Saturday, December 25, 2010

Memories of a Beautiful Christmas

What a wonderful time! On all sides, from the community and from our guests and from visitors and people who came for the Midnight Mass I hear what a beautiful time it was. And certainly that resonates with what I have been feeling.

To begin with there was a sharing at the heart of it. This year we decided to share our celebration with the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit from Bluestone Farm in Brewster, New York, which is about an hour east of here. They are good friends of ours and we see them from time to time when they visit here or we go there. And we have some deep bonds with them in Suzanne Guthrie and Bill Consiglio who are Resident Companions of that community. They live there and share their lives with the sisters. Bill and Suzanne are also old, old friends of ours and Associates of our Community. Through the past few years both communities have talked about doing more together, and this year we decided that the time had come to do something major together - such as Christmas.

Of course, it had to be here: the Guesthouse business demanded the full attention of the Holy Cross brothers, so it only made sense that the sisters would come here. In the end they had a smaller presence than we had hoped because half of their community had a really severe virus and were too sick to travel. But two sisters, Sr Carol Bernice and Sr Helena Marie, came along with Suzanne and Bill, and their presence was a joyful deepening of our celebration.

For one thing, Sr Helena Marie is a very talented organist and her music was a tremendous addition to the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Before the Eucharist began she was joined by Suzanne on the flute and our Br Andrew on his Celtic Harp and our friend Reynaldo Martinez Cubero who added his beautiful voice. They provided a grand program of music while we all waited for the beginning of the mass.

Just having other Religious with us really changed our experience of this feast. We made every effort to really include the sisters as part of a joint community celebration, and just making that effort, I think, had an effect on us. Whatever it was, it was very positive. At every turn I hear the monks saying what a difference it made to have the sisters with us, and I also hear the sisters, along with Bill and Suzanne, saying: "Now next year we can...." So I hope we've started something. And I think it will be something good.

The service itself was jammed. For several years attendance at the Christmas Eve worship has been declining. I've put it down to the growing interest in the music programs we provide, a number of which occur in Advent. I thought that was satisfying people's desire to come here for some worship. But apparently I mistook what was going on because Friday night they came.... and they came.... and they came. And still they kept coming. Out came the extra folding chairs. By this time we know how to shoe horn people into every available corner, so nearly everyone actually got in. But not everyone got a program, and a few of the late comers were standing in the entrance to the Church.

It was a grand time. The singing was superb. The atmosphere was joyful. And there was one very powerful moment for me. I was preparing the altar for communion and the congregation was singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem". I was washing my hands when they hit the verse:

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

Suddenly I wasn't in our church any longer. I was standing on the streets in the middle of the slums of Newburgh where we were on Sunday night two weeks ago helping to dedicate a shelter for homeless women. I could feel the cold and the only light I saw was the light of the street lamps and I felt the desolation of the neighborhood. For an instant I was there, not in the warm happy church where my body was. It lasted only an instant, but it changed the night for me. The night was bigger than where I was standing, and my reality expanded. And Christmas came once more.

One other thing that moved me greatly was that among the congregation on Christmas Eve were an Episcopal priest, a Methodist minister and two Reformed pastors. They were men and women who had worked all day and had provided worship for their congregations. They had to have been worn out, and they could easily have gone home and to bed. Instead late at night they had come to us so that they could join our worship and, in the words of two of them, "just be quiet and pray." If this is the atmosphere we have succeeded in providing, we have fulfilled many of the dreams we have had for this place.

Then the next morning it all came together for me. Every year we sing Matins late on Christmas morning, and not infrequently it is real work. The toll of a day of decorating, welcoming very large numbers of guests, being hospitable until about 2:00 am (we provide a reception after the Mass) and having too much sugar, combine to make prayer on Christmas morning something of a labor. Everyone is weary. Matins drags. Sometimes it even seems like quite a big drag.

This Christmas we were in the middle of the second Psalm when I realized: "Hey, wait a minute. This is beautiful." The tone was gentle and calm. The choir was together and the singing was light and exultant. Something was going on. A few minutes later we got to the Te Deum, which is an ancient hymn of praise. The music for it is moderately elaborate and something of a challenge for morning singing. Often enough I feel like I am wading through a swamp in hip boots when we sing it. This Christmas morning it soared.

Our offices are often really lovely. This exceeded all my expectations. It was what I have always wanted Christmas Matins to be like. The best part is that my heart was awake enough to take it all in.

What joy. After it was all over one of our friends told me that she had never seen me look so happy. It seems that there is a good spirit loose among us. May that spirit catch you as well during this season. And may we all spread it about. Then Christmas really can come once more.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Quiet Time

It's really quiet around here. Advent has taken hold of us and there is a kind of settledness (which my spell checker doesn't think is a legitimate word) about the house. The guests are few in number, because not many people would consider abandoning the demands of the season for a weekend in a monastery. So our customary crowded conditions have given way to a more spacious and leisurely feeling. Interestingly enough a large percentage of the people here at the moment are in their 20's and 30's, which is a sign of hope in itself.

This week we were in retreat for several days, which we always are in the 3rd week of Advent, and the vibes of that time still roll up and down the halls. This year the Advent Retreat reminded me yet again of what a powerful effect silence can have all by itself. There are all kinds of things you can do in a silent time, but even without the doing, silence accomplishes a lot, just by itself.

Even the outside world colludes in this settling. Much of the wildlife has either gone to sleep or gone south. Most of the commercial and recreational traffic on the river has ceased for the winter, leaving us with only the occasional tug boat pushing a barge along. Traffic noise is curiously muted the past few days. Stillness pervades the river valley.

And the colors are muted, too. Everything is gray or brown. Because we have had some unusually cold weather this month there is ice on the river and frost lies heavy on the lawns in the mornings. As we head off to Matins early each morning, the sky is colored with very pale tones of pink and peach, which we see only at this time of the year. At night the sky sparkles and the Moon and Jupiter sail across the heavens together.

Our newly refurbished Crypt is a mysterious cave in which to savor the quiet, made cozy and welcoming by the warmth of the radiant floor heating. These days it's very insistent in its call to come and share the silence, and to pray prayers that demand very few words. Nothing but quiet permitted here.

Of course the change will come, and not many days from now. The Guesthouse will be completely full for Christmas, and more and more reservations come in with each day for the days between Christmas and New Year. The tree is up, but not decorated yet. The decorating will happen on Christmas Eve.

And all I have to do is turn on the TV to encounter the difference between Advent in a Benedictine Monastery and The Holidays in America. The pictures of the throngs in the Malls and the mobs in the airports offer a sign of hope for a recovering economy, and the relentless barrage of Carols and Holiday songs provide the background for the season. I don't deny the joy of the bustle and the crowds. I even like it when I'm out in it. But I am very glad that we have an alternate way of expressing this season.

The Offices make our Church resound with the sounds of the Season - not the Christmas Carols - not yet - but the sound of Gregorian Chant which carries the plaintive cry of "Come". "Come." "O Emmanuel, come". The deep longing of the human heart for the Divine echoes through our church, our halls, our hearts. Advent longs for Christmas in a deep and insistent way - a way that requires some quiet to begin to perceive.

As I have said in this space before, one of our friends who was for a time priest in one of the local parishes used to say that one of her favorite moments of the year was coming to the monastery during the busiest shopping days of the year and seeing the sign on the bookstore which says "Closed For Retreat". It's our own quiet way of insisting on what's more important.

So, I send Holiday Greetings to each of you. I do hope your celebration is filled with joy. I hope happiness will blossom wherever you are. And I hope that the quiet depth which we experience so abundantly here will find its way to your hearts as well.

May the still small voice of the Christmas promise live within each of you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another Radiant Weekend

Saturday this week provided another occasion quite out of the ordinary - and very different from last week's Monteverdi concerts. This weekend was a another special blessing. Several of us went to Newburgh in the late afternoon to help bless Ecclesia House, which will be a residence for formerly homeless women. It has been the dream of Ecclesia Ministries in Newburgh, presided over by our friend and Associate Steve Ruelke, who is a minister of the United Church of Christ (serving a Presbyterian congregation). Our Brother James has also worked with Ecclesia Ministries for a couple of years now, and has labored hard over the plans for the residence and in raising the money to get this project going, and in many, many other ways.

Ecclesia House is in a very run-down part of Newburgh, which is a very poor and suffering city. The house was formerly a shelter run by the Roman Catholic Church. After years of operating they ran into financial difficulties and after a lot of struggle finally had to close the place. When it finally closed, two women, both named Pat, continued to live in the building because they would not let their vision of the shelter die. They knew that some day there would be a shelter there again, and so they stayed there winter and summer, even when finally there was no electricity and no heat, waiting until their dream that the house would be a shelter again finally came true. After the years of their waiting one of them has died and the other is in the hospital now, just a few days away from death. But their dream has indeed come to fruition.

Now the money has been raised and the remodeling is nearing an end. 14 women will live there and have a place of privacy and dignity where they can get their lives together and move on towards a better future. The renovations are not quite complete, but the time for celebrating the project and blessing it had come and, since we at Holy Cross have had a part in getting this project going, and have helped with the fund raising, we certainly weren't going to miss the celebration.

We got there by driving through a very dismal part of the city, driving down block after block of empty lots, buildings in disrepair, abandoned buildings, buildings in which one light bulb burned on an upper floor and others that were completely dark. We parked in a lot, across from a car all of whose tires were flat, and walked up the block to where a small crowd was gathering in front of the building that will be the shelter.

It was dark and it was cold. For light we had the mercury vapor street lamps. For heat we had what the homeless have - nothing. By the time everyone had gathered there was a crowd that I estimated at 80 or 90. We were a very mixed group; volunteers, helpers, supporters, donors and the homeless. We were watched over by members of the local chapter of the Guardian Angels, who kept the street clear and safe for us.

The street altar
Originally uploaded by bdelcourt

Steve set up for the Eucharist. The altar was a sheet of wood laminate laid over two saw horses. He had a cinder block to stand on when he talked. There was a pottery chalice and paten. There was a flute to accompany the singing. And there were the people. There were a half-dozen Holy Cross monks in white habits and all sorts of jackets. A few people were in the dress of the Bruderhoff - a Protestant religious community that has houses in this part of the country. Most of the rest were ordinary people. Not many of them seemed to be privileged. Many seemed to know very well that life can be a hard business. But somehow the people who made up this little group had caught the vision, and shared the thirst for justice and compassion in this dark corner of the city.

We sang, and there was gladness in the group. Steve presided over the Eucharist with grace and humor. We all, members of I don't know how many different churches, shared communion together. The Holy Spirit was tangible. At the end of the service we all stretched out our hands towards Ecclesia House as we blessed the house and the ministry that will happen within those walls.

Last week I talked about what a revelation the performance of the Monteverdi Vespers was for me, and how it revealed a depth to the Psalms deeper than I had encountered in all my years of praying them. Last night, when Steve broke the bread on a dark, cold street corner in Newburgh, I saw a depth to the Eucharist that I had not seen before.

Then we went down the street to Calvary Presbyterian Church where we had a wonderful dinner that people had been working over all day - roast pork, fresh winter vegetables, home made apple sauce, and the sort of pie extravaganza that only churches seem able to put together. We ate, we sang, we met some new people, we laughed. We were the Body of Christ.

Last week's memories are of light and magnificent music and a celebration that revealed the depths of the Scripture to me. This week's memories are of joy in the darkness, of a small group of people who have somehow caught the vision and have worked and worked to make it come true, and of the Eucharist revealing the depth of the Spirit's presence in this sad neighborhood in a suffering city.

They were two different experiences. And they were the same experience. It was God, asking us - and me - to open our eyes and see.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Radiant Weekend

I'm late today. I've been conducting this weekend's Advent Retreat along with my friends Suzanne Guthrie and Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit, and I was with the retreat group this morning, at the time I usually use for blogging.

We built the retreat around the principal event of the weekend, which was a performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin performed by Kairos, the choral group that is Artist in Residence here at Holy Cross.

So for the retreat we talked about the Vespers and about Mary. Suzanne used a lot of beautiful slides of various art works and wove them together with a meditation on Mary. It was fun to watch a group of ordinary Episcopalians wrestle with themes of the place of Mary in the Church and in their lives. And I'll have to say that much of what they shared this morning was extremely moving. One of the participants said that what he saw this weekend was Mary bringing the Body of Christ into the world once again.

But what has filled me so full this weekend was the performance of the Vespers itself. It's one of the most popular of Monteverdi's works, but not often performed because the resources for it are not easy to assemble - a double choir who can sing very complicated Renaissance music and an orchestra that has not only the usual Violins, Violas, Cellos and an Organ, but also Sackbuts (the predecessor of the trombone), Cornettos (a curved wooden flute sort of thing which is wrapped in leather and sounds very much like a cornet) and a Theorbo (a lute that is about 5 feet long).

It was an amazing experience. Seldom have I had the experience of a piece of music revealing so much to me. Monteverdi's brother said of the Vespers that "it had been his intention to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not the servant", or in other words, the meaning of the words was to determine what the music was - apparently a new idea at the time.

And oh, did he ever succeed! The introductory talk before the concert taught us some things to look for: "in altis" (on high) is set to a rising melody and "et humilia" (humble things) is set in a slow, descending scale. Just knowing a couple of things like that was enough to get me noticing so many other ways in which Monteverdi used music to express meaning. One of the most distinctive sounds of the piece is the chorus singing a massive musical sound, often on just one note or a very simple melody, while the orchestra saws and toodles and toots away underneath, and that turns out to be one of the most effective ways of expressing pure praise that I have ever heard.

The piece is composed of very familiar texts - mostly the Psalms and Antiphons from the Office of the Blessed Virgin. I have been singing those Psalms and Antiphons for 50 years, the majority of them in our monastery Church, and I heard things expressed in this piece that I have never encountered before. I came away completely full and also with the conviction that I have a long way to go before I know how to completely use the Psalms in the praise of God. There's work to be done, even after all these years. Not a bad thing to realize.

The Vespers was performed twice, last night and this afternoon, and I was at both performances. Last night the thing that grabbed me most was a trio of male voices, two basses and a tenor, singing of the Seraphim crying out before the Altar in the Temple, of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit. The three melodies repeated and wove around each other in a sound that was both soft and very intense, and I felt like I was witnessing the Trinity being sung into being in this world.

This afternoon there were two moments. The first was a tenor duet, "Audi Coelum" (Hear, O heaven) which is sung between one man standing in front of the stage, and a second one who is hidden off to the side. The man in view sings: "Hear, O heaven, hear my words full of longing and pervaded by joy", and the second voice answers from out of nowhere: "Audio", "I hear". At that moment I realized that I was hearing the longing of the whole human race for God, and God's answer to that longing, which we all want so badly to hear.

Then at the very end of the piece the Magnificat is sung. And after everything else that has happened, I was expecting to hear a great blast of praise. That did come, but not until the final "Amen". Instead what came at the beginning of the piece was another tenor duet, again with high, piercing voices, quietly and intensely singing praise while in the background a soprano choir echoed that praise. And I knew I was hearing human beings and angels singing praise to God together.

I was transfixed. Both times. The second time I didn't have the energy to be as emotional as I was last night, and I also caught more of the detailed work of how the Vespers is put together and what it is expressing. But I was transfixed, nevertheless.

And one of the retreatants told me afterward that her favorite part of the whole thing was watching me at the concert. She said: "It's not often that you get to see an adult so completely filled with joy." And I was. I really was.

And so once again, here it is. Life in a monastery. It's pretty wonderful.

And it seems to keep getting better.