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.