Sunday, January 31, 2010

Far Away

I'm in Kansas City at the present. It feels far away in many, many ways. But I've spent so much time here over the course of the past 40 years or so that it also feels like home. It's real mixture of things for me, especially at the present time.

I preached at the funeral of my friend Bill on Thursday. It was the most natural thing in the world to do that - it was also one of the hardest things I've done. I didn't know that Bill had left instructions for me to preach, but right after he died I was sitting at home, thinking about the years we had shared and about who were were to each other, and I all of a sudden thought: "this sounds like a sermon". The next day I got an email from Gail, the rector of St Michael's (their parish - and, if I ever have to identify a parish as "mine", St Michael's is always the one I choose) wrote and asked if I would preach. Loss. Reunion. Joy. Sorry. It's quite an adventure.

And my wrist beads keep me in touch with my spiritual life. I really know now why I wear them. I am completely out of my routine, and it would be so easy just to do what is in front of me and let the whole spiritual practice thing go. But the constant pressure of the beads on my wrist keep bringing me back. And even I am surprised at how I just naturally reach for the beads whenever there is no activity or conversation going on around me. Last night I had a good hour and a half to say the Jesus Prayer while friends watched TV. It was really good to be drawn back to who I really am.

And how about that KU-K State basketball game last night!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Time of Waiting

I don't have a lot of words this week. At the moment everything revolves one reality: My friend Bill is very near death

In the time of our relationship we've done nearly everything together: we've laughed and cried, we've worked and played, we've shared many great conversations and also silence. We've traveled together and we've sat still together. Like most guys, I guess, we've also taken each other for granted a good deal of the time. He has been my friend for almost 40 years.

Bill and his wife Betty have been a big part of the fabric of my life for all those decades. We also share a passion for the Episcopal Church and for one particular parish. We love history and politics and we love good food. We've shared an awful lot for decades.

Now he's dying. It's not a big shock - he is 89, after all and every time I've seen him in the past few years, I've wondered if there would be a next time.

He is 1,000 miles from here, so I'm not with him. But we've had wonderful conversations in these past few days, and we've said goodbye well. I've been very blessed by these 40 years of friendship, and I know I have blessed him as well.

Many of you will have walked this path yourselves, so you'll know why I don't have words today. I need to be quiet and pray. I'll be back when I can.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What's a Monday For?

On January 1, New Year's Day, our Guesthouse closed for a 2-week respite period for our community. We've had this break for many years. Very few guests would be coming during this time in any case, and we need to get rested from the pace of the Christmas season and of our Guesthouse ministry in general. These "sabbath" periods are really important to us and they enable us to continue our ministry of hospitality at the pace at which we normally operate.

While this time is not a vacation, it is one in which things are definitely slowed down. We have a relaxed schedule of services in the Church, and we cook for each other, since our chef is away during this period. There's time for seeing friends, for taking extra naps or for extra prayer. Of course, many of us also use the time to catch up on neglected work and other projects, and therein lies the big problem with this whole enterprise of work and time off.

This sabbath rhythm seems to be important for human beings. The Jews usually get the credit for inventing a regular weekly calendar with a day of rest every seventh day. Of course there were "days off" in the lives of people before this observance became widely known, but these times were usually attached to religious feasts scattered through the year or to things like Fairs and local community observances, and were usually irregular. The Jews were thought by many of the people among whom they lived to be very curious folk indeed for insisting on a regularly scheduled day when no work was done.

But somewhere along the line people began to notice the benefit on many levels, physical, mental and spiritual, of taking a regular free day, and the practice is now nearly world-wide. Indeed, we take it for granted in our society that not only one, but two free days are necessary. The rhythm is firmly established. But so are the various problems that were being noticed as far back as the writings in the Bible.

For one thing, when it comes to making money, it's hard to stop. It was hard to stop in the days of the Biblical prophets and it's hard to stop now. The Prophets railed against commerce on the Sabbath and the Church forbade it in a number of ways through the centuries, with varied degrees of success. Hardly anyone rails these days, at least in this country, but there are countries in Europe which have very firmly resisted the move to have stores open 24/7, and who see their time with family and friends as crucial enough to be worth a day a week. Sabbath is there precisely to keep the addiction to work, which is universal, from completely taking over the human race. But maintaining it takes vigilance. To have a day devoted to not working doesn't come naturally to most of us, and unless we watch it we find ourselves using our weekends and other free times for catching up on work that we didn't get done earlier (due, of course, to the amount of time we feel we have to give to our work).

It's always good to remember the Biblical Sabbath and what is permitted on the Sabbath day: worship, socializing and study. That's it. Not much else is included. How many of us, monks included, keep a sabbath like that?

So those of us in the Holy Cross community have found that we need to have regular times when we are attentive to our schedule and its effect on us. We work hard. Our public schedule lasts from 7:00 am until 9:00 pm, and many of us are up much earlier in the day for prayer. We have a demanding ministry in our guesthouse which has grown substantially in recent years. While this is cause for celebration on a number of levels, the increasing number of guests makes larger and larger demands on us - physically, mentally and spiritually. We are involved with our guests to an extent that is unusual in monastic communities and we have to take that seriously. Each time the numbers of people in the Guesthouse has grown substantially we have discovered that we have to make adjustments in our schedule for private time so that we get enough 'sabbath' time to be able to do our ministry well.

Our present schedule is the result of this dialogue between our work and our need for freer time.

Our Guesthouse is closed one day a week: usually on Mondays.
We are also closed for a month in the late summer - from late July to late August.
We close for the first two weeks in January and a few briefer periods, like the five days following Easter and a couple of days after the Order's annual meetings in June.

All of this is to enable us to do the work of being monks: to pray well, and to minister well. And it's pretty important. On the rare occasions when we don't get our regular weekly sabbath day, all of us notice how our energy for prayer and our zest for our ministry suffer. In weeks like that we have had what have come to be known as "rolling days off" - that is, a couple of us will be free of work on various different days of the week. It helps, but it's not the same and it doesn't refresh us like the Monday sabbath. We need a day to be closed. We need a day when things are quiet and we can be assured of having the place to ourselves, and when we can enjoy our place and each other. It's crucial to being able to live the lives we have been called to live.

Everyone, including our community, needs periodically to evaluate how sabbath is incorporated into our lives: time for worship, socializing and study. We need especially to look at the compromises we make in the time that has been set aside. The Jewish devotion to the Sabbath is sometimes criticized for regulations that are extraordinarily minute and sometimes seem silly to the rest of us. But those regulations are there because the pressure behind our need to disregard sabbath time is so relentless. And disregarding sabbath means paying a high price. It means neglecting some of the things that keep us healthy and human.

It's worth thinking about. It's worth it for monks and for everyone else. In fact, just writing this makes me think that I need to give some attention to how I am going to use my Monday time this week.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sitting on the Sharp Edge

Christianity gives us lots of beliefs that feel like impossible dilemmas because they involve holding together two very different realities: Jesus is God and Man. Communion is Bread and Jesus. We are Redeemed and we are Sinful. The trick is to hold both sides of these dual realities together. But we don't. We're always falling off one side or the other. As a seminary professor once said to one of our brothers about Jesus: "Once you've called him God, it's hard to call him anything else." Zen deals with this human difficulty with koans, which are little impossible dilemmas. Christianity does it, in the words of Alice in Wonderland, by 'resolving to believe two impossible things before breakfast each morning.'

So I got reminded of this in a fairly powerful way this past week. I was sitting with a close friend, talking about the dilemmas of life (my life,of course)and some of the difficulties of sustaining a spiritual pilgrimage amid the pains and difficulties we encounter (I encounter). After we'd gone on for a while, he gave a small pause and then said (as I recall it): "You know, the first time my brother took me body surfing, before we got in the water he said: 'The wave is going to pick you up, and you can't fight it. You have to ride the wave. You have to let it take you where it's going to. If you try to control it, you'll get in trouble - maybe bad trouble. You have to let it take you.' Then he said: "I think it's like that for you. You have to ride the wave. Sometimes you'll even get dumped on the beach, and that hurts, until the wave comes back and carries you off again."

On occasion, I do have the grace to realize when something important has just been said, and I knew as I heard that story that I'd been zapped again. As it turns out, this was not just important, it was momentous (in the sense of 'for this moment').

Later, I thought about it, and again I was fortunate enough not to think too much. This was mostly because I didn't know what to think. I knew this image applied to my life, but I didn't see just how it applied to the situation we'd been hashing out. So when thinking didn't prove fruitful I just went with it. I imaged that wave and I tossed myself into it and I rode it. That certainly worked. The image wanted to be used that way, not in reasoned thinking. That wave that I summoned up in my imagination took me for a wild ride and tossed me down on a beach and didn't come back for me. I waited quite a while, waiting to be carried off again and knowing all the time that the wave wasn't coming back.

And then I knew. Prayer is one of these sharp-edged realities. We do it. God does it in us. Both are true. If we don't hold both of those realities together we'll go off in some funny direction and maybe get in trouble. And while I was lying there on that beach (in my mind) I saw the tiny cracks in my facade of spirituality where I had let in the attitude that my prayer depends entirely on me. It's my doing, my planning, my spending the right amount of time, my working with thoughts and distractions. It wasn't conscious, but it was what I was doing. And the wave was only going to put up with so much of that, and then it was going to dump me and not come back.

This is so easy to do in a spiritual journey. Early on in my spiritual searching I was given a saying: "Pray as if everything depends on your prayer and work as though everything depends on your work." It appealed to me because of it's insistence on balance between work and prayer (very Benedictine!). But it wasn't until years later that I realized that it isn't balanced at all. Expressed that way, it has the subtle insistence that everything depends on ME. My work, my prayer. For me, anyhow, I need something more like: "Work as though everything depends on you, and pray as though everything depends on God." That comes closer to getting the balance where I need it to be.

I had expected that this little visualization exercise would give me some ideas to work on, or thoughts about a way I could use to go forward. This is all about me, remember? Instead it was complete in itself. After I did it, a new road opened in front of me. All I need to do when I sit down to meditate is to image that wave, and that seems to restore the balance I need. I'm not the one in charge of that, but I do have to cooperate with it. It's an immense power/reality that I have to work with, sing to, make love with. If I do that, my prayer is ok. Otherwise I get dumped.

Ain't God wonderful?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Miscellaneous

A couple of things about this past week:

On Thursday, New Year's Eve, Br Bernard became a United States citizen. He is from Belgium and has been in this country for a long time. Now that he has made his vows for life, he thought it was time to declare his Stability politically as well as religiously.

The ceremony was in New York City and several of us went to be with him for the occasion. I'd never witnessed a "Swearing In" as the Bailiffs referred to it, and I have been really looking forward to it. It turned out to be a combination of a number of things, including a lot of empty time.

We were to be there by 9:00(a.m.) and we were there quite early, mostly by design. We didn't know what the traffic might be like, and it can easily take an hour or more after you get to Manhattan to negotiate the streets of the lower part of the Island, so we left plenty of time. As it turned out, no one was around Lower Manhattan on New Year's Eve Morning, so even though we got lost in a minor way in the twisting streets of that part of the City, we arrived at the Daniel Patrick Moinahan Court House about 45 minutes early. Bernard, who had been in New York for a day already, got there a while after the rest of us.

It took a little while to discover what the shape of the morning would be like and that it was mostly going to consist of waiting. The first two hours were for registering the 52 people who were being made citizens. This was done individually, and each person was closely questioned and signed lots of papers. Bernard had to swear, among other things, that he hadn't become "A Habitual Drunkard" since his last interview 2 weeks ago. The rest of us sat. And sat. And sat. Luckily Bernard was in the first group of people to be processed, so when he was done we did some of our sitting in the cafeteria and had a snack. And sat some more.

We got back to the Court Room at 10:45, when we had been told to arrive. The judge entered at 11:00. The ceremony was pretty informal, complete with a sort of Mutt and Jeff routine by the two Bailiffs which was pretty funny at times. But when the judge entered I found myself suddenly very moved as the Bailiff called out the words you have heard in movies so many times: "All rise. Hear ye, hear ye. The Court of the Southern District of New York is now in session, The Honorable ________ ______ presiding. Draw near and be heard."

All of the candidates stood and swore their oath of citizenship and then we all stood and pledged allegiance to the Flag. I can't remember the last time I did that, but it may have been in Junior High School. I still know all the words. Then the judge gave a short speech in which he congratulated the candidates, who came from all over the earth - from, as he said, Albania to Yugoslavia. He then talked about the duties of citizenship - voting, paying taxes, serving their country when there is need - and urged them to not discriminate against any of their fellow citizens. He was direct and personable. He obviously liked doing this.

Then each of the 52 candidates was called forward by name and received their certificate and a copy of the Constitution and it was over. There wasn't a whole lot to it, but it was quite obviously important and made quite an impact. There was lots of picture taking afterward and people were clearly going off to celebrate.

As were we. We had lunch in one of the nice restaurants that New York supplies in profusion. We toasted the new citizen and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I'm so glad I was there to share those moments and to be part of this transition. It was very good. Then we drove home and arrived about 2 minutes before the bell rang for the First Vespers of the Feast of the Holy Name (New Year's Day).

The other thing I'm musing about is evidence that was handed to me this week that at my advanced age, I apparently am still shockable. Hard to believe, I know, but it happened. It was in a conversation with a guy I've known for a while and have recently been getting to know better. We were sitting together one morning and had been sharing some personal stuff, as people do when they are deepening a friendship, when quite unexpectedly and with just about no preparation, he said (as well as I can recall): "I might as well say this now: I've been praying for you for quite a while. I just figured that someone who upholds a lot of people should have someone upholding him."

I stammered my thanks. I wonder what my face looked like. I was truly shocked. It probably isn't any exaggeration at all to say that I was stunned. Of course it was a good kind of shock/stun. A really wonderful one, actually. What a great gift. But shock/stun just the same.

Why? I had to puzzle with it and run it around and the answer is embarrassing, but it's the same old thing. I had a "Christian" upbringing. I was told, over and over, beginning at an age where it wasn't even appropriate: "You shouldn't think about yourself. You should think about other people." We know by now that, whatever truths are hidden in a phrase like that, it's simply no way to deal with the problems of narcissism, much less a way to teach Christian ethics. But the result is that like so many other people, I'm thrown out of balance when someone actually attempts to give me some support. Sigh!

All of that aside, there's also another level of stuff here that has been percolating in me since this happened. To have someone say they had undertaken not just to pray for me but to have that prayer be a support for me, and to do it without needing to tell me about it, and to keep at it for a considerable time just because he thought I would need it, was a surprise gift of considerable magnitude to me. I just hope I managed to react appropriately. I can't, in fact, remember anything I said. Sometimes relationships produce things that are a total surprise, and this was one of them. I have no idea whether I managed to express how much this meant.

It is also one of the things that I think life, and our faith, are all about.

It has made me spend a lot of time reflecting on the truth of human connection. So much of the fabric of life is about the things we do for each other just because we think other people are important. At its best, it's an imperative, not something that we do to be recognized or thanked. We depend, very deeply, on people we may not know and on actions and kindnesses that we never hear about, but which support and strengthen us anyway. This is truly what Intercession is about, and why it is so important. In the end, the major importance of Intercessory Prayer isn't what we can get God to do for other people. It's just about weaving the fabric of life with the threads that are us and God and others. It's about standing as a support for others, as a force for kindness and healing in their lives, and as a concern for their well-being, if they know of our concern or if they don't. That's a lot more important for all of us in the end.

I think about the people across the river in Hyde Park for whom I have prayed every night for years, and for whom I will pray for as many years as I have left. It's important to me to be involved with them like that. When I do it, I'm not particularly asking for anything for them. I'm just expressing my bond with them and doing what I can to call down Grace on us all. Who knows what importance it has to them; most of them will never know about it. But is it important? Oh yes, it is very important that people do this. We really do depend on it, whether we know it or not. So it was breathtaking (literally) to me to discover that I was sitting across from someone who shares this belief and this little private part of me and was giving the same gift to me. Humanity depends on this sort of exchange.

Little things often move me more that big ones. This is a very happy New Year.