Sunday, June 27, 2010

Monk in a Flurry

A flurry of preparation is upon me.

A week from today - July 4, no less - I fly to England. I land in London and then get transported to Canterbury. I'm providing leadership for a week-long Benedictine Experience that will take place at Canterbury Cathedral. This magnificent centuries-old building was a Benedictine monastery for hundreds of years, as were most of the ancient British cathedrals, and it still maintains a regular round of Offices and Eucharist each day, giving voice to the monastic tradition that lies behind the Book of Common Prayer which has guided Anglicans in worship for the past 400 years or so.

I wrote about Benedictine Experience just a few weeks ago, but if you didn't see that post, it is a program which is designed to let people experience the life of a monastic community by living in the pattern of Benedictine life for several days. We will have a group of about 35 people attending, mostly Americans. We are going to be housed in what I am told is a very fine facility called the International Study Center, which is just a few years old, and sits within the Cathedral precincts.

When Betty Swenson, the organizer of this program, asked me a couple of years ago how I would feel about doing an 8 day Benedictine Experience in Canterbury I told her that I'd feel like I was in heaven. Though I have not been to Canterbury in the past 20 years, I have been there many times, but never for more than a couple of days at a time. The opportunity to explore the cathedral and the town at leisure is more of a treat than I had ever hoped to have.

So what will we do? We'll pray several times a day, following the cathedral rhythm which has its roots in monastic tradition. This will include that most glorious of Anglican traditions - Evensong - every day. We'll have talks in the mornings (mostly delivered by yours truly, and Esther de Waal will come in to do one talk at the beginning). There will be work sessions in the afternoons (I'll be fascinated to see what this is like). In the evenings there will be informational or fun sessions, some just for the group and some presided over by the Cathedral staff. On Saturday night we will have a concert in the Cathedral - the Bach Magnificat and the Mozart Requiem no less. We'll have one day-long expedition to a monastery of Anglican Benedictine nuns at West Malling, which is not too far from Canterbury. And from 9:00 pm each night until after breakfast the next morning we'll have silence.

And the weather in Canterbury for the past week or so has been sunny and in the 60's and 70's. It really is almost too good to be true.

I come back on July 13 and and I have 3 - count them, 3 - days, and then I fly to Kansas City. I'm going to be at St Michael's Church in Mission, which is a suburb on the Kansas side of the line. Though I haven't done any work there in a number of years, I have deep roots at St Michael's. If I have a church home anywhere other than Holy Cross that's it. It's hard to describe how deep and important that place is for me. The only thing that could convince me to fly half-way across the country 3 days after getting back from England is an invitation from that parish. I'll be preaching on Sunday and giving a series of workshops in the evenings on meditation and contemplative prayer. They are wanting to start something that will be on-going, and it's such a privilege to be the one who helps to kick that initiative off. I get back here on the 26th, just a couple of days before our Long Retreat begins. I'm going to need it.

Hence my flurry this week. There are talks, sermons and workshop sessions to get ready before I go. There are a multitude of details to attend to and emails arrive about that every day. And there's all the of the business of getting ready, packing and making sure that the things I'm leaving behind here are attended to. If I get away with just a flurry, without it turning into something worse, I'll be fortunate.

So you will understand that I may be rather irregular in my blog postings for a bit. I'll try to get a thing or two posted about how it's going along the way as I get the time. But I can't promise how regular that will be. I'll just do my best.

Meanwhile you can think of me wandering about in the Medieval splendor of southern England. I've been preparing for 2 years and it's still hard to believe.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Called to Prayer

A number of jobs around the house are shared out in the community, week by week. I've written about being Refectorian, which is one of the jobs, and ringing the bells is another. There are a number of them, and one of them is called Closing Up. I am Closing Up this week (as well as Bell Ringer). Closing Up means that you go over to the Guesthouse sometime after Compline and make sure the doors are all closed, that lights that aren't needed overnight are turned off and that the coffee carafes are emptied and rinsed out, so that the Refectorian will have clean carafes to make coffee in before Matins the next morning.

The jobs begin on Saturday evening and go until the next Saturday noon, so I had my first evening of closing up last night. I went over to the Guesthouse and did as much as I could, but some of it had to be left because the group that is here this weekend was in the Refectory. So I did as much as I could and then headed back over to the monastery.

As those of you who have been here know, you get to the monastery by walking a corridor that goes around our Church, and last night when I got opposite the Church door there was again an experience that I've written about before: a small pressure that seems to reside in the pit of my stomach that can be fairly insistent, and that says something like "Come in". Some times I resist, but usually that's pretty futile. If I try to walk away, the demand seems to get stronger the further I get, and it finally becomes too much to be resisted. So whatever my initial reaction is, I usually wind up going in. Last night I didn't even bother trying to refuse the invitation, I just turned aside and went in. As it turned out, it was just for a few moments. I sat by the Tabernacle in the side aisle and was just quiet for a while. That seemed to do it, so then I went on to bed. Nothing any more "special" than that. I prayed for a while and went on my way.

In quiet conversations with friends who talk to me about their interior life, and sometimes in reading, I discover that I'm far from the only person who has these experiences. Frequently they seem to happen at night. I have a good friend who grew up in a small Evangelical church in which it is common for people - usually the women, I gather - to be wakened in the night to pray. He says that sometimes they know why, but often they have no idea, they just know they have been summoned to pray. He also says that some times they find out, maybe years later, what it was about, but that often they never know. These experiences aren't unusual apparently, but the people who talk about them seem to belong to Churches that are so small that none of us have ever heard of them. Those of us in the more usual churches seem just to deal with these "calls" however we do, and seldom talk about them.

My conviction is that these experiences are indeed common. But often we don't even notice, because we're not tuned in to that part of our lives, or we're embarrassed that they've happened, or we're afraid that people will think that we're crazy. But there is a whole society of people in the Anglican Communion (or at least there used to be) for people who feel called to pray in the middle of the night, and you can bet if that exists, there's a lot more out there than we ever hear about.

What is this about? Is God actually calling me to pray at that particular moment? God calling me? Well, I don't deny the possibility, but I think that speculating about these things is probably not particularly productive, because there isn't any certain answer, and the chance of getting "inflated" (as the Jungians say) is definitely there. But if we're not going down that analytical road, what do we make of this?

I think that one way of understanding is just to acknowledge the ancient Christian tradition that God dwells at the center of each of us, and that God reaches out to us at every moment. There is never a time when God is not reaching out to us, summoning us, inviting us, loving us. But mostly we don't know that's happening. The pressure of our daily lives and our constant distraction, and our semi-conscious conviction that "that sort of thing doesn't really happen" keep us from hearing.

But every once in a while that constant call breaks through, and we experience it. Often it happens at night because our defenses are lowered then. Sometimes it happens in a time of great need. Other times when our hearts are particularly open it will happen too. And some times we don't have any idea why it gets through. We only know that there is that small voice, that pressure at the pit of the stomach, that warming of the heart, that feels like an invitation. I also think that these things happen more frequently than we are conscious of. Often we half notice them and put them away. We're too busy, or too tired, or maybe too scared. It takes being sensitized to become aware of the "call" when it breaks through.

But once you're recognized it or heard it, then you don't forget it. Maybe you don't even answer it. There are plenty of times when I've said "no", because it seemed like whatever else was going on at the time was more important, or I was too worn out, or because I was doubtful about the whole thing.

However, if you do answer and actually sit down or turn aside or make room and pay attention to that little "call", a funny thing happens. You start hearing it again. Once the door swings open, it's likely to open up another time. The next time, it doesn't have quite so much trouble getting through. When you actually hear that small, insistent, loving voice/presence and respond to it, it tends to be there again. And again.

It's a grace. It's the realization that the Divine Presence does live deep at the center of me. So to consider again the question I mentioned above: "Am I being called to pray?", the answer is certainly "Yes!" But it's a bigger, broader call than I think of when this first starts happening. In fact, I'm called to pray all the time - everywhere, at all times, no matter what. I'm called to realize who I am, and to know that means that God's presence is always with me, and that my response is always called for. It's not that I'm being singled out because I'm special. In fact, I'm being singled out because I'm so ordinary. This is part of what it means to be a human being, as especially to be a Christian. Yes, it takes time to figure out what this means, and how to respond, and how anyone can possibly pray at all times. That Presence, which is meant to be part of our moment by moment experience is so closed off from most of us that we have to learn how to deal with it.

And that little call when I go by the door to our Church is just a summons to take one more step in realizing who I am, and what my life is about. It's important that I recognize those moments, and that I respond to them. Because responding means opening my heart, and that is the primary call of every Christian; to live with an open heart - open to God, open to the world, open to others. Even, if you can imagine, open to myself.

These special moments are, in fact, intended to become ordinary moments, part of the fabric of our lives, if we will but pay attention. In the words of one of the Quaker mystics: "There is that which is in you which will comfort and guide you. O, wait for it!"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wiped Out Monk

Chapter 2010 is over. I am fried.

That doesn't mean it wasn't good. It was, in fact, very good. We worked hard. We worked really hard.

When we finished yesterday around noon, I had an idea that I would do my blogging in the afternoon, so I could get it posted nearly on time. My mind thought that was a nice idea, but my body refused to cooperate. Not that I spent all the afternoon sleeping: it turned out that I was too tired to do that. But whenever I tried to think about doing something productive my mind tuned out. In the evening I watched a movie. So far today I've been doing things like laundry and emptying the trash baskets, but always with the idea that I'd get to my writing when the energy was sufficient. I have some social appointments in the next 24 hours too, and by the time we resume our usual schedule on Wednesday, I should be back in shape for normal work. I would say something about being 72 years old, but everyone around here seems to be in the same shape.

Our work was in communication with each other, and we did a good job. We worked hard to say what was important and to receive each other's sharing with respect. That takes a lot of energy. We used a technique that turns out to be quite effective. We sit in a circle and a question is proposed and anyone who wishes to respond does so. No one can speak more than once until everyone who wishes to participate has spoken. Then you can speak again if you want to. No one speaks more than twice. It turns out that this makes people think carefully about what they are going to say and it created an atmosphere in which we all listened with great care. It was a remarkable experience. It took quite a lot of energy.

We've been talking about our future. This year we didn't try to make big plans for the years ahead: we were laying a foundation for other conversations as time goes on. Like most monastic communities, as far as we can see we will be smaller in the years ahead. We are fortunate to have continued to have new men entering our Order, but the pace is slower than in the past, and it appears to us that the community will thrive, but it will be smaller. This is going to take respectful attention and careful planning, and we made a very good start this year. Of course, some initiatives are already in progress - the new school at our monastery in South Africa, for instance, and the plans for that and the support which will be needed occupied a good deal of our time. We also had time to hear from our Br Leonard, who is teaching at a seminary in Cape Coast in Ghana where we had a monastery for a number of years, and about his work for the Ghanian Church.

On Friday afternoon we had the great joy of the Life Profession of Br Randy Greve. It was a wonderful occasion for us all, even more so as it is the 3rd Life Profession that we have had in the last year - Br Bernard last fall, Br Daniel in South Africa last month and now Randy. And if God continues to be gracious, we will have 2 more in the next year. It has been a long, long time, since we have had so many men committing themselves to Holy Cross, and it's a good sign for the future with which we were concerned in our Chapter.

It's always a real treat when a Profession is celebrated during our Annual Chapter, with so many more brothers here than are usually present. There were also a good many of our friends and Associates present, as well as the members of several other religious orders, and our good friend and companion Br Vincent Ignatius OSB from St Joseph's monastery in Natchez, Mississippi was here to play the organ for the service, and as usual he coaxed some remarkable music out of our instrument. He is a very talented musician and is usually here each summer for one of our Flute Masters weeks.

Following the service we had a very special supper that everyone shared, and after the eating and the celebrating with good friends, the community had its own party on our porch overlooking the Hudson. It was a lot of fun, and even, on occasion, a bit raucous, and it made a very good end to a wonderful celebration. Randy, as many of you will know, was trained here at West Park, and has recently moved to our Priory in Toronto. In the fall he will begin seminary, and in a couple of years, we hope, he will be ordained to the priesthood.

After all of that was over we finished Chapter with our business sessions, passed some resolutions, received the budgets from all of the houses, had a final service in which we renewed our vows, as we do each year, and then adjourned for another year. Most of the brethren from other houses have now departed, and by tomorrow it will be just us again, and on Wednesday we'll start another year, and I, for one, am full of gratitude for what we had this week, and for the future that lies before us.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Airport Monk

This will be a short one, and I'm getting it up early, because I will be gone much of Sunday. Some of you will know that Br Bernard has been in his native Belgium for several weeks helping his family, particularly his parents. They are both in failing health, and he has been visiting them regularly in the past few years and he had planned another trip for this August. But in April the medical people said they thought that would be too long to wait. So he went home and has been working very hard ever since.

Last week his parents moved to a nursing home. They are able to have a large room together, which is a great consolation, and there is some relief in knowing they are in a place where they will get the care that they need in these difficult times.

Now Bernard is coming home for a bit. Our annual Chapter (the yearly meeting and conference for all of the Holy Cross monks from our 4 monasteries) begins on Tuesday and he is coming to be with us for these meetings. Today we found out that he will arrive at Kennedy Airport in New York tomorrow about 1:30 pm. So after Mass I will fix a sandwich for my lunch and take off for the City. There really isn't any way of knowing how long it will be before we return - there are so many variables including possible delays, long lines at Immigration and Customs, whether we want a meal on the way home - all that kind of thing. So I don't have any idea exactly when I will be home, nor whether there will be any time for blogging, so I'm just leaving this little note.

The following two days will see me at Stewart Airport in Newburgh to pick up two of our brothers from South Africa: on Monday I get Br Timothy Jolley and on Tuesday I will meet Br John Forbis. So my days will be filled with matters of transport. Actually I like going to airports, which I know is a bit on the odd side, but I often volunteer for these journeys, since I know that many people don't like to do it.

And waiting isn't any problem. If I have time to wait, I always have my wrist beads and I can meditate and having extra time for meditation is almost always a real treat. So I'm set to go. I'll try to get something down when we have a break during Chapter later in the week.