Sunday, May 30, 2010


This is the week for BE (that's Bee Eee). Short for Benedictine Experience.

BE is a Guesthouse program that we have offered in May every year for more than 20 years. It used to last for 9 days, but since the recession began the market for long programs has been way down, so we've altered it and it's now 5 days long. After several years of declining attendance the number of participants is now back up. Over the years we've had as few as 4 participants and as many as 23. This year is an average group - 11. It's been a really nice sized group for the experience.

It's quite a diverse group. In age they range from grad school to (being polite) farther along in life. They come from all over. Usually we expect people from the "quadri-state" area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania) and a few Pennsylvanians are part of the group this year, but most have come from further afield: a couple from Virginia, three people from a parish in a town in the mountains of Western North Carolina and two from Ontario in Canada. And there's a good deal of religious diversity as well. Of course most are Episcopalians or Anglicans (the people from Canada), but there is a Mennonite minister from the Pittsburgh area, a Unitarian from Philadelphia and a charismatic Baptist from Hong Kong. We haven't lacked for interesting conversation.

BE is a program that introduces people to the Benedictine life by having them live their days here by the Benedictine pattern of prayer, work and study. Benedictine Experience was begun by the noted author Esther de Waal during the time that she was in Canterbury and has grown from there, especially in this country. The very first one to be offered in an actual Benedictine monastery was here at West Park in the '80's, and we've been offering them ever since.

Participants (we call them BE'ers) attend the Offices in Church, have quiet times for prayer and meditation and get some instruction in the ways of individual and liturgical prayer. They have classes each morning which cover various areas of the monastic life. The afternoons are for work, this year mostly in the gardens and in getting the porches and other outside areas nicely arranged for summer. In the evenings they have a good long time for a gathering with various members of the monastic community for sharing, questions and general conversation.

So they pray together, they study together, they work together, and they share their experience with each other and with us. It shouldn't be any surprise that what results is a community. It is, in fact, quite remarkable how quickly community forms in these days. People usually come to Benedictine Experience expecting to learn something, and discover that in fact they have become something. The evening conversations range over a very wide spectrum of topics and as the week progresses the talk moves to fairly deep areas of their own faith and lives, and those of the monks. Last night, as the program began to draw to an end, there was a deep and moving gratitude expressed for what we had offered and what they had received.

I think that BE is one of the best things that we do. It really does introduce people to the monastic life, and it's the only really effective "explanation" of monasticism that I know. The most frequent question we get is: "But what do you do?" BE is the answer to that question. It does open peoples' eyes. Not infrequently it opens their lives and their faith as well. It's not unusual for people to come back year after year for BE, and to become close friends and Associates of Holy Cross. A couple of years ago one of the participants described his experience as "one of the 3 best weeks of my life."

Of course having Benedictine Experience in a monastery is ideal, but in fact most of the programs are offered in retreat centers and other places not associated with an actual monastic community. I've worked in some of those programs and I've always been impressed with how it works. Get people together to pray, to work and to study together and give them time to share their experience and community forms. It has happened that way every time I've participated in a BE.

This year I have not only the Holy Cross BE, but a special treat - in July I'm going to be leading the study sessions at a week-long Benedictine Experience at Canterbury Cathedral in England. When I was first asked, two years ago, how I would feel about doing a week-long BE in Canterbury, my immediate reaction was that I would feel like I was in heaven. We'll see how it actually works out, but it would be fair to say that my expectations are quite high, both for myself and for the 50 people who will be participating. I've got my tickets, and I already know what I'm going to pack.

I'm ready!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost and on

So here we are at the feast of Pentecost - the Coming of the Holy Spirit. For the past week I've had a sense of this feast that is fresher than I can ever remember. Since Ascension the liturgy has been longing for the coming of the Spirit, and I seem to have caught some of that longing, and I have a feeling of understanding, in a really fresh and new way, that this celebration really is the crown and culmination of the whole Easter season: it's the point towards which we have been moving since Easter Day.

So it's about 11 o'clock on Pentecost morning and we've had our liturgy, and it was grand. Towards the beginning of our celebration we read the account of the first Pentecost 2,000 years ago, and hear again of the mighty wind and the different "tongues" of fire and of the tongues of speech that the Apostles found themselves uttering and while that reading was going on, several of us created a murmuring babble of different languages to accompany it.

When that was finished we blessed oil for anointing - one of the oldest symbolic actions that the church has. And then the whole congregation anointed each other with the oil we had just blessed. As with the Foot Washing on Maundy Thursday and the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, it is always really moving to see the faces of people as they come forward. On Pentecost there are always smiles and looks of anticipation, as well as some anxiety from people who have never done this before. But it's easy to see that they are touched (physically, of course, as well as emotionally) as they receive anointing and then turn to mark the forehead of the person behind them with oil while they say "May the Spirit of God live in you." Many people have never done this sort of thing in Church, and it expands their experience both of their faith and of themselves.

Then we floated seven candles in the oil we had just blessed and used for anointing, and we brought the fire from the Paschal Candle and as we lit the candles we named the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. While we were doing that the Paschal Candle was put out, marking the beginning of the end of Easter for another year.

Of course the rest of the day will still be full of the Pentecost celebration. There will still be the antiphons at the Offices and the reading of the various Scriptural accounts. And those seven lights in the oil burn until the end of the day, and that's really nice, especially for a candle freak like myself. But it also has the sense of something winding down, the end of a significant time, and the turning to face in another direction.

Now all of the Alleluias stop. I'm not one of those people who feels tired of so many alleluias by the time the Easter season comes to an end. They stir up joy in me every time we sing or say them. Those alleluias touch something down at my core and ignite a little spark of joy each time they go by in one of our services. But it's been 50 days after all, and a change is due. It feels right to be finished with the Easter season and turning in that different direction.

When we start our next week, everything will feel different. There a sparseness to the ordinary time, compared to the rich symbolism and liturgical action of the past several months since Lent began - and really since Advent and Christmas. Now it really will be . . . . . ordinary, for a long time. And I really do love the feeling of the transition into the ordinariness of the coming season. Pentecost has been here to teach us the depth and reality of ordinary time, and now its time to learn to live that out once again.

I am a person who lives by the liturgy. It's just as well, since I'm a Benedictine monk, and we've sure got plenty of liturgy. But I'm one of those people for whom liturgy is always unfolding something new and in whom it stirs up unexpected things. This morning at Communion, I lifted the chalice to my lips and felt an enormous, well, something. A Presence, a Force, a (yes) Communion. For an instant a world beyond this one touched and held me. And then I was back in our church and the liturgy was continuing. But it was a lovely gift and one that will stay with me.

My days, my months, my years are marked by the flow of our liturgy. It's energizing sometimes, and boring sometimes, and revealing sometimes and surprising sometimes, and there are times when it's beautiful and times when it's not. And it's my life and where I turn for my nourishment and the place where I finally understand the meaning of my faith and my existence.

That's why I'm a monk, and why being a monk has been such a wonderful gift to me.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Vagaries of the Incense Business

Just in case you think that monks are insulated from the craziness of retail sales...

Many of you will know that we make incense here - and that by "we" I mean me. I've been in charge of the incense business for about 20 years now and it is one of my great loves. It is my craft and by now Holy Cross Incense bears my stamp. I've made enough changes and improvements over these years that my mark is definitely on our incense.

We make a good incense. Each of our blends is made from pure frankincense and myrrh, blended with essential oils, perfume oils and balsams. Most commercial incenses are diluted with sawdust, and we don't do that, so our product is quite concentrated. This means that our incense is very intense, and this has an advantage: the less you use the better it smells. Sometimes I have to work hard to convince customers of this, but it's true. The price is also quite moderate, compared to some other blends, so Holy Cross Incense is a real bargain. It smells great, and you can use less.

There are four blends; Santiago (Lemon), St Augustine (Rose), Sancta Crux (Rosewood) and St Benedict (Herbal - not sweet). The major ingredient is frankincense granules, which are called "peas". A bit of myrrh is added and then a special tincture of the special ingredients for each blend is stirred in and the whole batch is allowed to dry, with daily stirring.

Our incense is intended for church use. It burns on charcoal, and is usually used in a thurible, or censer, though some parishes do burn it in a bowl, as we do here at the monastery. A few people use it at home, but the fact that you have to have a heat proof dish or bowl and have to get the charcoal lit means that most people will opt for incense sticks or cones which are easier to use in a home setting.

We sell it by the pound or the half pound, and as I've said you don't need much. If a church uses it just a few times a year - Christmas and Easter say. and maybe a couple of big feasts - a half pound will do most places for a couple of years or even longer. Parishes that use it more frequently will order a pound or two at a time. Places that use it enthusiastically every week will usually need about 5 pounds a year, though most of them will order smaller amounts more frequently than yearly. Santiago is the biggest seller, followed by St Augustine, then Benedict with Sancta Crux at the bottom of the line (though it is my personal favorite).

And now we come to the tricky part. There is a substantial market for St Augustine, but it is the slowest of the blends to dry, or "cure". I can get a batch (5 lbs) of Santiago ready in 4 or 5 days. Benedict and Sancta Crux each take a week to 10 days, slightly longer in summer. But Augustine takes at least a month to cure, and if the weather is hot and humid it can be longer. So I have to take care that the stock of St Augustine doesn't get very low, because it takes a long time to rebuild. I try to keep about 20 pounds of each of the blends on hand, so that I always have enough.

And thus we come to the story of the week. Business was quite heavy during Lent, which we normally expect, with parishes getting ready for Easter celebrations. I had enough to fill all the orders, but by Holy Week the supplies were pretty depleted, and we were seeing the bottom of the barrel for all of the different blends. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a concern. After Easter sales usually decline and stay very low through the summer, and then start to rise again in the fall. There's plenty of leeway for rebuilding our supplies.

But not this year. This year the sales have continued right on, and big orders. I don't know why. One never knows, but last fall business was very light, which I put down to the state of the economy. It may be that people stretched their supplies and made them last through Easter, and are now having to restock. Who knows?

And what have they been ordering? St Augustine, of course. Nothing but. And only large orders. Parish after parish ordering 2 or 3 or 4 pounds. And it doesn't take too long, if your supply is 20 pounds, before you're looking an an empty bin. And because of the high humidity this spring, I can't get the new batches to dry. It is fingernail chewing time.

This week the crisis occurred. I've never seen a streak like this, but 7 weeks after Easter the orders are still coming in, and all of them are for St Augustine. This week I just had just enough left to fill the orders that came in and that was it. But also during the week the newest batch was finally ready. So I breathed deeply, gave thanks and admired my 5 pound reserve. Surely that will carry me for a while, until I can get some more finished.

On Friday afternoon, I got an order for 5 pounds of St Augustine.

All I can do now is hope. It's going to slow down; it always does. People are going to start ordering the other blends; they always do. Will that be this week? I hope that a new 5 lb batch will be ready within the next week, and several more are curing after that, but right now I'm holding my breath. I hate to put people on back order. Only once in 20 years have I had to do that, and that was only for one customer. Not only is it not good business, but it just makes it harder to finally replenish the stocks, and I'm going to be away a lot this summer, which is stock rebuilding time.

Yes, this is very much small potatoes. And yes, no doubt we will negotiate this tempest one way or another. I can always send partial orders if I have to, and given that our incense is usually used over a period of time, that will probably work just fine. But every one with a business worries about stuff like this, and our business may be small and our worries minuscule compared to General Motors, but I still get stirred up about it.

I do my best to let you know what life in a monastery is like - all the ups and downs. I write a good deal about various spiritual issues, because that is what our life is concerned with. But life has lots of other things, and this is one, and it's my issue of the week. Next week it will be something else.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Weekend of Meditating

I'm late this week because I wasn't available this morning at the time that I normally write these pieces. At noon today Mary Gates and I finished conducting our most recent meditation retreat. The two of us have been offering these retreats for 8 years now. It began sort of by accident. I was the Administrator of the Guesthouse at the time and we had a traditional Labor Day Insight Meditation Retreat. Then during that summer the man who had conducted the retreat for several years suddenly discovered that parents' weekend at his daughter's college was on Labor Day weekend and he couldn't do the retreat.

What to do? The retreat was a standard part of our guesthouse offerings by that time, and many people would be expecting it. It was also an important source of income. We had to find something to replace it, and I had no idea what that would be.

At the time Mary and I were in a class on Buddhist religion moderated by Jose Reissig, who is the teacher who runs the Meditation Group that I attend on Wednesday evenings. She and I had been friends for some time, and I was aware of her background in Centering Prayer, and I had been teaching the Jesus Prayer for many years, and just off the cuff I just said: "Do you think that you and I could do a retreat on the meditative traditions of Christianity?" Mary said: "We probably could." Jose said: "I think you should do it." And so the Labor Day Christian Meditation Retreat was born.

It was conceived as an introduction to the practice of meditation, using the forms of meditation that are in common use in the Christian churches at the present time, and it proved to be very popular. A couple of years later we added a weekend in the spring at a more "advanced" level, for people who had experience in meditation. It offers more silence and meditation and less teaching and sharing. It also has been quite popular. And so we have gone, year after year, and people are still coming. Each retreat brings back people who have come before and also brings some new participants. These retreats have been very rewarding, both for those who attend and for Mary and me. Almost always they end with expressions of gratitude from the participants and with a sense for us as teachers that they were well worth the effort.

Mary and I work very well together. We each have backgrounds in both Christian and Buddhist meditation practices and have very similar approaches to meditation. We work pretty seamlessly together. We can, and often do, finish each others' sentences, or offer exactly the right correction to something the other one has said. People often remark on how effortless our collaboration seems, and it's one of the best parts of the retreats for me.

This spring's retreat was small. We scheduled it on a weekend that had enough available space in the Guesthouse, without noticing that it was Mother's Day weekend. We had 9 participants instead of the usual 20. I had some unease about that but that quickly melted away. It was exactly the right size. The people who came had a variety of levels of experience but were all very motivated and hard working. The small numbers gave people the opportunity to ask everything and say everything they needed to in the short periods we had for talking and sharing. It had the feeling that the people who really needed to be here were the ones who had come. I had no feeling of lack during the entire weekend. It was different from a larger group, but it was a nice difference and I'm glad that we had this experience.

Our spring retreats offer brief introductions to the practice of meditation using Centering Prayer and the Jesus Prayer, with some emphasis on the differences in each practice, since the use of the Jesus Prayer is a traditional "concentration practice" and Centering Prayer is much more formless and is centered in an intention rather than a phrase. There is always one other class on some aspect of meditation practice, and one session for questions and sharing. Otherwise it is silent, and the hours are for sitting (or walking) quietly and meditating. This year at the closing session, one of the participants remarked that she had come specifically because this retreat offered more time to practice: she really wanted more meditation than the introductory retreat offers. But she found by the end of the afternoon of the 2nd day that she was really being challenged by the amount of time that we provided. My reaction was: "Good. That means that we are offering just the right amount." We do try to challenge people on several levels, and this group responded with enthusiasm. It is such a privilege to be able to guide people who are seeking a knowledge of God.

Of course, the teachers don't get the same experience that the participants do. We have to keep an eye on how everything is going and be aware of what people are needing. There are all kinds of things that we need to be alert to. But even so, it is good to have those hours to join in the practice.

And it's hard work. From time to time I'm amazed at how much energy it takes to sit still and be quiet. People find they have used a lot of energy by the time it's over. I have had some health issues in recent weeks, so my energy levels weren't all that high to begin with, and I find that I'm very, very tired now. But Monday is coming, and I can rest. For now I'm happy at what I gave and what I got. It's a good ministry, one which gives people some important experiences and in which I find joy. I'm so glad that I had the inspiration for it all those years ago.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ordinary Week

When I thought about this week, the first thing that came to mind was that there was nothing particular about it. It was ordinary. Nothing outstanding came to mind. Not bad, mind you. Not boring. Just ordinary.

So what do you say about an ordinary week?

So I thought about the guests, who are such a major part of the experience of this place. When I did that, I found that actually I wouldn't describe this week's guests as ordinary. They were as interesting and diverse as our guests usually are. One was a Southern Baptist pastor from Poughkeepsie (think about that for a minute). He pastors a congregation that was established by southerners who came to the mid-Hudson Valley to work for IBM and wanted some religion that was familiar to them. Then when IBM downsized, they returned to the South, leaving the Church as a sort of outpost in these parts. He was a warm, friendly and outgoing man, who was here to do some discernment about going into foreign mission work.

We also have here a nun from a nearby contemplative community who has come for retreat. Her community and ours have had a relationship of friendship for many years, and we share each others' celebrations from time to time, but to have one of them here for retreat is a new experience. It's a nice experience, too. It's very good to get the know her and her community in this way.

We also have 2 monks from a fledgling Benedictine community in Mississippi with us. We first got to know them when one of the brothers, who is a musician, came here for our Flute Master's Classes in the summer several years ago, and the relationship has been growing ever since. Now the whole community - both of them - have come to visit for a while to experience our life and deepen our sharing. Tonight several of us are going to our favorite Chinese restaurant in Woodstock. A very monastic thing to do on a Sunday night. A growing relationship - how ordinary is that? Quite ordinary, of course, full of quite remarkable moments.

An Alanon group that has come yearly for about 30 years now is also here with us this weekend. We have watched them grow (and watched some of them grow old), and they are a very established part of our life in May. And other people, singly or as couples, have come to be here with us. Yes, it's just an ordinary week, full of people who are actually not so ordinary.

I suppose that a week of ordinariness might introduce some boredom into the life. I suppose. But actually that's not the way it takes me, because I just seem not to be inclined to boredom. When things just go along as usual, my mind turns to noticing small things that sometimes go by without much attention paid. I've spent nearly 50 years now listening to the sound of the train whistles and don't pay much attention, don't even notice them most of the time. But last night I found myself paying deep attention to the plaintive wail of a train as it hurtled through the Valley on its way to Albany, and maybe points beyond. It was a beguiling sound that seemed to speak of many half-heard things, and it was a comforting sound. It was good to really open up to it, and to pray for the people on the train, and to wonder if any of them were noticing us as they went by.

And one evening this week just before Compline a bird in a tree just outside the Church sang the most amazing song. I don't know what kind of bird, and I wish I did. It hasn't sung again since that night, but it was sure singing it's heart out on that one evening. Just for just a few minutes it filled the area with an extraordinary sound of beauty, and made me glad and grateful.

I watched the slow growth of the pansies that I planted just outside the sacristy. They are putting out their first blossoms now, and each one is a revelation, in the manner of pansies. They are such wonderful combinations of bold color. With the weather suddenly turning warmer, the plants should begin to grow this week and then the display will get really nice.

The ordinariness also makes it possible to turn my attention more closely to the Psalms as they come and go through the week. What an amazing combination of emotions and thoughts float by, sometimes in the course of singing a single Psalm. People sometimes complain about the completely unashamed way in which the Psalms put all of human experience before God, and before us, but I'm a follower of an English Benedictine Abbot who said: "If you don't cope with the anger in the Psalms, you're unlikely to cope with it in yourself." True for me. And not only the anger, but the sorrow, and the joy, and the complaining and the self-satisfaction and the suffering. The Psalms are truly a mirror in which I behold myself, and I find that in an ordinary time my beholding can go deeper.

In this ordinary week, I found myself giving thanks for the gift of living in this extraordinarily beautiful place. And one evening before Compline I was overtaken by a renewed sense of how lovely our Church is and how deep the atmosphere in it is. And one morning the sky was a really extraordinary color of blue.

Ordinary? I suppose so. But this ordinary week has given me some freedom to see how very unordinary life really is,if our hearts and our attentions are alert. Then we see that the fabric of ordinariness is woven of many colors and patterns and the experiences of an ordinary time is really full of wonders. I love discovering small amazing things!