Sunday, April 25, 2010

Evangelical Easter Surprise

It's been a gorgeous Spring week. With the first burst of flowers beginning to tone down a bit, now the trees are at it. The crab apples that line our drive behind the monastery are putting on a display like we have seldom seen and the apple orchards in this part of the country are in full flower. Lots of hills in our neighborhood look like they are covered with smoke because the blooms are so thick.

And there was another kind of beauty lurking about. As I mentioned last week there were a lot of brothers away from the monastery this week, and we were fortunate that this was one of the few periods that we've had in a long time when we had very few guests so the work load wasn't too bad for the few of us at home. But we did have one group in for an overnight visit, a student group from the Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, which is a city down towards New York, right at the end of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The seminary is operated by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which is a small Evangelical denomination. We discovered after the group arrived that they function in an ecumenical way, also training pastors for other evangelical churches. The only woman in the group is a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which is fairly well known. There was also a Seventh Day Baptist in the group. Seventh Day Baptists are a Church which has pretty standard Baptist faith and practice, but who worships on Saturdays. Very few people have heard of them, and they are often confused with the Seventh Day Adventists, but are actually quite distinct from them. Many people do know about the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, which was one of the Christian communal groups that were so much a part of the American scene in the late 1700's and early 1800's, but very few people, even those who have been there as tourists, know that Ephrata was a Seventh Day Baptist foundation.

As it happens, there was a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church just around the corner from where we lived when I was a teenager, and when I was a parish priest in southern Wisconsin I always passed a Seventh Day Baptist Church on my way to Diocesan meetings, so I am familiar with both groups, and that was a big leg up, because the group was prepared for no one to ever have heard of their churches. I also have a friend who attended the college that is associated with their seminary and he described them as "very ardent people, who are centered in a deep sense of Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer (literally) and Coming King." "Well," I thought, "I'm all of that. I might not always mean it in exactly the same terms as they do, but I can claim all of that - especially the ardent part - so I shouldn't have any trouble talking to them."

That turned out to be more true than I would have expected. And they didn't have any trouble talking to me - and us - either. It was quite a wonderful exchange, in fact. They were open, friendly, curious and grateful to be with us. As is always true with people that age, they could also be very funny. They talked about their lives, their faith and their hopes. One of the guys talked about tattoos. They were eager to know about our lives and our faith and hopes. Presumably they would have been interested in our tattoos, too, if we had any. They were certainly interested in my wrist beads.

It was a time of sharing that was a nearly perfect example of what an encounter of two very different faith groups could be like. They were curious about the things that were different between us. We celebrated the things that we shared. And there was no question at all that our common faith was a bond that they could accept and affirm. One of the reasons they came to us is that they had discovered that we were Benedictine Monks who aren't Roman Catholics, and that meant that they could take communion here, which they did with deep gratitude.

One afternoon they were gathered together on the Great Cloister, which overlooks the river, and as I watched them I got a bit of a nudge from something inside that said: "There's a group who have questions." So I went out and settled in the midst of them, and I was right; they had a lot of questions. They asked about the details of our life, some to do with our religious practices and some with very ordinary details of where we get our money for vacations and how we relate to each other. It was a conversation that flowed with ease. It was also fun.

As it happens, I was a Southern Baptist until I was in my early 20's, and look back on those days with great fondness. This meant that I had some common ground with them, and I shared some of their outlook. It was easy to understand the way they approached their faith and their visit to us.

They loved it. They had a great time and raved about the experience. They signed up for our newsletter and talked about coming back. Well, we've developed continuing relationships with Princeton Seminary and the Yale Divinity School, so why not? A bit of an excursion into the fields of small evangelical denominations could open our eyes a bit more and even deepen our faith. If it happens, it will be a challenge, as relationships always are. But we've had a good start, and I hope for more.

You never know what you're going to get into, even in a Benedictine monastery.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Monks Go A Roamin'

With everything that happens during Lent and then in Holy Week, leading up to Easter, it seems as though now that the Easter season is here there should be a time of relaxing and catching one's breath. Seems like that, doesn't it? It certainly seemed like that during Lent and especially in the latter part of Holy Week.

Well, it might seem like it, but the reality is somewhat different. From now through the middle of June is always one of the busiest seasons of the year. Several of our guests have said the same about their lives at this time of the year. The scramble to get everything done before summer sets in seems to catch up with everyone. The last meeting of the season, the last conference, the last project, the retreat that we have to squeeze into the schedule, all of them have to be fit in.

And of course, one of the places that people go to hold that meeting, finish that project and have that conference or retreat is here. And some of the people who conduct those conferences and those retreats and manage those projects and meetings are us.

So it has begun. The day after Easter Br Adam left for Southern Indiana for the annual meeting of Formation Directors of the Benedictine communities in the United States. This is a (barely) ecumenical event, mostly Roman Catholic of course, but including us and one of the monks from St Gregory's Abbey in Michigan. Hard on the heels of that Br Ronald went to Lake Placid for the annual Continuing Education event for New York Massage Therapists. Br Charles went to the Utica area to do a retreat for the Diocese of Central New York. Br Robert, the Superior, was off to Toronto to make his annual Visitation to the Order's Priory there. Br James had a few days with part of his family who are soon moving to England. This week Adam, Andrew and Scott join Robert in Toronto to attend a meeting of CAROA (the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas) whose parent organization we helped to found in the 1940's and have been active in ever since. Other smaller and more local events are happening as well.

If you think that this might leave those of us at home a bit stretched, you would be thinking right. If I count right, however, there will always be at least two of the lead singers in Choir, one for each side, so we can continue to sing the Offices. There will always be enough people to do the dishes - though we may be doing them more frequently. But guests are always willing to help with cleaning up the refectory and mopping off the tables, and we now have Jamie, a woman from one of the local villages, to help with dishes on the weekends.

There will be some meetings that we will postpone until more people are home. Some tasks won't get done exactly to schedule. Those of us who are home will see a lot of the inside of the Pantry, where the dishes are done. Once when I was conducting a Benedictine Experience for a group in North Carolina and they all talked about how relaxing and peaceful it was I said to them: "If there were a real experience of the Benedictine life the first thing we'd do is give you all too much to do." Sounds like the lives of most folks, doesn't it? Some things are universal.

But Spring is coming and the weather is moderating. We can get outside now, and there are a lot of flowers blooming. There is the joy of new life in the world and in the liturgy. If we participate in the common craziness of the world at this time of the year, that isn't a bad thing for monks. It still feels good to be doing what we do; singing God's praises, and helping people to deepen their lives and get a bit more meaning out of it all.

Alleluia!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Leftovers

I'm still musing over some Easter leftovers. Not really leftovers, actually, but things from Easter that are still turning over in my heart. Things waiting to be fully digested.

One of them comes from our Easter afternoon concert. Each year now we have a Vespers/Concert performed by Kairos, the choral group that are Artists in Residence at the monastery. They practice here every Saturday morning and we've gotten to know many of them.

Kairos rehearsing on Holy Saturday 2010 under the direction of Edward Lundergan

Br Scott has been a member for a number of years and Br Andrew has is now singing with them. They perform here, to large crowds, five or six times a year. And every Easter afternoon we have a Vespers service at which they sing the Bach Easter Cantata.

It is always jammed. We always have to turn people away because our Church won't hold any more. It is always magnificent, and gets better with each year. And... it's the last thing we do on Easter day, so after it's finished we have nothing to do but shout 'Alleluia' and relax. So the Cantata has lots of wonderful overtones for us, and it's one of the things we look forward to.

It lingers with me, but it's really not the Cantata that has held my attention for all these days. It's the small piece that began the Vespers, the Handel setting of "Since By Man Came Death" that I've been replaying in my mind. Many of you will know it. I certainly do. I've sung it and heard it sung probably hundreds of times. You could have put me up there in the middle of the Kairos group and I could have sung the tenor part with no trouble, completely from memory. It holds no surprises for me.

But it did. This year it stunned me. If you know it, you know that it begins very quietly, rising out of silence and sung a capella, softly and intensely, the music expressing a depth of lamentation: "Since By Man Came Death... Since By Man Came Death..." And then silence for a moment, a moment of gathering tension. Then a deep note from the Bass and the Organ and a shout of beauty and joy with the orchestra and the chorus completely filling the church with sound: "By Man Came Also the Resurrection of the Dead."

Then it does it again. Softly and deeply, almost unbearably: "For as in Adam All Die... For as in Adam all die..." Silence. Boom! "Even So in Christ Shall All Be Made Alive.... Even So in Christ Shall All Be Made Alive... Shall All, Shall All Be Made Alive."

I've heard it over and over, but this year I really got it. I was helped, certainly, by the splendid performance that Kairos gave to this piece. But I suspect that the more important part was that something was waiting inside me to be touched. Holy Week and the Easter celebration had dredged up that tension, that ambiguity, that conflict between the human situation and the divine promise and released a joy in me that was hard to contain. I cried. My body moved in pace with the tempo. I smiled from ear to ear (some of the Kairos people told me afterward that they couldn't help noticing the smile). It was really my Easter moment, when the straining and the weeping and the hoping are answered by God's promise and Christ's reality - when it all bursts forth. "Oh yes, this is what it's all about. And I see it. I hear it. I FEEL it."

The other thing I'm keeping company with is something much quieter, just a deep, old companionship that has been with me all my life with my friend the Moon. I've known the heavens since I was a little boy. I began studying astronomy in my teens and even before that I was subscribing to one of the journals, which I still receive every month, and I still read in Cosmology. I'm fascinated by our universe and what is being discovered by it. And I always know where the major constellations are and what the phase of the moon is. It's part of who I am.

So I'm one of those people for whom the connection between the moon and Easter is intuitive. I forget that so many people have no idea that the date of Easter is determined by when the full Moon happens: "The first Sunday after the first full Moon after the Spring Equinox." (there are a few complications in there, especially in the difference in the reckoning between Eastern and Western Christians, but that's basically it.)

So the Moon is an essential part of my Holy Week. I'm always up in the middle of the night for the Maundy Thursday Watch and I always go outside on my way to or from the Watch to be with the Moon. If it's cloudy, I go anyway to spot the moon behind the clouds, or at least to see it lighting up the clouds as it shines behind them.

This year the 3/4 Moon was in the heavens, right where I could see it, all during the Easter Vigil on Sunday morning. It provided light for getting around in darkened buildings and it kept us company in the southwestern sky as we read the Scriptures and told the old stories and sang the hymns and the Litany of the Saints. And as the Sun rose, it faded away, yielding to the joy of Easter Day.

So those are my two mementos of this year's Easter: the silent companionship of the Earth's Satellite, giving a cosmic dimension to our celebration, and the burst of beauty given to us by one of the human race's greatest musicians. These two provide the context in which I've been remembering our Holy Week and holding the Mystery we have been celebrating.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter and Our People

I had all sorts of thoughts of getting this post done before I got into bed on Easter evening. It turned out that I needed more recovery time than that.

Usually during this week I end up reflecting on something in the liturgies of Holy Week that particularly caught me. This year it has to do with our history, and with our heroes, and with everyone who walks this Christian path with us.

Here at Holy Cross we do the Great Vigil of Easter in our Refectory, which for those of you who have never been here, is an octagonal building with large windows on all sides which look out over the Hudson Valley. It's the perfect location. We begin in the dark, on the adjoining porch, lighting the New Fire of Easter and then settle down in the Refectory for an hour (more or less) of hearing the stories of our history from the Hebrew Scriptures - the Creation, the Flood, the Parting of the Sea and others. As we read it grows slowly lighter outside and the world comes back to life all around us, and we finish the last of those readings just as the sun rises over the Hudson River. This year there were clouds at the skyline, but they were thin enough that the sun shone through weakly, and we at least had a glimpse of it as it rose.

Then we form up in a procession and we go all the way to the other end of our buildings - a distance of a tenth of a mile (we have a lot of buildings!)and as we go we sing the Litany of the Saints, which carries us from the Scriptural histories into the history of the Christian people. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us" we sing. "Holy Joseph Guardian of God's Son, pray for us". "All you holy angels and blessed spirits, all you holy patriarchs and prophets, pray for us". And then the Apostles: "Holy Peter, holy Paul, holy James, holy John, pray for us". Then we move to our fathers and mothers in the monastic life: "Holy Benedict, pray for us. Holy James Huntington (the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross), pray for us". "Holy Anthony (from the deserts of north Africa), Holy Columba (Ireland and the island of Iona),holy Aidan (Lindesfarne, off the eastern coast of England), holy Dunstan, holy Romuald, holy Hildegard, Holy Frances, holy Clare" and many, many others.... "pray for us". "Holy Alphonsus Liguori, holy Catherine McCauley, holy Frances Xavier Cabrini (founders of Roman Catholic orders with whom we have or have had close relationships) pray for us." And then our fathers and mothers of the American Church - Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day - and especially of the Episcopal Church - Absalom Jones, Paul Jones, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, "pray for us." "All you holy champions of the oppressed, pray for us." "All you holy servants and handmaids of God, pray for us."

And I found, as we walked in those darkened corridors and sang of our family, that there were a lot more walking and singing with us than the few score of people who were here for the liturgy. The walls of time and of history became almost transparent and there we were, processing towards the blessing of the water that commemorates our baptism, and then to the altar in our Church for the encounter with the risen Christ that comes in Communion, going along with all of those who have gone before us - remembered and unremembered, heroic and ordinary - all of us going to God, caught up in prayer for each other.

All of you who have ever caught a glimpse of the Divine, pray for us. All who pilgrimage through life without knowing exactly what you seek, pray for us. All who have had a glimpse of God that has transfigured your life forever, pray for us.

All who have touched my life with love, pray for us.

And as we arrived in our Church, and shouted "Christ is Risen!" and sang our hymns and rang all our bells, we did it with all of them - all who went before, all who go with us now, even those who are yet to come, caught up in a great web of prayer that binds us all to each other.

Such is the reality that our liturgy opens to us. It's always there. But we only see it every now and then. But once you have seen it, you don't forget.

Christ is Risen!