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.

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