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.