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.