But apparently I mistook what was going on because Friday night they came.... and they came.... and they came. And still they kept coming. Out came the extra folding chairs. By this time we know how to shoe horn people into every available corner, so nearly everyone actually got in. But not everyone got a program, and a few of the late comers were standing in the entrance to the Church.

It was a grand time. The singing was superb. The atmosphere was joyful. And there was one very powerful moment for me. I was preparing the altar for communion and the congregation was singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem". I was washing my hands when they hit the verse:

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

Suddenly I wasn't in our church any longer. I was standing on the streets in the middle of the slums of Newburgh where we were on Sunday night two weeks ago helping to dedicate a shelter for homeless women. I could feel the cold and the only light I saw was the light of the street lamps and I felt the desolation of the neighborhood. For an instant I was there, not in the warm happy church where my body was. It lasted only an instant, but it changed the night for me. The night was bigger than where I was standing, and my reality expanded. And Christmas came once more.

One other thing that moved me greatly was that among the congregation on Christmas Eve were an Episcopal priest, a Methodist minister and two Reformed pastors. They were men and women who had worked all day and had provided worship for their congregations. They had to have been worn out, and they could easily have gone home and to bed. Instead late at night they had come to us so that they could join our worship and, in the words of two of them, "just be quiet and pray." If this is the atmosphere we have succeeded in providing, we have fulfilled many of the dreams we have had for this place.

Then the next morning it all came together for me. Every year we sing Matins late on Christmas morning, and not infrequently it is real work. The toll of a day of decorating, welcoming very large numbers of guests, being hospitable until about 2:00 am (we provide a reception after the Mass) and having too much sugar, combine to make prayer on Christmas morning something of a labor. Everyone is weary. Matins drags. Sometimes it even seems like quite a big drag.

This Christmas we were in the middle of the second Psalm when I realized: "Hey, wait a minute. This is beautiful." The tone was gentle and calm. The choir was together and the singing was light and exultant. Something was going on. A few minutes later we got to the Te Deum, which is an ancient hymn of praise. The music for it is moderately elaborate and something of a challenge for morning singing. Often enough I feel like I am wading through a swamp in hip boots when we sing it. This Christmas morning it soared.

Our offices are often really lovely. This exceeded all my expectations. It was what I have always wanted Christmas Matins to be like. The best part is that my heart was awake enough to take it all in.

What joy. After it was all over one of our friends told me that she had never seen me look so happy. It seems that there is a good spirit loose among us. May that spirit catch you as well during this season. And may we all spread it about. Then Christmas really can come once more.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Quiet Time

It's really quiet around here. Advent has taken hold of us and there is a kind of settledness (which my spell checker doesn't think is a legitimate word) about the house. The guests are few in number, because not many people would consider abandoning the demands of the season for a weekend in a monastery. So our customary crowded conditions have given way to a more spacious and leisurely feeling. Interestingly enough a large percentage of the people here at the moment are in their 20's and 30's, which is a sign of hope in itself.

This week we were in retreat for several days, which we always are in the 3rd week of Advent, and the vibes of that time still roll up and down the halls. This year the Advent Retreat reminded me yet again of what a powerful effect silence can have all by itself. There are all kinds of things you can do in a silent time, but even without the doing, silence accomplishes a lot, just by itself.

Even the outside world colludes in this settling. Much of the wildlife has either gone to sleep or gone south. Most of the commercial and recreational traffic on the river has ceased for the winter, leaving us with only the occasional tug boat pushing a barge along. Traffic noise is curiously muted the past few days. Stillness pervades the river valley.

And the colors are muted, too. Everything is gray or brown. Because we have had some unusually cold weather this month there is ice on the river and frost lies heavy on the lawns in the mornings. As we head off to Matins early each morning, the sky is colored with very pale tones of pink and peach, which we see only at this time of the year. At night the sky sparkles and the Moon and Jupiter sail across the heavens together.

Our newly refurbished Crypt is a mysterious cave in which to savor the quiet, made cozy and welcoming by the warmth of the radiant floor heating. These days it's very insistent in its call to come and share the silence, and to pray prayers that demand very few words. Nothing but quiet permitted here.

Of course the change will come, and not many days from now. The Guesthouse will be completely full for Christmas, and more and more reservations come in with each day for the days between Christmas and New Year. The tree is up, but not decorated yet. The decorating will happen on Christmas Eve.

And all I have to do is turn on the TV to encounter the difference between Advent in a Benedictine Monastery and The Holidays in America. The pictures of the throngs in the Malls and the mobs in the airports offer a sign of hope for a recovering economy, and the relentless barrage of Carols and Holiday songs provide the background for the season. I don't deny the joy of the bustle and the crowds. I even like it when I'm out in it. But I am very glad that we have an alternate way of expressing this season.

The Offices make our Church resound with the sounds of the Season - not the Christmas Carols - not yet - but the sound of Gregorian Chant which carries the plaintive cry of "Come". "Come." "O Emmanuel, come". The deep longing of the human heart for the Divine echoes through our church, our halls, our hearts. Advent longs for Christmas in a deep and insistent way - a way that requires some quiet to begin to perceive.

As I have said in this space before, one of our friends who was for a time priest in one of the local parishes used to say that one of her favorite moments of the year was coming to the monastery during the busiest shopping days of the year and seeing the sign on the bookstore which says "Closed For Retreat". It's our own quiet way of insisting on what's more important.

So, I send Holiday Greetings to each of you. I do hope your celebration is filled with joy. I hope happiness will blossom wherever you are. And I hope that the quiet depth which we experience so abundantly here will find its way to your hearts as well.

May the still small voice of the Christmas promise live within each of you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another Radiant Weekend

Saturday this week provided another occasion quite out of the ordinary - and very different from last week's Monteverdi concerts. This weekend was a another special blessing. Several of us went to Newburgh in the late afternoon to help bless Ecclesia House, which will be a residence for formerly homeless women. It has been the dream of Ecclesia Ministries in Newburgh, presided over by our friend and Associate Steve Ruelke, who is a minister of the United Church of Christ (serving a Presbyterian congregation). Our Brother James has also worked with Ecclesia Ministries for a couple of years now, and has labored hard over the plans for the residence and in raising the money to get this project going, and in many, many other ways.

Ecclesia House is in a very run-down part of Newburgh, which is a very poor and suffering city. The house was formerly a shelter run by the Roman Catholic Church. After years of operating they ran into financial difficulties and after a lot of struggle finally had to close the place. When it finally closed, two women, both named Pat, continued to live in the building because they would not let their vision of the shelter die. They knew that some day there would be a shelter there again, and so they stayed there winter and summer, even when finally there was no electricity and no heat, waiting until their dream that the house would be a shelter again finally came true. After the years of their waiting one of them has died and the other is in the hospital now, just a few days away from death. But their dream has indeed come to fruition.

Now the money has been raised and the remodeling is nearing an end. 14 women will live there and have a place of privacy and dignity where they can get their lives together and move on towards a better future. The renovations are not quite complete, but the time for celebrating the project and blessing it had come and, since we at Holy Cross have had a part in getting this project going, and have helped with the fund raising, we certainly weren't going to miss the celebration.

We got there by driving through a very dismal part of the city, driving down block after block of empty lots, buildings in disrepair, abandoned buildings, buildings in which one light bulb burned on an upper floor and others that were completely dark. We parked in a lot, across from a car all of whose tires were flat, and walked up the block to where a small crowd was gathering in front of the building that will be the shelter.

It was dark and it was cold. For light we had the mercury vapor street lamps. For heat we had what the homeless have - nothing. By the time everyone had gathered there was a crowd that I estimated at 80 or 90. We were a very mixed group; volunteers, helpers, supporters, donors and the homeless. We were watched over by members of the local chapter of the Guardian Angels, who kept the street clear and safe for us.

The street altar
Originally uploaded by bdelcourt

Steve set up for the Eucharist. The altar was a sheet of wood laminate laid over two saw horses. He had a cinder block to stand on when he talked. There was a pottery chalice and paten. There was a flute to accompany the singing. And there were the people. There were a half-dozen Holy Cross monks in white habits and all sorts of jackets. A few people were in the dress of the Bruderhoff - a Protestant religious community that has houses in this part of the country. Most of the rest were ordinary people. Not many of them seemed to be privileged. Many seemed to know very well that life can be a hard business. But somehow the people who made up this little group had caught the vision, and shared the thirst for justice and compassion in this dark corner of the city.

We sang, and there was gladness in the group. Steve presided over the Eucharist with grace and humor. We all, members of I don't know how many different churches, shared communion together. The Holy Spirit was tangible. At the end of the service we all stretched out our hands towards Ecclesia House as we blessed the house and the ministry that will happen within those walls.

Last week I talked about what a revelation the performance of the Monteverdi Vespers was for me, and how it revealed a depth to the Psalms deeper than I had encountered in all my years of praying them. Last night, when Steve broke the bread on a dark, cold street corner in Newburgh, I saw a depth to the Eucharist that I had not seen before.

Then we went down the street to Calvary Presbyterian Church where we had a wonderful dinner that people had been working over all day - roast pork, fresh winter vegetables, home made apple sauce, and the sort of pie extravaganza that only churches seem able to put together. We ate, we sang, we met some new people, we laughed. We were the Body of Christ.

Last week's memories are of light and magnificent music and a celebration that revealed the depths of the Scripture to me. This week's memories are of joy in the darkness, of a small group of people who have somehow caught the vision and have worked and worked to make it come true, and of the Eucharist revealing the depth of the Spirit's presence in this sad neighborhood in a suffering city.

They were two different experiences. And they were the same experience. It was God, asking us - and me - to open our eyes and see.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Radiant Weekend

I'm late today. I've been conducting this weekend's Advent Retreat along with my friends Suzanne Guthrie and Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit, and I was with the retreat group this morning, at the time I usually use for blogging.

We built the retreat around the principal event of the weekend, which was a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin performed by Kairos, the choral group that is Artist in Residence here at Holy Cross.

So for the retreat we talked about the Vespers and about Mary. Suzanne used a lot of beautiful slides of various art works and wove them together with a meditation on Mary. It was fun to watch a group of ordinary Episcopalians wrestle with themes of the place of Mary in the Church and in their lives. And I'll have to say that much of what they shared this morning was extremely moving. One of the participants said that what he saw this weekend was Mary bringing the Body of Christ into the world once again.

But what has filled me so full this weekend was the performance of the Vespers itself. It's one of the most popular of Monteverdi's works, but not often performed because the resources for it are not easy to assemble - a double choir who can sing very complicated Renaissance music and an orchestra that has not only the usual Violins, Violas, Cellos and an Organ, but also Sackbuts (the predecessor of the trombone), Cornettos (a curved wooden flute sort of thing which is wrapped in leather and sounds very much like a cornet) and a Theorbo (a lute that is about 5 feet long).

It was an amazing experience. Seldom have I had the experience of a piece of music revealing so much to me. Monteverdi's brother said of the Vespers that "it had been his intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant", or in other words, the meaning of the words was to determine what the music was - apparently a new idea at the time.

And oh, did he ever succeed! The introductory talk before the concert taught us some things to look for: "in altis" (on high) is set to a rising melody and "et humilia" (humble things) is set in a slow, descending scale. Just knowing a couple of things like that was enough to get me noticing so many other ways in which Monteverdi used music to express meaning. One of the most distinctive sounds of the piece is the chorus singing a massive musical sound, often on just one note or a very simple melody, while the orchestra saws and toodles and toots away underneath, and that turns out to be one of the most effective ways of expressing pure praise that I have ever heard.

The piece is composed of very familiar texts - mostly the Psalms and Antiphons from the Office of the Blessed Virgin. I have been singing those Psalms and Antiphons for 50 years, the majority of them in our monastery Church, and I heard things expressed in this piece that I have never encountered before. I came away completely full and also with the conviction that I have a long way to go before I know how to completely use the Psalms in the praise of God. There's work to be done, even after all these years. Not a bad thing to realize.

The Vespers was performed twice, last night and this afternoon, and I was at both performances. Last night the thing that grabbed me most was a trio of male voices, two basses and a tenor, singing of the Seraphim crying out before the Altar in the Temple, of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit. The three melodies repeated and wove around each other in a sound that was both soft and very intense, and I felt like I was witnessing the Trinity being sung into being in this world.

This afternoon there were two moments. The first was a tenor duet, "Audi Coelum" (Hear, O heaven) which is sung between one man standing in front of the stage, and a second one who is hidden off to the side. The man in view sings: "Hear, O heaven, hear my words full of longing and pervaded by joy", and the second voice answers from out of nowhere: "Audio", "I hear". At that moment I realized that I was hearing the longing of the whole human race for God, and God's answer to that longing, which we all want so badly to hear.

Then at the very end of the piece the Magnificat is sung. And after everything else that has happened, I was expecting to hear a great blast of praise. That did come, but not until the final "Amen". Instead what came at the beginning of the piece was another tenor duet, again with high, piercing voices, quietly and intensely singing praise while in the background a soprano choir echoed that praise. And I knew I was hearing human beings and angels singing praise to God together.

I was transfixed. Both times. The second time I didn't have the energy to be as emotional as I was last night, and I also caught more of the detailed work of how the Vespers is put together and what it is expressing. But I was transfixed, nevertheless.

And one of the retreatants told me afterward that her favorite part of the whole thing was watching me at the concert. She said: "It's not often that you get to see an adult so completely filled with joy." And I was. I really was.

And so once again, here it is. Life in a monastery. It's pretty wonderful.

And it seems to keep getting better.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signs of the Times

Advent comes with the message of being awake, aware and alert to the signs of the times. As it happens, I've been thinking about some of those signs as they have revealed themselves to me, and to others in our community, in some recent conversations.

One was with a guest in who was here a few weeks ago. It was at the noon meal on a Sunday, and we fell into conversation because we were sitting next to each other at the table. She had never been here before, but our Guesthouse had been recommended to her by a friend, and she was curious to see what monasteries were like, so she had come for an overnight visit.

"I'm interested in your life" she said. "Tell me, what do you people find to do to keep your time productively occupied?" I think there was a bit of a pause at that point, because I was rather stunned. Having empty time which is not productively occupied is not one of my problems.

Then I had to search for something that might be meaningful to say. It seemed clear that talking about prayer wasn't going to do it for her, at least as a starter, so I finally said: "Well, we run a large retreat center." "Oh?" said. That part of our life seemed also to have escaped her.

This goes together with another incident, one that happened to one of our brothers some time ago. He was coming back from a church service in Poughkeepsie and picked up a hitchhiker who was looking for a ride across the Mid-Hudson Bridge. It's relevant to the story to mention that he was wearing his habit at the time. The ride began with some silence, and a few tries at conversation that didn't go anywhere. Then the man leaned over, fingered the sleeve of our brother's habit and said: "You work in a laundry or something?" The sight of a white monastic habit with a large black cross did not seem to convey anything (except perhaps a laundry).

Certainly the woman I was having lunch with is far from the only person that I have talked with to whom our life is a total mystery - and not an attractive one, at that. The view of a monk as a person who has nothing meaningful to do is hardly new. I've seen reference to judgments like that in writings from the 5th Century. I decided a long time ago not to be defensive in the face of encounters like these, but just to be as straightforward as I could and present our life as I see it. At one of those dinner table conversations I was once asked: "How do you justify a life like yours?", and I managed to say, with some grace, I hope: "I don't. I'm not interested in justifying this life. I just live it. And I find it very rewarding."

Encounters like these are not unknown to us, and they are getting more frequent I think. The monastic life is certainly often misunderstood. It also is more frequently quite foreign to the experience of people. Two of our brothers recently attended a meeting with some local business leaders, and it was clear from their comments that a certain number of them see the religious orders in this area principally as groups that pay no taxes and give nothing useful to the area in return. A few of them are pretty angry about it.

We can talk about the thousands of guests who come here each year, and how they shop in local stores in eat in local restaurants - and those who own those businesses will gladly testify to that. That's true, of course, but it also isn't why we're here. Why we are really here is harder to talk about, especially in a meeting of business leaders. But the truth is that we are here to pray, and that's the important thing that we do. And it's important not just to us, but to the area around us as well. In a society that is becoming more and more aggressively secular, it is crucial that there be places of the spirit present. We represent a dimension of the human personality without which people are not whole. The search for the Divine in the world around us and in the depths of our hearts is part of what it means to be human. To have places set apart for that is not just an optional extra. If you want evidence of how important this is, just look at the number of those who come here.

But we live, as I said, in a society that is becoming more and more secular. The Church scene as it has traditionally been is now often seen as irrelevant. Even the conservative Evangelicals with whom the word "Christianity" is so widely identified now are in trouble in many places. I recently saw an article which predicted a considerable upswing in feelings of rejection and anger towards to those churches in the years immediately ahead.

I don't think we need to look at this situation with dread, just with realism. The experience of Europe indicates that this sort of thing is likely to spread. It won't be even - there will always be places that are more religious than others, but it will happen. And we need to meet it with both openness and confidence. We need to see what a secular society has to teach us, and we need to know that we have something that is not going out of fashion. We are here to help make the search for God a reality and a possibility in our society, and that is a good and necessary thing to do.

Finding our way will probably not be easy. A lot of things are going to have to change. But the history of the human race indicates that the interior life is pretty resilient. It makes itself known practically everywhere there are people. Some recent research seems to indicate that our brains are hard-wired for it. And Benedictine monks have a tradition that knows the ways of this life. We know what the conditions are for deepening it and what the difficulties are that are met on the way. We offer something really crucial for humanity: wholeness and wisdom.

I have no regrets about having lived my life in the pursuit of this path. I'm really glad that I have been one of those who have learned the way and are passing it on. A good deal of my life has been spent in exploring the ways of the interior search and of figuring out how it can be passed on to this generation. This is what we have to offer. It is no small thing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Learning, Teaching & Grace

I have learned a new skill. I am very happy and satisfied.

I learned how to link this blog to the Home Page of the Holy Cross Monastery web site.

You may have noticed that there has often been a lag between when I posted the blog entry on Sunday mornings, and when the description of it on our web site matched the actual new blog. That's because I didn't know how to do it myself and someone else - either Br Bernard or Br Charles - had to do it, and it sometimes took a while for that to happen.

Over the years I've thought about doing it myself, but the last time I asked it would have required installing a piece of software on my computer and learning to use that software and no one seemed to think it was worth the effort for a 2-minute job once a week.

But a week or so ago I just got inspired to ask again. And it turns out that there have been changes in our web site that now make it possible for me to do it fairly simply.

So a couple of evenings ago I asked Bernard to teach me how to do it. It took a while because I'm a computer dunce. I know very little about how anything outside of my usual programs is done and I'm not comfortable poking around in it myself, because I've caused some disasters in the past.

Bernard was really good. He and I are both experiential learners. I don't learn things by being told how to do them. I learn by doing them. I never know how to get anywhere until I've driven there myself. You may give me clear and expert directions for any new task, but I don't learn from that; I learn by following the directions and doing it myself.

So Bernard gave me the instructions and I wrote them down as we went along, because I knew I wouldn't remember them, and then he patiently guided me through the process of following his instructions while I did them several times to make sure I knew what I was doing and why. It took a while because it involved learning several new techniques, and because he learns the same way, Bernard could see how I was doing it and he was content to follow along at my pace. When we were done I was absurdly happy. Learning this task gave me great satisfaction.

This is partly because in the past I've made the mistake of trying to learn computer stuff from people who teach essentially by lecturing, which is quite a good style, but unfortunately not of much use to people who learn like I do. This often left me in a deeper hole than I was in when we started, and the frustration, of course, slows down the whole learning process. As it turned out, I asked the right person, and now I'm really pleased. (None of this, by the way has anything to do with intelligence. Your learning style is quite a different thing from how smart you are, which is something that schools are just beginning to catch up with).

All of this has something to do with how prayer is taught, which is what I have spent much of my ministry doing. Christianity has a particular deficit in the teaching of skills useful for those who are drawn to prayer. Until recently there was, in fact, very little available to teach people who felt that they wanted to know about the ways of contemplative praying. There are a number of reasons for this, including the centuries of arguing about whether human effort was of any use at all or whether all good things came only from God. In addition, in recent times contemplative prayer has been regarded as the exclusive preserve of "specialists" - ie monks and nuns.

But in the last century a great thirst for deeper prayer began to manifest itself in our culture and Christians had a lot of catching up to do. I've been part of that process. In recent yeasr I've been involved largely in the teaching of the ways of meditation, but I've also done it with intercessory prayer and with lectio divina. I've spent much of my life discovering how to teach people to do these forms of prayer.

The success I've had has been because I paid attention to my learning style. I knew what I had to have in order to learn: I had to have a short, clear instruction and I had to practice it and then I had to ask questions about what I experienced. Any number of times I have said that one of the most valuable things about a prayer group is that I can ask the same question over and over and over in many different ways, until I finally get the answer.

But what does "teaching prayer" actually mean? It means, first of all, having as your foundation the knowledge that prayer is a relationship. It's the love relationship between you and God. That's it. You don't go anywhere without getting that straight at the beginning.

Next is knowing that I'm not "teaching" anything other that a way to be in God's presence, so that the relationship can develop. Centering Prayer is particularly good at this. Their literature describes the way of this prayer as sitting still in God's presence and consenting to the work God is doing in you. Yes, that's it. Now, how do I do that? Well, here are the guidelines........

Hey, folks, that's experiential learning. It's not a denial of grace, or a downplaying of the role of God in prayer. It's just saying that if I'm going to learn how to do this thing I need to know how. Just the instruction "sit still" is of some use, but limited. How do I sit still? That's where the learning begins - at least for me, and for a lot of other people I've encountered.

You may also have noticed that in the prayer teaching that is current in Christian circles these days, a lot of it sounds very similar to Buddhism. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, a lot of this stuff in universal. A certain amount of inner exploration is the same for everyone, whatever their religion.

Secondly, when Christians started trying the meet the great need that was being expressed for the teaching of prayer, the Buddhists were the ones with the directions at hand. And they have lots and lots of directions. They have spent centuries working out just how people are led into the ways of deeper experience. And people who went East in search of prayer came back with all this stuff, which then made its way slowly into the broader culture. It turned out that there were many useful tools there which are now used in many different contexts. And the Buddhists are smiling.

I'm smiling, too. I'm ridiculously pleased at knowing my new computer technique. I'm also pleased at the years of work I've done in coming to know the ways of prayer and in sharing that knowledge with other people. And I'm quite happy knowing that my style of learning is quite respectable. It has turned out to be useful to quite a number of people over the years. Just paying attention to how I need to learn has caused any number of people to say to me: "You explain things so well." And I smile. Because I know that it really isn't the explanation that matters. It's knowing how a person needs to learn, and making sure that's paid attention to.

Now what's the next thing I can learn about my computer?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Meditation and a Chipmunk, with bows to Mother Teresa

Yesterday I went to a day-long meditation retreat at the home of Mary Gates, with whom I lead meditation retreats here at Holy Cross. There were a dozen of us there, including the teacher, and we had a great day. Very simple. Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, lunch, sit, walk, etc. The usual meditation retreat. It was exactly what I needed, and I came back more centered and settled than I've been in a while.

I got home just in time for supper, and when I sat down at the table one of the guests asked me where I had been all day. So I told her, and then explained what I had been doing. The answer seemed to rather unsettle her. Why would I want to do that? After all, I lead meditation retreats, don't I? Why do I need to go to one? "No reading?", "No lectio divina?", "No discussion?" To each of those I replied that no, we just meditated, sometimes while walking and sometimes while sitting.

Thinking about that encounter later I was wondering how to go about explaining it to someone who has trouble understanding why anyone would do such a thing. After all, even if meditation retreats are more common than they used to be, many people never encounter that sort of behavior. Why would someone want to do that? And how is it explained?

Then I remembered the story of Mother Teresa, who was famous for getting up at 4 a.m. each day to pray. No matter where she was or how late she had been up, she got up at 4 for prayer. Apparently a reporter once asked her what she did when she prayed - how did she pray? "Oh," she said "I just listen to God". The reporter thought for a while and then said: "And what does God do?" "Oh," she said, "He just listens to me."

Probably some people would want some explanation or commentary, but for me it's quite self explanatory, and I intuitively understand it. The mutual exchange of listening really reaches me as a means of communication.

And then I thought about the chipmunk. I had been out for a walk in the hills just west of the monastery one morning. It was a beautiful mild sunny day, a perfect time for a walk in the hills. I was gone most of the morning (it was a Monday, our Sabbath Day) and at the end of my walk, as I was coming down our drive, there just by the little stone building we call the Goat House (no one knows why), was a chipmunk on a stone. He (or she) was busy with some small task, but when he saw me approaching he sat up on his hind feet, very alert. He made no move to run or hide, but he sat there very still, and very alert. I slowed down and when I got close to him, I stopped.

He stood there. I stood there. He waited. I waited. We watched each other. Time went by. We waited and we watched.

And then something really wonderful happened. He relaxed. His muscles just untensed and his whole body relaxed. You could watch it happening, little by little. And as he relaxed, so did I. He didn't stop watching me, nor did I lose the eye contact with him. He sat, I stood relaxed, and we went on watching each other. I, of course, don't know what was going on for the chipmunk, but he seemed pretty comfortable with it. At least he didn't want to leave. Neither did I.

I was really surprised at the power of that moment. The chipmunk moved into my life. No words were exchanged, no actions brought us together, we just stayed there in each other's presence. He looked at me. I looked at him. And over the great distance between a man and a chipmunk, some hint of communication came in the silence. The looking wasn't empty. Not at all. We were being with each other.

We stayed there for a long time. At several points I wondered how long this was going to last. But I didn't want to break the moment. At least from my vantage point, we had established some contact, and I didn't want to break it. And whatever was going on for the chipmunk, he didn't want to leave, either.

But finally the time came. He moved a little, and then I did. He looked around, and then in a wink he was gone, under a nearby rock, and the time was over. But that time still has power for me. I show no signs of forgetting. Over all the things that separate a man and a beast, we had reached out and been with each other. It didn't need words. It was very full.

So, could you use that to understand a day of meditation? For me, at least, it sure is a good explanation. "I look at God. God looks at me." And in that look so much is exchanged, and even though nothing "happens", so much does happen. Sometimes the doors to friendship, companionship, sharing and even love open in silence.

I probably need to get more skillful in talking about this and explaining it. But my difficulty is that it's so natural to me and it makes so much sense. I listen to God. God listens to me. What else do you need? Just doing that is so full. Sure, there is teaching that is helpful, and ways of putting yourself there that can make a difference, and there are books and books about that. But I think it helps to have a chipmunk to make sense of it all. A soft furry little creature who will interrupt his day just sit there and be with you.

I've never forgotten. And it still makes perfect sense to me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Turkeys and Teenagers

No big thing to reflect on this week. Just a couple of small happenings that helped make up the fabric of the week.

We have a flock of turkeys on our land. There are 20 or 25 of them and they live in the woods just at the edge of our property and love to feed in the meadow which is below the monastery, between our buildings and the river. In fact, we have a perfect habitat, because turkeys like to live at the edge of wooded land, with a large field available where they can get the grasses, grains, berries and slugs and other small creatures that they feed on. We see them mostly in the mornings and evenings, and our guests love to watch them making their way across the meadow, pecking at whatever they can find.

I saw them one morning, going slowly across the field as usual, and didn't think much about it. Then about a half hour later I went over to the Guesthouse and I was walking outside, on the river side of the buildings, and passed below the Little Cloister. As many of you know, our monastery is built in a U shape around a large old oak tree, and this makes a small cloistered space in the center of our buildings, with the Guesthouse on two sides and the Church on the 3rd side. The 4th side is open to the river. And there in the Cloister were the turkeys, all 2 dozen of them. It was crowded - they are BIG birds. They were milling aimlessly around, looking very much like a bunch of tourists who have just realized that they've gotten off the subway at the wrong station. Turkeys are programed to go straight ahead apparently, and the only way to get out of the cloister is to turn around and go back, which seems not to be something they do easily, and they hadn't figured it out when I came along. I stood there for a while, and they weren't coming up with a solution, and they also didn't seem to want to come in my direction while I was standing there, so I went on about my business. When I came back a few minutes later, they were gone - either into the woods or up the hill towards the road, I suppose. It was a nice encounter; one that revealed something about the lives of turkeys that I didn't know, and it's nice to get to know the creatures that share this spot with us.

The other thing I'm thinking about is the admission of a new Associate yesterday. Many of you will know that we have a group of Associates who keep a rule of prayer for their daily life, and who promise to pray for us and support is in various ways. There are in the neighborhood of 600 or 700 of them, and a substantial number of them are frequent visitors and some are close friends of the community.

The man who came to be admitted as an Associate this weekend has been known to us for quite a while. His father is a deacon who is also an Associate of many years and a good friend of the community. He came with his son for the ceremony, and they had with them some of the next generation - the new Associate's son and his nephew and one of their friends, all youngish teenagers. They had come to be with their father/uncle/friend as he committed himself to the ordered living of a spiritual life in association with a community of Benedictine monks.

It was a grand occasion. There is absolutely no missing the pride and joy of our new Associate's father in this step that his son is taking. And the kids have been an important part of the weekend in their own way. They hadn't been here very long before they were down in the meadow and then went on down to the river, where one of them fell in, so they started their visit off in good style. Yesterday they explored the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is the old Poughkeepsie railroad bridge, now refurbished and made into a state park, and they seemed to really enjoy that. And they have come to every office in the Church and to all the Eucharists, where they sit together on the first row - something that Episcopalians rarely feel comfortable enough to do. The community has sort of looked after them while they've been here, and whenever one of us asks how they're doing, they say that they are having a great time.

This is not an altogether unknown kind of experience. From time to time fathers bring their teenaged sons here to introduce them to a part of life that they find valuable, and to let them know that the living of a spiritual life is part of what it means to be a man. Some time ago we had a man who came for a weekend with his 13 year old son because, he told us, his father had brought him here when he was 13 and he has never forgotten it. Our society doesn't have much in the way of formal coming of age ceremonies for either boys or girls, so people have to make them up on their own, and it is a great privilege to be part of that growing into adulthood when we get a chance. It's also great to be part of a weekend that you know is forming memories that are going to last a lifetime.

There there it is - a week of sun and clouds, prayer and work, monks and associates, turkeys and teenagers. All part of the Benedictine life and all lifted to God in praise and gratitude.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Short & Sweet

I have just a few minutes to write today. All of my weekend (ALL of it - I haven't even looked at my mail or opened my email) has been occupied with conducting a meditation retreat with my friend Mary Gates and tonight is the special Halloween edition of our monthly Community Pizza and Movie night. So I'm squeezing this in between things.

The meditation retreats are a real favorite of mine. Mary and I got started on them out of desperation. We had an Insight Meditation retreat that we regularly held on the Labor Day weekend, and it was always popular. Then one year the teacher who regularly conducted it couldn't come at the last minute. His daughter was going away to college and parents' weekend was on Labor Day and he couldn't do it and we were stuck. Mary and I were both attending a class on Buddhist teachings at the time and I was agonizing about it, wondering how were were going to replace that retreat (and that income). Jose, the teacher of our class said: "Why don't you do it?" Well, I had been teaching the Jesus Prayer for years and Mary had been teaching Centering Prayer for a long time. We looked at each other and the Christian Meditation retreat was born.

That was 2001 (I think). At first we offered it yearly - on Labor Day weekend. It was an introductory retreat, and we designed it to offer people some exposure to 3 methods of meditation commonly in use in Christianity today (The Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer and John Main's Christian Meditation). We allowed plenty of time for people to actually meditate in the 3 different ways, and plenty of time for questions and reflection. It went very well, so we did it again the next year, and after a while people started asking for more so we added a "Level 2" retreat, with more meditating and less discussion, each spring. And so we've been going on with it ever since. We have quite an alumni group by this time.

This year's fall retreat moved to October so that Mary and Dan, her husband, could have the Labor Day weekend for themselves. But it was its wonderful self. Great people. Quite a wide age range, from people still in school to those nicely settled into retirement. Some racial and cultural diversity, too. Interested and hard-working people. The questions and discussions were really good and deep. And we used our newly-renovated crypt as our venue, and it was wonderful. A great place for silence and for inner work. Couldn't have been better.

And working with Mary is always a joy. We are a great team, and those who come always comment on how we work together. We are very much on the same plane and we have an intuitive understanding of each others' way of teaching. My experience of it is that we are able to work together pretty seamlessly. After all these years we can tell which one of us should handle a particular question just by a glance. A really great working relationship and both of us enjoy it.

And the retreat really gives something to people. It helps them deepen and change their lives. One woman who has been coming yearly almost since the beginning said this time that she originally came just because she liked the quiet and the food at Holy Cross and not because she particularly wanted meditation. And she got caught. Very slowly, little by little and now, years later, meditation is a non-negotiable part of her daily life. She got hooked because, she said, she notices that when she doesn't do it, she feels different, in a way that she really doesn't like. It does "work".

So here I am, really tired from the weekend's work, really happy at how it went, and really contented with what we have created over the years. Not a bad space to be in on Halloween.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Old Becomes New

Under our Monastery Church is a large space that holds several chapels. It has always been called "The Crypt". These days a great many people have images of Friday night horror movies when they hear that word, and I've known the occasional guest who wouldn't go down there because they found the idea going into a Crypt positively alarming.

But in fact, the Crypt has in the recent past been a favorite place for a lot of people. The various little chapels provided some nice, quiet, intimate places for prayer. A few years back, we made one of the chapels into a meditation room, and that became a favorite haunt of a number of people. And not least of all, our Founder, Fr Huntington, is buried down there, behind the main altar, and across the chapel from that is a Columbarium where members of the community are buried, along with various friends and Associates of the Order. Many people have liked to explore the history of the community through reading the plaques on the niches in the Columbarium.

The Crypt had a radiant heating system under its tile floor, and that always made it a cozy place to be in cold weather, and it was one of the things I liked about having the Vigil on Maundy Thursday down there. But 3 years ago that system, which had been state of the art in the 1930's when it was installed, finally gave up the ghost. We did everything we could think of to rescue it, but in the end, there was nothing to do but admit that it was gone for good. That was at the beginning of the current recession, and we, along with so many other people, had seen a large percentage of our savings disappear, and we were entering the present difficult times. There was no way that we could afford to do the repair work that was needed.

And so the Crypt languished. Being a basement essentially, it could be damp. In fact, about 5 years ago we had several ankle-deep floods down there until we found the difficulties with the drains that we causing the blockage. So with a tendency to humidity and with no heat our Crypt became more and more moldy, especially in the winter. We tried space heaters at one point, but they weren't adequate, and so the place that had been a favorite of so many was mostly deserted, and got more and more ratty and unattractive. It was sad.

Then an email arrived one day last winter, asking me if I recognized the name of a certain woman who had lived in Springfield, Illinois. Fortunately it came to the right person - for I had been Director of our Associates for a number of years, and this lady had been an Associate of ours, though we had not heard from her in many years. It turns out that she had been in a Nursing Home for quite a while, and that she had recently died and left a good part of her estate to a "Holy Cross Monastery", with no address or contact information. So her lawyer was contacting every place he could find that was called Holy Cross Monastery in the hopes that he would find someone who knew her. And I did.

And so all of a sudden we had the money to think about restoring the Crypt. So the Monastery put some funds into the project, and the Order of the Holy Cross added some money to the fund, and this summer we began the renovation.

The heating system had to be dealt with first, and what we finally decided to do was not to try to dig up the old floor, but just to lay a new one on top of it. This would accommodate a new radiant heating system, again state of the art, only now, 80 years later, it would be much more efficient. Once that decision was made, we had to think about the floor and after viewing all kinds of possibilities including tile and concrete, we decided to have it carpeted - a rich, deep red.

Then we replaced the lighting, which though again was state of the art for the 1930's was quite frankly appalling by the 2010's. And during the years of decay, the inadequate lighting has just added to the aura of neglect.

And of course the walls needed to be repaired and repainted.

We expected to be pleased to have our Crypt back in service. I think that none of us was prepared for how lovely it turned out to be. Having adequate lighting brings out elements of the architecture that we never saw. The arches that are so much a fixture of our buildings are now eye-catching features of that space, and the lines of those arches reflect back and forth on each other in ways that I had never, in all my 45 years here, ever noticed.

The lighting can also be raised and lowered to fit the needs of the moment and provides a great flexibility of mood. We've used several pieces of art from various times in the community's history to make prayer spaces out of the little chapels, and the meditation room is now restored to its use. We have moved our Tuesday night meditation meeting down there and suddenly the size of that meeting has increased - who knows whether that is cause and effect or simply fortuitous, but at least we have a lovely space in which to meet. And last Tuesday night I sat on the floor on my cushion and was surrounded with a nice gentle heat that made me think of dark and snowy nights in January, when we'll be comfy down there while the storms rage outside.

So our Crypt is now a beautiful, comfortable, and very serviceable space, and people love it. There is constant traffic up and down the stairs to that space. More often groups are requesting to meet there, and individual guests find a quiet refuge there. Of all our renovation projects of the past decade this certainly ranks as one of the least expensive, but one that has made really significant changes to people's experience of the monastery.

And I love to be there - with our Founder and the departed members of the Order, so many of whom I have known. It is yet another reinforcement of how beauty and spirituality intertwine. The Crypt is now again a place of genuine beauty, and one which is going to draw people deeper as time goes on. I am very moved by what we have accomplished there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

And the Result is.......?

If you go around to a random group of people asking the question: "What is prayer?" the most common answer you will get is: "Asking for something" (either for yourself or for others). This is followed fairly quickly by all sorts of questions, centering around the concern of "Does it work?"

I've been involved in that dynamic myself any number of times over the years, and once had a fairly large spiritual crisis over it. I've talked to lots of people about this and been on both the giving and the receiving end of the conversations. The result of that over many years has been to learn that this whole approach isn't really the heart of the matter.

Last night I got a call about a very old and dear friend who is away on a trip and has been caught in a remote area with what may very well be a heart attack. When I got the call they were trying to get the local Emergency Response Team in to her, with the expectation that they would call a medical helicopter to evacuate her to a regional hospital.

My response was immediate: I must pray. And the second response was just as strong: I must get other people to pray. I made some telephone calls to mutual friends and wrote several emails to people who would want or need to know. I gave them the news, but that was really a vehicle for asking them to pray. I never stopped to consider what the result of the prayer was going to be or how likely it was that God's mind was going to be changed by these prayers. I was faced with an imperative: the most important thing to do right then was to pray and to get some other people to pray. The issue, in fact, was not the results, it was the relationship.

Then I set out to do a thing or two. One of the questions about praying for others is "how do you do it?" Well, after a short time I almost always find it helpful to do something about my intercessory praying.

I went to our Church and lit a candle and stayed there for a bit and prayed. I find candles very compelling, and anyone around here can tell you that I'm always lighting them. Again, the question is not results, it's the imperative. Where I'm faced with a dark situation, my instinct is to put some light in there - it's that instinctive. And I like knowing that when I'm done with praying by the candle I can leave, and maybe my attention and my prayer will wander, but the candle can go on carrying my prayer, even when my unreliable mind goes off somewhere else.

Then at Compline I found myself involved in prayer in a way that I haven't been in quite a while. The hymn we sing at that Office is a sort of lullaby. Wikipedia defines a lullaby as "a soothing song sung to children as they go to sleep". That works well enough, except that the 'children' part is too restrictive. Why just children? I used that lullaby for my prayer. I mentally made a cradle with my arms and put my friend in it and sang that hymn to her and for her:

"To you before the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
that in your mercy you will be,
our guardian and security."

And that was my prayer - rocking my friend while I sang to her. I'm always inventing small things like that which I can do for praying when the mental issues ("How is she?", Will she get better?", "Is this working?") are unanswerable or beside the point. I need to do something for the person I love,and that something has to involve her and me and God. So I invent ways to pray. It's a straight line relationship. I light candles, I sing lullabys, I do God knows what. There are no mental negotiations involved at this point. There is a friend. There is need. I must pray. That, for me, is the real issue about intercession.

The monk Thomas Keating, who is the father of the meditation practice called Centering Prayer, describes Centering Prayer as sitting in the presence of God with the intention of consenting to whatever transformation God is working in me. That is exactly what I mean by intercession, except that it involves more people than just me. I sit (stand, walk) in the presence of God with whoever I am praying for. I lift that person to God - and the candle or the lullaby are just ways of lifting that person to God - and then I consent to whatever transformation God is working in our lives.

Does it work? Of course it works. It involves God and me and the person I'm praying for, so of course it works. But who knows what the result will be? God is always and at every moment at work, and what I'm doing is consenting to what God is doing in me and in those for whom I pray. The energy of that consent is my prayer. And that way, my prayer is a lot bigger than anything I can wish for.

A number of years ago I was really converted back to the practice of Intercessory Prayer in the course of a visit to the nuns at Burnham Abbey in England. Their life revolves around intercession. In those days at least, there was a prayer desk in the middle of their choir, which held all of the requests they had received for prayer. One of the sisters was there all the time, 24 hours a day. One of them kept a vigil from 12 to 3 at night each night and the rest of the community had an hour at a time during the rest of the 24 hours. That was their ministry. They are cloistered and they don't go out to minister. Instead they minster all over the world, by their intercessory prayer.

The sisters didn't explain their prayer to me or try to persuade me with arguments or anything like that. They just talked about their prayer very simply and very shortly. It was totally convincing. It hadn't anything to do with arguments. It was what they were, not what they said. Just seeing them there, kneeling at the intercession desk, was enough to convince me that they were absolutely authentic. That was the beginning of my return to intercession, and my journey to figure out how I was going to do it.

It really is a matter of relationship, not results. Everyone who has prayed for a while knows that there can be what we call "results". We also know that whether or not there are going to be results is always a mystery. And it always will be. It's because of the nature of relationships. If you start concentrating on whether a relationship is giving you the results you want rather than concentrating on the other person, pretty quickly the relationship is going to be in trouble. The point of intercession is people and God and the relationship between them and you. Whether or not it "works" is not the point. You might just as well ask whether Communion "works".

Intercession "works" if you have to do it. The "result" is your turning to God. When I got on that wavelength, I began to understand what intercessory prayer was all about.

James Huntington, who founded the Order of the Holy Cross, had a way of coining memorable phrases, and one that stays with me is "We shall probably find no surer test of our growth in the spirit of the cross, and of our Lord's high-priestly prayer before his passion, than a deepening fervour of intercession...." There it is. If your relationship with God grows, your need to pray for others grows. That's one of the few ways you can know if your prayer is actually deepening. As Fr Huntington also said: "Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.", and part of that acting is praying for others.

The rest we can argue about as we have time. But increasingly my time is taken up not with arguing but with the need to pray.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Where is it?

I was out the past 2 nights looking for Comet Hartley. This particular comet is not visible to the naked eye, but I have a pretty powerful set of astronomical binoculars, and I knew just where the comet was going to be - near the Double Cluster, not far from the constellation Cassiopeia. The sky was crystal clear and as dark as it ever gets around here. Darkness can be problematical in this area because even though we are in a rural area, there are medium sized cities all around us, so the light pollution is pretty noticeable.

The comet hunting results were mixed. Maybe I saw it, maybe I didn't. The best one can expect from this particular comet is that it will look like a small fuzzy puff of light. Did I see that? Well, yes, but the problem is that at the moment it's pretty close to the Milky Way, so there is no lack of small fuzzy puffs of light in the area. So I know I was looking where the comet was, and I had fun. Whether I actually saw it or not is in some doubt.

Not too surprising. This comet is less bright than was predicted, and as I said it's in a fairly crowded field right now. I chose these nights because they were clear, and we don't get many clear nights in this part of the country. Also the Double Cluster is easy to spot and I thought it would give me some guidance. But the observing sites on the Net say that a lot of people are having trouble finding it with binoculars, though some pictures taken with telescopes are coming through. I may try again later in the month when it's moved a bit. Though by then the moon will be making trouble for this sort of observing. It may be a wash for this particular comet.

I've been an astronomy enthusiast since I was a teenager. I've been a subscriber to a magazine called Sky & Telescope since those days - more than 50 years now - and I still read in the field of cosmology and marvel at what has become known about our universe just in the decades of my life. I've seen a bunch of comets over the years, when the sky and the comet's location will cooperate, so I know that when it comes to seeing the smaller ones it's a matter of luck. But I often try, just to see what I can see.

The Astronomer, a trompe-l-oeil street painting in Auderghem, Belgium.
Picture by Eliseo Oliveras.

But that's not the whole story for me: there's more to this than just the excitement of astronomy. There's a direct link to my spiritual path. Nothing awakens my sense of awe more than looking at the night sky, and seeing it through a telescope or binoculars just increases that awesomeness. Knowing that I am looking into space more vast than my mind can comprehend, and that what I see carries me back in time as well as out in space - since the light from some of those stars has been on its way to us for hundreds or thousands or millions of years - that to me is awesome. And I mean awesome in the original sense of that word, before it became an expression that now seems to mean 'mildly interesting'.

This is tied up with my desire to pray, because having a sense of awe is directly connected to the ability to pray. If you're seeking to be in the presence of God, you are looking for something (someone) that is literally inconceivable. We have all kinds of thoughts about God, and all sorts of images of what God is like, but in the end, God is beyond all of that. To actually enter into relationship with the Divine, you have to go to that place where your mind shuts down in the face of a reality that you can't comprehend. You have to be able to encounter a love that is so vast that you can't think or know or conceive of it. You have to be willing to be with the One who is beyond anything that you can think. It is here that you enter into the reality that mystics call Apophatic, a Greek word that means "without images". You have to perceive something greater than that which can be perceived. You have to abandon words and thoughts and images.

And here we enter into the realm of phrases that don't seem to make sense. John of the Cross called this sort of prayer "silent music" and "the dazzling darkness". If you read in the Christian mystics you find yourself in the realm of these mixed metaphors and confusing references. And you also find that it is said that two things will penetrate that silence and that darkness, and they are love and awe.

On the bulletin board behind my desk I keep a large photo called the Hubble Deep Field. It is a picture that was made by the Hubble Telescope over a long period of time. The telescope was pointed to an apparently empty patch of sky and left to make a very long exposure photograph, and what emerged was hundreds and thousands of galaxies. They are so far away that they are nearly invisible, and some of them lie at the farthest limits of the Universe, and reach back a good way to the beginning of time itself. There's no way I can look at that photo and have much in the way of thoughts. Thousands and thousands of galaxies, containing millions and billions of stars, the light from which has been on its way to us for more than a billion years. I keep that photo there because it awakens my sense of awe, and it is with my awe awakened that I long to enter prayer.

The Hubble Deep Field.
Picture from the Space Telescope Science Institute web site.

Other people have various ways of accomplishing this. Mountains do it for a lot of people (of whom I am one) and the ocean does it for others. Some are awe-struck by the ways in which love works itself out between people and some find it in the complex simplicity of a single flower.

Critics of contemplative prayer say it is nothing more than narcissistic wool-gathering, and Lord knows, it can degenerate into that easily enough. But beyond that, awe keeps calling, summoning us to know what is beyond knowing, and hear what is beyond hearing and to love what is beyond all that we know of loving. God is quite simply beyond all of our ideas of God, and we have to find a way of going beyond our ideas. Looking at the depths of our universe helps nudge me a bit of the way there. It's up to you to find what gives that nudge to you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Interupting the Day

My first job was the summer after my 16th birthday. I had to get a waver from the State of Ohio to work before I was 18, because the Child Labor Laws forbid working that young, but all that was required was filing out a form at the Post Office. I worked that summer for Procter & Gamble in a small office in downtown Cincinnati, somewhere, as I recall, in the neighborhood of 6th and Main, in the same area where P & G's headquarters were.

I was a stock boy. That particular office dealt with sending out coupons and special orders, and I went back and forth carrying boxes which were considered too heavy for the women who made up most of the staff. In between times I was assigned to a special offer. I was the one who took care of the orders on the back of the labels of Crisco and Fluffo.

For those who don't know, Crisco and Fluffo were vegetable shortenings for baking that were very popular at the time.

Fluffo, picture by Heather Libby

The labels of both products had a notice that there were recipes and a special offer on the back of the label. I sent out a free pie server to everyone who had responded. I suppose one of the points of all this was to find out whether people actually took the labels off the cans to see what was underneath. Since one 16 year old could handle the orders, I think the answer was that the mass market wasn't responding very well.

At lunch time, the 4 or 5 guys who worked in the department ate our lunches in a small room off to one side. It had a table and some chairs, but was otherwise pretty bare. It also had a large window that looked out on the city, and I remember two things about the view of Cincinnati from that window.

The first was that right down the street a building had been demolished to make a parking lot, and tearing that building down had revealed the side of the building next to it, and there, in all its glory, was an ad four or five stories tall for a 1903 Oldsmobile. I knew exactly what it was, because one of my hobbies was antique cars, and I had actually built a model of that exact car. It was one of the first vehicles to be commercially manufactured - so early that it was essentially a carriage minus the bars to which horses could be hitched and with the addition of a motor installed underneath the seat. There was a roof to keep rain off, but no side enclosure. I was fascinated by that ad, which had faded a lot, but was still clear a half-century later.

A 1903 Oldsmobile. Picture from America's Classic Cars web site.

The other thing I remember noticing especially was a large church right across the street. I think it was called St Francis Xavier. Like all things Catholic, it was a great mystery, partly alluring and partly forbidding. But I hadn't been there very long before I noticed that a number of the women from our department were going in and out every day at lunch time.

The vestibule of St Francis Xavier, Cincinnati. Picture by Elyce Feliz

I was very curious. I had never encountered this kind of behavior before. My Baptist family was reasonably devout: we went to church regularly, if not every Sunday. I was taught to tithe at an early age, and my father sang in the choir for a while. Our Church, in common with most churches of Calvinist heritage, had no Christmas service in those days, but on Christmas Eve my father would take my brother and me on his lap and read the Christmas story to us from the Bible, which meant that not only did he think it was important, but he knew where to find it in the Bible, something that I realized even then was above the usual knowledge of Scripture.

But going into Church on a weekday was a new idea to me. I knew that those women weren't going to a service, because in those days there would not have been masses that late in the day, so they must have been going in just to pray. With part of me I didn't understand that at all, but another part of me was moved - deeply enough that I still remember that discovery 60 years later.

And now here I am, all those years later, going into church 5 times a day, and I've done that most days for the last 45 years. I've been thinking about that this week, and especially about the noon time prayer.

For us, as for most monastic communities, that prayer is short. It's a service called Diurnum (from the Latin word for "noon"); 10 minutes of chanting Psalms and 10 minutes of silence. The message of the noonday Psalms is mostly about doing God's will and following God's Law, and the whole occasion has a spare feeling of time out from the occupations of the day. Each of our Offices has its own feel, and people are attracted to one and another of them. I think that Compline would get the votes for the most-loved office from a majority of people. I doubt that Diurnum is anyone's favorite, or at least I'm sure that it would be chosen by very few.

But I've begun to wonder if it isn't the most important one, even if it isn't the most loved one. Why? Because it's the one that makes you stop. It interrupts what you're doing. It makes you suddenly leave what you're working on and go to Church. It's the most difficult Office to attend to, because the mind is often still whirling with preoccupation about the tasks of the day. People (myself included) often dash in at the last minute for that Office. It's a definite interruption. And that's important.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book on Centering Prayer talks about those moments in meditation when we realize that our minds have gotten lost in thought, memory or fantasy, and we become aware that we've drifted away from prayer and have to bring ourselves back. That moment, she says, is a moment of great power. No matter how often we get lost, or how frustrating the whole process is, we need to realize that the moment of coming back is a time full of possibilities for walking the spiritual path. Stopping and coming back - repentance, really - is a significant thing for the human personality. In the Buddhist tradition of Insight Meditation it is said that the moment of realizing that you've drifted away into thought and have to come back is the moment of insight.

What those moments of realization do for meditation is the same thing that Diurnum does for the day. It makes you stop. It offers the opportunity to come back to the center. God is the core of our being. Being stopped and brought back to that central place is a moment of power, at least potentially.

It's fascinating to me that though I had no training in this sort of thing, I realized the importance of it the moment I saw those women going into church. I knew they were doing something important and that it was something that I wanted. It was a number of years before I found my way to doing it myself - I was in college when that came to me. But the discovery of that practice was a big enough deal that it has never left me.

Diurnum is frequently annoying. And trying to pay attention is often damn near impossible,frankly. But that moment, the moment when I have to stop and come back, even if my attention only cooperates for an instant, is a crucial next step on the spiritual path. It resets my priorities. It says: "This matters more than anything else." It makes me actually do with my body what I often say with my lips and write with my computer. Becoming conscious of that is central to the integration of my faith and my life.

So thank God for that unattractive little Office. I have a intuition that a lot of important work is done then. And thank God for those faithful Catholic ladies in the 1950's. Though they had no idea they were doing anything for me, they opened a path that I'm still treading.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Bit of an Accident

If you follow this column regularly you may be wondering whether something happened last week that kept me from posting as usual on Sunday. Well, indeed it did!

Last Sunday morning. There I was, on my way to the Refectory for breakfast, intending to make a stop-over in the kitchen to get myself some gluten-free bread. I was going the outside way, around the river side of the building. When I got to the kitchen door, I started up the 3 stairs to the door, put my foot down wrong and missed the middle step. Down I went, which wouldn't have been much of an incident, but I fell slightly to one side and hit my head on the brick wall of the building and ended up flat out on the pavement. Edward, our chef, came dashing out and was the soul of kindness. The only problem was that he was wanting to get me up, and it took a while before I was ready to try that. Then we had to find something to deal with the bleeding, which was quite vigorous, and I needed to get readjusted to being upright. Shock.

Not to keep you in suspense, I ended up with some bruised ribs, a quite mild concussion, and a cut that needed 4 stitches. Oh, and a skinned knee - mustn't forget that piece. I wasn't in the mood for writing for quite a few days. I guess everyone gets to the point in life when they finally realize that a fall is not a small thing, and I certainly learned that lesson last Sunday morning. I was very, very fortunate, because even with all that happened, it wasn't a terribly serious event, and with just a bit different fall it could have been. I've healed quite rapidly: the symptoms of the concussion were gone by the end of the day, the stitches came out on Friday and the doctor is satisfied with the wound's healing, and even the ribs, which I know usually take weeks to get better have come along quite nicely - still some pain, but this morning I stopped taking the pain medication and I'm doing fine. But I surely know that I have been through something, and that I have a way to go.

So.... I should say something spiritual, yes? After all, this column is supposed to be about the life of a monk and how the spiritual path runs through everything that happens. So how did it run through this particular happening?

Well, first of all I think of the caretakers I encountered that morning. First, there was Edward, who was so kind and attentive. That was such a help, to have that while I was still trying to get up off the fround. Then let me say that I can't say enough good things about the Emergency Room at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie. They have a sign over their door about how highly their patients have rated them, and if I am counted, their rating will only go up. It's actually a pleasant pleasant place to be. I didn't have to wait long. And the staff was, without exception, kind and caring.

They got me cleaned up and determined that I had no major problems but that I needed stitches. In short order a young Physician's Assistant appeared and did the stitches. I felt nothing. Nothing. Which is exactly what I wanted to feel in that situation. Bernard, who was with me and in a somewhat better state to be objective, said that it was a real pleasure to watch the PA work because he was such a craftsman. He is a true healer. I've written before about how akin the path is for meditators and for people who practice a craft, and I experienced all of that, with a layer of cheer, concern and kindness added to it. What more could I have asked? We are called by the Gospel to care for each other, and I experienced real caring. God was in the middle of that, and it was clear. When Bernard said to the PA that we would pray for him in his ministry he was obviously rather startled and also quite pleased. Then I was sent on my way with detailed paperwork explaining about caring for the laceration and the concussion, and promising all kinds of support if I needed it.

And..... you may not believe this part of it, but I was there for less than 2 hours, and they apologized to me for taking so long! When I think of the times I've spent in emergency rooms, well, this was quite different.

This whole incident has also awakened my awe and wonder at the body's healing mechanisms. No sooner had I fallen, than my body swung into action, marshaling all the things it needed to begin healing the various parts of my body that had been assaulted. I think I'm particularly aware of this because my healing has been so rapid. Day by day it was obvious that my body was hard at work on this project, and I could see and feel what was happening. That is just plain awesome. And awe is one of the things that is necessary for a spiritual life. You can't see God without awe, and conversely, experiencing awe does open you to the divine. So this week opened me a bit more to the depths that the spiritual paths leads me through.

And the Psalms - the good old Psalms - opened up a bit more. There's quite a bit of complaining in the Psalms about what happens to the body. Lots of crying out to God about my strength failing, my body feeling like there is no healthy part in me, and the experience of dragging myself through the days because of one sickness or another. Usually those phrases go by me without too much response on my part, but not this week. And this is one of the biggest gifts the Psalms have to give us; there is nothing in human experience that isn't prayed in them. It serves, for one thing, as a powerful reminder - oh yes, I may be miserable, but I can pray that stuff. I may be suffering, and it may be hard to pull my mind together to pay attention, and I may not want much attention anyway, because it makes me aware of the unpleasant things that I'm feeling, but I really can pray that. I don't have to just endure it. It can be part of the link between God and me. "Though my heart and my flesh should fail, God is my help and my portion forever." I kept that on my mirror at one time in my life when I was going through a long illness. And it came back to be with me this week.

Wherever you go on this path, some awakening, some deepening awaits. Not that it's all going to be joyful or fun, but we can just consent to being opened. Just doing that is enough for the Spirit to enter, and then some transformation is possible.

It's also nice to have come far enough to be feeling pretty good again!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Big Changes

Sorry for being late this week - a combination of technical difficulties with the site and the time crunch that this produced.

Anyone who writes for public consumption gets a lot of different responses, and I have been musing this week on the content of those responses. I'm especially interested on responses to the times when I write about my own frail nature.

Like last week - I talked about having the expectation that getting home after weeks of a strenuous series of trips would be pure joy, and about how anxious I was to settle into my usual routine and to plumb the depths of it, and of finding instead that I was restless, anxious, keyed up, unable to settle and barely able to keep to my routine, and that I was just going to have to endure that until my embodied spirit got readjusted.

Some people are happy to hear a message like that. They have similar experiences and often feel guilty about them. Just like I do. They get some affirming from hearing someone else say they had the same experience, and had the same ambiguous reaction to it. They're glad to know that they aren't alone in all of this and that at least one person thinks that it's o.k. to have this experience and that it doesn't mean that they have dropped out of the spiritual path altogether.

But there are others who have quite a different experience of reading what I have written. They are usually smaller in number, but often make up in the power of their vocal reaction what may be lacking in their numbers. They have responses that range from disappointment to unbelief to real anger, and sometimes to outright fury. They can't believe that if I had an experience like this, that I would write about it. This isn't the kind of approach to spirituality that they want to hear. Over the years I have had everything from my approach to my integrity questioned.

Well, I understand both reactions. I know how deeply satisfying and supportive it can be to find that you're not alone and that you're not all wrong. I also know what it's like to build expectations that aren't met and to have those expectations challenged and to see them fall apart. I've been in both places.

I'll just say that it is important to me to recognize the realities of human nature and of the physical body, and that the limitations of both our physical and our emotional nature are part of the spiritual path. I've learned, to my delight, that it's even possible to have considerable spiritual progress come as a result of just being who I am in the body that I happen to have. I think this is an important part of an incarnational approach to my faith.

I'm remembering an article that I read some time ago written by some sociologists who went to India to do psychological testing on men and women who were recognized by their communities to be enlightened people, people of real spiritual realization and knowledge. They wanted to explore the ways in which significant spiritual development affects personal development and psychological functioning. The results of the testing were quite a surprise to them. The tests indicated very little in the way of extraordinary changes in personality structure. These paragons of spirituality couldn't actually be told from everyone else in psychological terms. They were just are neurotic as most people, and their spiritual development hadn't changed that. They were, in a word, ordinary people. What was different about them was the way in which they were able to accept themselves. They saw all sorts of faults in themselves and difficulties in the ways in which they functioned, but they also had kindness and patience with themselves, and of course as a result of this they had kindness and patience with everyone else. They also had a good deal of humor. They had a perfectly normal amount of idealism, and they also knew what it is like to live with ideals that are never achieved. They were both deeply devoted spiritual men and women and also comfortable with being ordinary people, and this made them extraordinary people.

I think that the good news of the spiritual pilgrimage is that among the things we discover in our journey is who we really are, and what what we develop includes an ability to accept and treasure who we are because it is God's gift to us. And this very discovery means big changes get made, energy gets liberated, discoveries come to us. Big things happen on our spiritual journeys, but they are almost inevitably things we weren't expecting, or even wanting.

I was told by my Novice Master years ago that the secret to discovering a vocation in the monastic life was to know that you wouldn't get any of the things that you hoped to get in this life. It was certainly true. I had to discover how unrealistic and unhelpful most of what I had hoped for was, and to let those fantasies go. The big gift in all of that was that I also discovered that what I got in this community was a whole lot better that what I wanted. My vocation has indeed been a big surprise gift. And I'm not the only one with this experience. Perhaps this is the truth of any relationship. The journey to God is like that for us all. And now that I'm getting old and have been here a long time, I'm even discovering that some of the things I wanted to begin with are beginning to come to me. They're coming in ways that I wouldn't have dreamed of and in forms that I wouldn't have wanted originally, but they're coming.

God is very surprising. And very good.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Return, Cont'd

When I wrote last week, I had just gotten back from my wanderings of the summer. I was talking about "settling down". About being where I belong. I was looking forward to getting back into the life here and musing on how the events of the summer were going to be affecting my monastic journey.

Boy, did I underestimate what I was going to have to cope with!

So how did this week of gentle reflection and deep prayer actually turn out? Well, I had major difficulties sleeping. Every time I looked inside what I saw was more like chaos than peace. When I tried to force myself to meditate I got emotional rebellion on a major scale. I was, in short, a mess.

This was not, to put it mildly, what I was expecting. Hadn't I had several enriching journeys? Had I not benefited wonderfully? Wasn't I looking forward to integrating everything I had experienced since the beginning of July?

It took several days of puzzled struggling before I began to cope consciously with the realities of what I had put myself through. In less than 8 weeks I had traversed through 9 time zones and 14,000 feet of altitude. I had changed my diet several times. I had coped with all of the wonderful stuff people had offered me in the way of things to eat and to drink. My hours of sleeping had been wildly erratic. The physical demands had been considerable.

And now I had suddenly stopped. Did I think I was going to settle down automatically and quickly? Did I think that peace and inner harmony were going to envelop me on call? Whatever would cause me to expect that? The image that comes to mind is a big tub of water being sloshed around. When you stop pushing the tub, the water still keeps sloshing back and forth for quite a while. It doesn't settle down immediately.

That's me. Sloshing.

Add to this the fact that one of the things I deal with on the physical level is a fairly severe case of Hypoglycemia. And one of the first things I learned about coping with this condition when I was diagnosed years ago is to avoid anything that would upset the adrenal system. Eat at the same time every day. No big changes. Go to bed at the same hour every night and get up at the same time every morning. Be careful of big emotional swings. Take it gently and quietly.

Oh sure. The exact opposite of what I've been up to for weeks. No wonder it seems to me that I'm such a mess inside - I am! Among other things, adrenaline is pumping through my body, and I suddenly have ceased doing all the stuff that produced this reaction. The adrenal system produces lots of wonderful chemicals that have all kinds of emotional, psychological and physical effects, and this has major spiritual effects as well.

Not that the spiritual life can be reduced to a matter of what my adrenaline is doing, but the body is a crucial part of the life of prayer, for better or for worse. And for the moment, things are rather on the worse side. When it comes to the spiritual journey, the body isn't going to be ignored.

It will calm down, of course. I'm already seeing that. There are various things I can do to help that along too: diet, regularity of sleep, breath work, gentle exercise. And I can observe the progress of this curious pilgrimage my body is making. I can also make some plans. I knew that doing the programs in England and Kansas back to back was not the best idea. I was right. I've said that I'm not doing that again. I have to be serious about that. I already know that I'm doing the Benedictine Experience in Canterbury again in two years, so I have plenty of time to get serious about how I plan that time. Obviously I have limits, and I have to be respectful of that. Easier said than done, of course, but I have to be serous about it. This is a physical matter, and it is a spiritual one.

It's also a pretty amazing experience, all things considered. You never stop encountering things that you can learn from.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Home Again

I'm back.

And that's important - at least to me. Being a monk away from his monastery is very much being a fish out of water, at least for this monk. Everything I did this summer was really wonderful, but when I got home on Wednesday afternoon and went into Church for Vespers, and the Officiant sang "Oh God, make speed to save us" and the choir responded: "Oh Lord;, make haste to help us" I knew I was where I belonged. 45 years of Gregorian Chant really gets under your skin, not to mention into your soul.

Which is not to take away from my time in Colorado. It was so great. Mountains feed my soul, and I got plenty of feeding. My friends John and Stefi were determined to show me every mountain in Colorado, and they made good progress on their project.

It began with my bedroom, which had an 180 degree view of mountain peak scenery, with a view straight up to the Continental Divide. They live at 9,500 feet, and the weather was perfect for a vacation - warm enough for a short sleeves when the sun was out and cool enough for a fire when there were clouds. Dry. Glorious.

We went over/through so many mountain passes that I lost count. But some were unforgettable - Cottonwood Pass, at 12,400 feet particularly, in the middle of the "Alps of the Rockies" with truly extraordinary views on either side. On one side you look into ranges of dark, bare peaks and on the other side down to a beautiful lake framed with mountains all around it.

We hiked up to St Marys Glacier at 10,000 feet. There were people skiing on it - in late August. I met a very friendly Golden Retriever named Milton who was dragging a 5 year old boy behind him, and I put my hands on an actual glacier for the first time. Another high mountain lake, fed by the melt from the glacier, deep blue and perfect.

We drove down the high plain behind the Front Range - a large sweep of range land where cattle are fattened up during the summer months, framed with mountains on either side and occasional rock "castles" and other formations.

I saw an actual ghost town - Nevadaville. Being Colorado it was a mining town, of course, and some of the mining works are still there, and though most of the houses have been pulled down, the foundations are still visible. It started to fail as the mines played out in the 1920's and the Great Depression finished it off, even though five or six houses remain and the old Masonic Lodge still stands.

And we saw innumerable small places with quaint "Old Towns", varying in loveliness and tourist appeal depending on circumstances - Idaho Springs, Leadville, Crested Butte, Georgetown, to name just a few. One of my favorites was Redstone - a social experiment that dates back to the 1880's. It was a mining town and John Cleveland Osgood - at the time the 5th richest man in the United States - built a town for the miners who worked the mine that he owned. He built 84 small houses for the families, complete with steam heat and plumbing, which at the time was unheard of, and a lodge for the single miners which is now an inn and spa and which serves (I can testify) very nice lunches.

And every evening we came home to our house in the mountains where the deck offered incredible views of a star-filled sky, shooting stars and Venus setting over the mountains shortly after sunset.

One night we played a game of Washers with one of the local guys - you throw metal washers about 3 inches across at a board that has a hole in it and hope to get the washers either on the board or through the hole in its center. The scoring rules are very complex and I'm told that the whole experience is helped a lot by not being entirely sober. And we also explored an old cemetery not far from where I was staying, with graves dating back into the 1870's and '80s. The mining settlement which the cemetery served is long, long gone, but the graveyard is still there, and still in use, buried itself on the side of that pretty remote mountain.

It was an adventure filled with wonder (who knows how many times I said: "Oh, wow!"), with beauty and with the deep silence of places that truly are far away from the normal noise of contemporary life. John's father describes Colorado as "one picture postcard after another". That's as good a description as I could come up with. "Rocks and trees" the locals say. That's another one.

A great, great time. I'll be thinking of it for a long time.

And now it's time to settle down to the ordinary routine of life and prayer and ministry, knowing that this summer of teaching in England and Kansas and of roaming the mountains of Colorado has changed me, and deepened me, and given me more to take with me into my monastic life. No doubt I'll be referring to this time again as I go along.