Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signs of the Times

Advent comes with the message of being awake, aware and alert to the signs of the times. As it happens, I've been thinking about some of those signs as they have revealed themselves to me, and to others in our community, in some recent conversations.

One was with a guest in who was here a few weeks ago. It was at the noon meal on a Sunday, and we fell into conversation because we were sitting next to each other at the table. She had never been here before, but our Guesthouse had been recommended to her by a friend, and she was curious to see what monasteries were like, so she had come for an overnight visit.

"I'm interested in your life" she said. "Tell me, what do you people find to do to keep your time productively occupied?" I think there was a bit of a pause at that point, because I was rather stunned. Having empty time which is not productively occupied is not one of my problems.

Then I had to search for something that might be meaningful to say. It seemed clear that talking about prayer wasn't going to do it for her, at least as a starter, so I finally said: "Well, we run a large retreat center." "Oh?" said. That part of our life seemed also to have escaped her.

This goes together with another incident, one that happened to one of our brothers some time ago. He was coming back from a church service in Poughkeepsie and picked up a hitchhiker who was looking for a ride across the Mid-Hudson Bridge. It's relevant to the story to mention that he was wearing his habit at the time. The ride began with some silence, and a few tries at conversation that didn't go anywhere. Then the man leaned over, fingered the sleeve of our brother's habit and said: "You work in a laundry or something?" The sight of a white monastic habit with a large black cross did not seem to convey anything (except perhaps a laundry).

Certainly the woman I was having lunch with is far from the only person that I have talked with to whom our life is a total mystery - and not an attractive one, at that. The view of a monk as a person who has nothing meaningful to do is hardly new. I've seen reference to judgments like that in writings from the 5th Century. I decided a long time ago not to be defensive in the face of encounters like these, but just to be as straightforward as I could and present our life as I see it. At one of those dinner table conversations I was once asked: "How do you justify a life like yours?", and I managed to say, with some grace, I hope: "I don't. I'm not interested in justifying this life. I just live it. And I find it very rewarding."

Encounters like these are not unknown to us, and they are getting more frequent I think. The monastic life is certainly often misunderstood. It also is more frequently quite foreign to the experience of people. Two of our brothers recently attended a meeting with some local business leaders, and it was clear from their comments that a certain number of them see the religious orders in this area principally as groups that pay no taxes and give nothing useful to the area in return. A few of them are pretty angry about it.

We can talk about the thousands of guests who come here each year, and how they shop in local stores in eat in local restaurants - and those who own those businesses will gladly testify to that. That's true, of course, but it also isn't why we're here. Why we are really here is harder to talk about, especially in a meeting of business leaders. But the truth is that we are here to pray, and that's the important thing that we do. And it's important not just to us, but to the area around us as well. In a society that is becoming more and more aggressively secular, it is crucial that there be places of the spirit present. We represent a dimension of the human personality without which people are not whole. The search for the Divine in the world around us and in the depths of our hearts is part of what it means to be human. To have places set apart for that is not just an optional extra. If you want evidence of how important this is, just look at the number of those who come here.

But we live, as I said, in a society that is becoming more and more secular. The Church scene as it has traditionally been is now often seen as irrelevant. Even the conservative Evangelicals with whom the word "Christianity" is so widely identified now are in trouble in many places. I recently saw an article which predicted a considerable upswing in feelings of rejection and anger towards to those churches in the years immediately ahead.

I don't think we need to look at this situation with dread, just with realism. The experience of Europe indicates that this sort of thing is likely to spread. It won't be even - there will always be places that are more religious than others, but it will happen. And we need to meet it with both openness and confidence. We need to see what a secular society has to teach us, and we need to know that we have something that is not going out of fashion. We are here to help make the search for God a reality and a possibility in our society, and that is a good and necessary thing to do.

Finding our way will probably not be easy. A lot of things are going to have to change. But the history of the human race indicates that the interior life is pretty resilient. It makes itself known practically everywhere there are people. Some recent research seems to indicate that our brains are hard-wired for it. And Benedictine monks have a tradition that knows the ways of this life. We know what the conditions are for deepening it and what the difficulties are that are met on the way. We offer something really crucial for humanity: wholeness and wisdom.

I have no regrets about having lived my life in the pursuit of this path. I'm really glad that I have been one of those who have learned the way and are passing it on. A good deal of my life has been spent in exploring the ways of the interior search and of figuring out how it can be passed on to this generation. This is what we have to offer. It is no small thing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Learning, Teaching & Grace

I have learned a new skill. I am very happy and satisfied.

I learned how to link this blog to the Home Page of the Holy Cross Monastery web site.

You may have noticed that there has often been a lag between when I posted the blog entry on Sunday mornings, and when the description of it on our web site matched the actual new blog. That's because I didn't know how to do it myself and someone else - either Br Bernard or Br Charles - had to do it, and it sometimes took a while for that to happen.

Over the years I've thought about doing it myself, but the last time I asked it would have required installing a piece of software on my computer and learning to use that software and no one seemed to think it was worth the effort for a 2-minute job once a week.

But a week or so ago I just got inspired to ask again. And it turns out that there have been changes in our web site that now make it possible for me to do it fairly simply.

So a couple of evenings ago I asked Bernard to teach me how to do it. It took a while because I'm a computer dunce. I know very little about how anything outside of my usual programs is done and I'm not comfortable poking around in it myself, because I've caused some disasters in the past.

Bernard was really good. He and I are both experiential learners. I don't learn things by being told how to do them. I learn by doing them. I never know how to get anywhere until I've driven there myself. You may give me clear and expert directions for any new task, but I don't learn from that; I learn by following the directions and doing it myself.

So Bernard gave me the instructions and I wrote them down as we went along, because I knew I wouldn't remember them, and then he patiently guided me through the process of following his instructions while I did them several times to make sure I knew what I was doing and why. It took a while because it involved learning several new techniques, and because he learns the same way, Bernard could see how I was doing it and he was content to follow along at my pace. When we were done I was absurdly happy. Learning this task gave me great satisfaction.

This is partly because in the past I've made the mistake of trying to learn computer stuff from people who teach essentially by lecturing, which is quite a good style, but unfortunately not of much use to people who learn like I do. This often left me in a deeper hole than I was in when we started, and the frustration, of course, slows down the whole learning process. As it turned out, I asked the right person, and now I'm really pleased. (None of this, by the way has anything to do with intelligence. Your learning style is quite a different thing from how smart you are, which is something that schools are just beginning to catch up with).

All of this has something to do with how prayer is taught, which is what I have spent much of my ministry doing. Christianity has a particular deficit in the teaching of skills useful for those who are drawn to prayer. Until recently there was, in fact, very little available to teach people who felt that they wanted to know about the ways of contemplative praying. There are a number of reasons for this, including the centuries of arguing about whether human effort was of any use at all or whether all good things came only from God. In addition, in recent times contemplative prayer has been regarded as the exclusive preserve of "specialists" - ie monks and nuns.

But in the last century a great thirst for deeper prayer began to manifest itself in our culture and Christians had a lot of catching up to do. I've been part of that process. In recent yeasr I've been involved largely in the teaching of the ways of meditation, but I've also done it with intercessory prayer and with lectio divina. I've spent much of my life discovering how to teach people to do these forms of prayer.

The success I've had has been because I paid attention to my learning style. I knew what I had to have in order to learn: I had to have a short, clear instruction and I had to practice it and then I had to ask questions about what I experienced. Any number of times I have said that one of the most valuable things about a prayer group is that I can ask the same question over and over and over in many different ways, until I finally get the answer.

But what does "teaching prayer" actually mean? It means, first of all, having as your foundation the knowledge that prayer is a relationship. It's the love relationship between you and God. That's it. You don't go anywhere without getting that straight at the beginning.

Next is knowing that I'm not "teaching" anything other that a way to be in God's presence, so that the relationship can develop. Centering Prayer is particularly good at this. Their literature describes the way of this prayer as sitting still in God's presence and consenting to the work God is doing in you. Yes, that's it. Now, how do I do that? Well, here are the guidelines........

Hey, folks, that's experiential learning. It's not a denial of grace, or a downplaying of the role of God in prayer. It's just saying that if I'm going to learn how to do this thing I need to know how. Just the instruction "sit still" is of some use, but limited. How do I sit still? That's where the learning begins - at least for me, and for a lot of other people I've encountered.

You may also have noticed that in the prayer teaching that is current in Christian circles these days, a lot of it sounds very similar to Buddhism. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, a lot of this stuff in universal. A certain amount of inner exploration is the same for everyone, whatever their religion.

Secondly, when Christians started trying the meet the great need that was being expressed for the teaching of prayer, the Buddhists were the ones with the directions at hand. And they have lots and lots of directions. They have spent centuries working out just how people are led into the ways of deeper experience. And people who went East in search of prayer came back with all this stuff, which then made its way slowly into the broader culture. It turned out that there were many useful tools there which are now used in many different contexts. And the Buddhists are smiling.

I'm smiling, too. I'm ridiculously pleased at knowing my new computer technique. I'm also pleased at the years of work I've done in coming to know the ways of prayer and in sharing that knowledge with other people. And I'm quite happy knowing that my style of learning is quite respectable. It has turned out to be useful to quite a number of people over the years. Just paying attention to how I need to learn has caused any number of people to say to me: "You explain things so well." And I smile. Because I know that it really isn't the explanation that matters. It's knowing how a person needs to learn, and making sure that's paid attention to.

Now what's the next thing I can learn about my computer?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Meditation and a Chipmunk, with bows to Mother Teresa

Yesterday I went to a day-long meditation retreat at the home of Mary Gates, with whom I lead meditation retreats here at Holy Cross. There were a dozen of us there, including the teacher, and we had a great day. Very simple. Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, lunch, sit, walk, etc. The usual meditation retreat. It was exactly what I needed, and I came back more centered and settled than I've been in a while.

I got home just in time for supper, and when I sat down at the table one of the guests asked me where I had been all day. So I told her, and then explained what I had been doing. The answer seemed to rather unsettle her. Why would I want to do that? After all, I lead meditation retreats, don't I? Why do I need to go to one? "No reading?", "No lectio divina?", "No discussion?" To each of those I replied that no, we just meditated, sometimes while walking and sometimes while sitting.

Thinking about that encounter later I was wondering how to go about explaining it to someone who has trouble understanding why anyone would do such a thing. After all, even if meditation retreats are more common than they used to be, many people never encounter that sort of behavior. Why would someone want to do that? And how is it explained?

Then I remembered the story of Mother Teresa, who was famous for getting up at 4 a.m. each day to pray. No matter where she was or how late she had been up, she got up at 4 for prayer. Apparently a reporter once asked her what she did when she prayed - how did she pray? "Oh," she said "I just listen to God". The reporter thought for a while and then said: "And what does God do?" "Oh," she said, "He just listens to me."

Probably some people would want some explanation or commentary, but for me it's quite self explanatory, and I intuitively understand it. The mutual exchange of listening really reaches me as a means of communication.

And then I thought about the chipmunk. I had been out for a walk in the hills just west of the monastery one morning. It was a beautiful mild sunny day, a perfect time for a walk in the hills. I was gone most of the morning (it was a Monday, our Sabbath Day) and at the end of my walk, as I was coming down our drive, there just by the little stone building we call the Goat House (no one knows why), was a chipmunk on a stone. He (or she) was busy with some small task, but when he saw me approaching he sat up on his hind feet, very alert. He made no move to run or hide, but he sat there very still, and very alert. I slowed down and when I got close to him, I stopped.

He stood there. I stood there. He waited. I waited. We watched each other. Time went by. We waited and we watched.

And then something really wonderful happened. He relaxed. His muscles just untensed and his whole body relaxed. You could watch it happening, little by little. And as he relaxed, so did I. He didn't stop watching me, nor did I lose the eye contact with him. He sat, I stood relaxed, and we went on watching each other. I, of course, don't know what was going on for the chipmunk, but he seemed pretty comfortable with it. At least he didn't want to leave. Neither did I.

I was really surprised at the power of that moment. The chipmunk moved into my life. No words were exchanged, no actions brought us together, we just stayed there in each other's presence. He looked at me. I looked at him. And over the great distance between a man and a chipmunk, some hint of communication came in the silence. The looking wasn't empty. Not at all. We were being with each other.

We stayed there for a long time. At several points I wondered how long this was going to last. But I didn't want to break the moment. At least from my vantage point, we had established some contact, and I didn't want to break it. And whatever was going on for the chipmunk, he didn't want to leave, either.

But finally the time came. He moved a little, and then I did. He looked around, and then in a wink he was gone, under a nearby rock, and the time was over. But that time still has power for me. I show no signs of forgetting. Over all the things that separate a man and a beast, we had reached out and been with each other. It didn't need words. It was very full.

So, could you use that to understand a day of meditation? For me, at least, it sure is a good explanation. "I look at God. God looks at me." And in that look so much is exchanged, and even though nothing "happens", so much does happen. Sometimes the doors to friendship, companionship, sharing and even love open in silence.

I probably need to get more skillful in talking about this and explaining it. But my difficulty is that it's so natural to me and it makes so much sense. I listen to God. God listens to me. What else do you need? Just doing that is so full. Sure, there is teaching that is helpful, and ways of putting yourself there that can make a difference, and there are books and books about that. But I think it helps to have a chipmunk to make sense of it all. A soft furry little creature who will interrupt his day just sit there and be with you.

I've never forgotten. And it still makes perfect sense to me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Turkeys and Teenagers

No big thing to reflect on this week. Just a couple of small happenings that helped make up the fabric of the week.

We have a flock of turkeys on our land. There are 20 or 25 of them and they live in the woods just at the edge of our property and love to feed in the meadow which is below the monastery, between our buildings and the river. In fact, we have a perfect habitat, because turkeys like to live at the edge of wooded land, with a large field available where they can get the grasses, grains, berries and slugs and other small creatures that they feed on. We see them mostly in the mornings and evenings, and our guests love to watch them making their way across the meadow, pecking at whatever they can find.

I saw them one morning, going slowly across the field as usual, and didn't think much about it. Then about a half hour later I went over to the Guesthouse and I was walking outside, on the river side of the buildings, and passed below the Little Cloister. As many of you know, our monastery is built in a U shape around a large old oak tree, and this makes a small cloistered space in the center of our buildings, with the Guesthouse on two sides and the Church on the 3rd side. The 4th side is open to the river. And there in the Cloister were the turkeys, all 2 dozen of them. It was crowded - they are BIG birds. They were milling aimlessly around, looking very much like a bunch of tourists who have just realized that they've gotten off the subway at the wrong station. Turkeys are programed to go straight ahead apparently, and the only way to get out of the cloister is to turn around and go back, which seems not to be something they do easily, and they hadn't figured it out when I came along. I stood there for a while, and they weren't coming up with a solution, and they also didn't seem to want to come in my direction while I was standing there, so I went on about my business. When I came back a few minutes later, they were gone - either into the woods or up the hill towards the road, I suppose. It was a nice encounter; one that revealed something about the lives of turkeys that I didn't know, and it's nice to get to know the creatures that share this spot with us.

The other thing I'm thinking about is the admission of a new Associate yesterday. Many of you will know that we have a group of Associates who keep a rule of prayer for their daily life, and who promise to pray for us and support is in various ways. There are in the neighborhood of 600 or 700 of them, and a substantial number of them are frequent visitors and some are close friends of the community.

The man who came to be admitted as an Associate this weekend has been known to us for quite a while. His father is a deacon who is also an Associate of many years and a good friend of the community. He came with his son for the ceremony, and they had with them some of the next generation - the new Associate's son and his nephew and one of their friends, all youngish teenagers. They had come to be with their father/uncle/friend as he committed himself to the ordered living of a spiritual life in association with a community of Benedictine monks.

It was a grand occasion. There is absolutely no missing the pride and joy of our new Associate's father in this step that his son is taking. And the kids have been an important part of the weekend in their own way. They hadn't been here very long before they were down in the meadow and then went on down to the river, where one of them fell in, so they started their visit off in good style. Yesterday they explored the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is the old Poughkeepsie railroad bridge, now refurbished and made into a state park, and they seemed to really enjoy that. And they have come to every office in the Church and to all the Eucharists, where they sit together on the first row - something that Episcopalians rarely feel comfortable enough to do. The community has sort of looked after them while they've been here, and whenever one of us asks how they're doing, they say that they are having a great time.

This is not an altogether unknown kind of experience. From time to time fathers bring their teenaged sons here to introduce them to a part of life that they find valuable, and to let them know that the living of a spiritual life is part of what it means to be a man. Some time ago we had a man who came for a weekend with his 13 year old son because, he told us, his father had brought him here when he was 13 and he has never forgotten it. Our society doesn't have much in the way of formal coming of age ceremonies for either boys or girls, so people have to make them up on their own, and it is a great privilege to be part of that growing into adulthood when we get a chance. It's also great to be part of a weekend that you know is forming memories that are going to last a lifetime.

There there it is - a week of sun and clouds, prayer and work, monks and associates, turkeys and teenagers. All part of the Benedictine life and all lifted to God in praise and gratitude.