Sunday, August 29, 2010

Home Again

I'm back.

And that's important - at least to me. Being a monk away from his monastery is very much being a fish out of water, at least for this monk. Everything I did this summer was really wonderful, but when I got home on Wednesday afternoon and went into Church for Vespers, and the Officiant sang "Oh God, make speed to save us" and the choir responded: "Oh Lord;, make haste to help us" I knew I was where I belonged. 45 years of Gregorian Chant really gets under your skin, not to mention into your soul.

Which is not to take away from my time in Colorado. It was so great. Mountains feed my soul, and I got plenty of feeding. My friends John and Stefi were determined to show me every mountain in Colorado, and they made good progress on their project.

It began with my bedroom, which had an 180 degree view of mountain peak scenery, with a view straight up to the Continental Divide. They live at 9,500 feet, and the weather was perfect for a vacation - warm enough for a short sleeves when the sun was out and cool enough for a fire when there were clouds. Dry. Glorious.

We went over/through so many mountain passes that I lost count. But some were unforgettable - Cottonwood Pass, at 12,400 feet particularly, in the middle of the "Alps of the Rockies" with truly extraordinary views on either side. On one side you look into ranges of dark, bare peaks and on the other side down to a beautiful lake framed with mountains all around it.

We hiked up to St Marys Glacier at 10,000 feet. There were people skiing on it - in late August. I met a very friendly Golden Retriever named Milton who was dragging a 5 year old boy behind him, and I put my hands on an actual glacier for the first time. Another high mountain lake, fed by the melt from the glacier, deep blue and perfect.

We drove down the high plain behind the Front Range - a large sweep of range land where cattle are fattened up during the summer months, framed with mountains on either side and occasional rock "castles" and other formations.

I saw an actual ghost town - Nevadaville. Being Colorado it was a mining town, of course, and some of the mining works are still there, and though most of the houses have been pulled down, the foundations are still visible. It started to fail as the mines played out in the 1920's and the Great Depression finished it off, even though five or six houses remain and the old Masonic Lodge still stands.

And we saw innumerable small places with quaint "Old Towns", varying in loveliness and tourist appeal depending on circumstances - Idaho Springs, Leadville, Crested Butte, Georgetown, to name just a few. One of my favorites was Redstone - a social experiment that dates back to the 1880's. It was a mining town and John Cleveland Osgood - at the time the 5th richest man in the United States - built a town for the miners who worked the mine that he owned. He built 84 small houses for the families, complete with steam heat and plumbing, which at the time was unheard of, and a lodge for the single miners which is now an inn and spa and which serves (I can testify) very nice lunches.

And every evening we came home to our house in the mountains where the deck offered incredible views of a star-filled sky, shooting stars and Venus setting over the mountains shortly after sunset.

One night we played a game of Washers with one of the local guys - you throw metal washers about 3 inches across at a board that has a hole in it and hope to get the washers either on the board or through the hole in its center. The scoring rules are very complex and I'm told that the whole experience is helped a lot by not being entirely sober. And we also explored an old cemetery not far from where I was staying, with graves dating back into the 1870's and '80s. The mining settlement which the cemetery served is long, long gone, but the graveyard is still there, and still in use, buried itself on the side of that pretty remote mountain.

It was an adventure filled with wonder (who knows how many times I said: "Oh, wow!"), with beauty and with the deep silence of places that truly are far away from the normal noise of contemporary life. John's father describes Colorado as "one picture postcard after another". That's as good a description as I could come up with. "Rocks and trees" the locals say. That's another one.

A great, great time. I'll be thinking of it for a long time.

And now it's time to settle down to the ordinary routine of life and prayer and ministry, knowing that this summer of teaching in England and Kansas and of roaming the mountains of Colorado has changed me, and deepened me, and given me more to take with me into my monastic life. No doubt I'll be referring to this time again as I go along.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

And More From Canterbury

Sorry for the protracted absence. I was only home one day from Kansas City when we began our annual Long Retreat, which lasts for 10 days. I quickly discovered that I was a lot more tired than I had realized after teaching in England and Kansas back to back, and I needed first to catch up with myself and then to give as much as I could to the retreat. So that's what I've been doing.

I've had some requests to say more about the time in Canterbury. Well, one of the best things about the time there was the opportunity just to explore the Cathedral - "Christ's most glorious church" according to one poet - at leisure, so here are some of the things that I discovered:

First a real treasure - the Chapel of All Saints. It's not something that many visitors to the cathedral discover. In fact, it's a well-kept secret. But if you know just where to look, you will see a small plain door across from the Choir in the area of the Transepts and it is marked "Chapel of All Saints. Private." And if you have permission and open the door, you see a small and narrow staircase that goes sharply up to the right. It's almost like a cave and it's very narrow and very steep. It's furnished with a rope railing that helps you haul yourself up through the dimness of the stairs. At the top of the stairs you make two sharp left turns and there you are in a spacious chapel, and it's light and airy because it has two large Late Gothic windows with a lot of carved tracery and lots of glass. It's plainly furnished and the walls are covered with graffiti, much of it dated beginning in the 1500's and going on for several centuries, so it was well visited for several hundred years, but also had enough privacy so that people could carve their names and drawings into the soft stone. It's completely quiet - no trace of the noise that several hundred visitors and tourists are making a couple of floors below. It feels like you've come out into a little world that's separate from the rest of the Cathedral.

I've tried to find out about it - its origin and its use over the years and I've had no success yet. At least I haven't succeeded in getting the Internet to give up its secrets. We were told that it's now used for prayers at the close of meetings of the Cathedral's Chapter (the governing board), and our group had the Eucharist there one day early in our time in Canterbury. Apparently it was used as a center for contemplative prayer for some years not too long ago. Looking at it from the outside of the Cathedral, it looks like an add-on - it's just a little square addition nestled in the corner of one of the Trancepts. It fascinates me. I'm going to keep exploring and see if I can find something out.

Then one afternoon towards the end of our stay, Tay and I were wandering about the cathedral, just seeing what we could find, and we were going around the large Cloister adjacent to the north wall of the Cathedral when I found a door labeled "Archdeacon's Garden." The door was firmly locked, but it was old fashioned and had a large keyhole, so I bent down and peered through the hole to catch a glimpse of the garden. As I did so I was aware that one of the staff was bearing down on me, and having transgressed enough regulations in my day I thought: "Now I've done it" and straightened up, ready to take my scolding. It was one of the maintenance men, and in a complete reversal of my expectations he said: "Sir, you don't need to do that..." and therewith he pulled out a large ring of keys and put one huge hey in the hole and swung open the door on the Archdeacon's Garden and ushered us through. The garden itself was not a mystery. We had been to a reception there after Evensong several days before. But as we stood there our host pointed out the buildings and explained their original use and gave us their dates and we had our own little private tour of that enclosed space that almost no one else gets. It was a wonderful little treat and a perfect example of the quality of the hospitality we encountered at Canterbury Cathedral. The staff is fiercely loyal and very proud of the place. And the quality of the welcome is marvelous. I know quite well the costs of that sort of hospitality, and what it takes to keep extending it when the number of guests you have in a year is over 1,000,000 instead of a mere 7,000, as we have here, I have trouble imagining. It was a very special moment, and a special gift.

A few minutes later we had another moment like that. Tay wanted a picture of the organ console to take back to his parish musician in Toronto, and we came across the Verger (a person who oversees liturgical ceremonies) who had arranged the Eucharists that we had in the Cathedral, and asked him if we could see the console. No problem. He hurried away and then reappeared with another big ring of keys and another private little door was unlocked and up we went on a narrow staircase, this time a circular one, until about a story and a half higher we came out on top of the choir screen - the carved stone wall that separates the area of the Choir from the Nave of the Cathedral. These screens are common in English cathedrals. Sometimes they were put up to cut down on the winter drafts, since spaces this large tend to develop their own microclimates. But in the case of Canterbury the Choir was almost completely enclosed so that the monks could say their offices in some privacy, while the throngs of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Beckett could come and go without interruption. And there we were - high above the Choir, and even higher above the Nave, because in Canterbury the Choir is up a long flight of stairs from the Nave - having a view of the Cathedral that few people ever have. It's the only place in the building where you can see straight through from one end to the other. And there was the organ console. And in one of those little surprise revelations, there was also an overstuffed sofa and chair where presumably the organist and any assistants relax when the service goes on too tediously. There was also a video camera that looks down on the Choir, because the organist can't see over the edge of the screen down to where the actual choir sings and he needs to watch the director. Apparently in earlier times an assistant leaned over the edge and signaled the organist when to begin and when to stop. And we had another small guide to the mysteries of that wonderful place, and another demonstration of how very much the staff is devoted to it.

And lastly in my memory is the East end of the crypt, under the former location of Beckett's shrine, where the Jesus Chapel is, where we had most of the services for our group. It's another light and airy space, because of the late Gothic windows all around. What I remember most from there is the silence, because that part of the building is kept for prayer. And I also remember the huge columns - some about 4 feet in diameter - because they spoke to me of how the weight of that tremendous building has borne down on them for so many centuries. There's a sense of stability and power in those columns, and they speak with their own language.

And of course there are many other things, but this will have to do for this time.

Now I'm off to Colorado for some vacation. Mountains feed my soul, so I'm going to visit friends who live in Idaho Springs and let myself be fed. Expect another interruption in my writing, but I will be back towards the end of the month and then I'll resume again. In the meantime, I'll hope that you are relaxing, too.