Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Short, Sweet Summary

OHC's 298th Chapter - The assembled monks and a few Holy Cross Companions
West Park, Saturday, June 11, 2011 - picture by Br. Randy Greve (who ran into place, top right)
Chapter is over! It was quite an amazing week. We worked really hard. We prayed hard, as well. We even played some. And we emerged from all of this as a remarkably united, energized, and amazingly well-functioning group of men - brothers.

We agreed to the founding of Holy Cross School in Grahamstown (South Africa). This will be a school under the Order's aegis which will provide high-quality primary education for poor rural children.

This is an outcome of years of work, trying to find a solution to the dreadful educational conditions in the area around our monastery. Schools are seriously sub-standard or completely absent. Over the years we have started a scholarship program, an after-school tutoring program, recreational programs and other things. The outcome has been the realization that the kids are so deprived so early that the only solution is to have a school that will get them early and will have first-class instruction right from the beginning.

We will be operating grades K-3 (actually South Africa calls Kindergarten "Reception", so it will be R-3). We have good advice that if we get them started this far, they will be able to adjust to the excellent schools that can be found in town, and we can see that they are able to continue in those schools through our Scholarship Program. We will support them for as long as they want to remain in school - through college, if that is their goal. Our scholarship program has just had its first students graduate from local universities, so we have a track record there.

The Order has committed to pay for the construction of the school building, and work will begin soon, so that we can have a Grade R and a Grade 1 beginning in January, when the school year starts. We will then add one grade a year until we are operating all 4 years. Classes will be small. Instruction will be first-rate. Equipment will be state of the art. The school is going to be small, because of the small size of the classes, so what we can accomplish will be limited. But we are going to do what we can. We have also committed ourselves to a major capital funds drive which will raise money to finance and endow the school.

The monastery in Grahamstown is named (in the local language) Maria u Mama we Themba, which means Mary, mother of hope. This is one of the ways in which we are determined to offer hope to the poor people who live in the area around us. And without this school, the local kids have very little in the way of hope.

The Order also committed itself to a major building renovation at the monastery here in West Park. This involves installing a new roof on the monastery building (which has needed doing since the day the building was finished in 1967). This will make possible the remodeling of several rooms to provide Assisted Living space for some older brothers, as I described last week. We are finalizing the plans at the present time. We hope we can begin on this project within a few months.

The conversations that led up to these decisions were full of energy and of hope. Passing the actual resolutions took less than an hour. We were extraordinarily united. It was an amazing week!

We also took an afternoon off for a cruise on the Hudson River. It was really fun. You get a totally different perspective when you're down on the river itself.

Monday is a rest day for me. Tuesday is for packing. Wednesday I leave for Kerhonkson, at the foot of the Catskills. When next you hear from me I will be into my Sabbatical.

I deeply appreciate the many good wishes and promises of prayer that so many people have sent. I hope before long to be letting you in on what life is like for a monk on the loose.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Between

Andrew preached this morning on this being an "in between" Sunday - in between Ascension and Pentecost - and of the difficulty of getting in touch with the identity of this day. As it happens, that was something that was good to hear for me, because I'm in a very in between time myself.

I'm still in charge, but nearly everything has been passed on, so there's nothing to be in charge of, except to be the one who indicates when the silence at the end of readings is over. And it's been about 40 years since I have haven't been in charge of something.

It's disorienting, and I have become easily distracted, so I'm now finding at regular intervals that I've made the wrong decision or given the wrong signal for something to happen. It's embarrassing, but the community corrects me gently, and we go on our way. And it won't last long: about 10 days now.

I remember that I reacted in much the same way in 1982 when my time as Novice Master ended and I went to be Prior of our house in South Carolina, only I had fewer years on me then, and somewhat more grace with which to handle the confusions of the time. But as I told people at that time, some of these things are simply not under my control. My body and my mind are making this change at their own pace, and I have a limited amount to say about that.

And there is comfort in knowing that the change is happening, even if I'm not causing it. I'm making the adjustment that needs to be made, and it's happening surely and steadily. It's nice to know that it doesn't all depend on my skillful or unskillful decisions. My mind has its own sense of timing, and I have to trust that sense.

In the midst of all of this there was a small wonder dropped into our midst. In the middle of the week we came out from lunch one day and someone said that there was a fawn on the lawn over by the monastery building, so a small bunch of us headed in that direction.

Just by the monastery building the grass was quite high. Our groundsman had fallen behind in his mowing because of the difficulty of getting a heavy mower into parts of our grounds which had become water logged in the recent rains. So we passed beyond the stone wall just outside the door to our Church and went through thigh-high grass and there, just in the middle of the lawn, was a very small, perfectly circular nest, and lying in it was a tiny deer, looking at us with huge eyes, and lying perfectly still - so still that it was hard to tell if it was actually breathing.

It was really beautiful, and quite awesome, and there she was, all by herself. And where was the mother? Well, as ordinary urban Americans, most of us had no idea where she was. But one of the brothers went off to find out from the source of all knowledge these days; the InterNet. And he discovered that when a doe has given birth she makes a little nest for her offspring and then goes away for an extended period. This apparently is the safest way for the newborn to survive. The mother is feeding so she can produce milk to feed it, and she is not drawing attention to the fawn while it is helpless. It is nearly scentless because she has licked it thoroughly clean before she leaves, so it is usually quite safe, since the nest is usually not visible in the high grass where does prefer to leave their fawns. Who would have guessed?

The newborn, of course, doesn't like this kind of treatment, so the doe usually has to put her foot down - literally - on the infant and roll it up in a ball and force it to stay down, and then she goes off. But the fawn has some sense of what's good for it, because it stayed quite still and unmoving while we were there.

We were careful to stay fairly far away and to be there for only a short time. Rafael, whose room looks out on that patch of lawn, said that he saw the fawn get up to stretch in the middle of the afternoon, and then it laid back down, and from most of our windows it was quite invisible. By the next morning it was gone, so both it and the mother are no doubt wandering about in the woods by now, and the next time we see them, the baby will be much larger.

I like the idea that the mother thought that a really good, safe place to put her newborn would be some tall grass about 15 feet away from one of our buildings. The local wildlife is generally pretty tame, because they know they face no danger from us or our guests. But this is evidence of just how safe they feel. Either that, or there is a shortage of tall grass this year, and that certainly doesn't appear to be the case.

While we're speaking of the wildlife, one of our guests saw a bear yesterday afternoon, ambling placidly across the lawn. You never know.

I certainly appreciate the good wishes from so many of you for my sabbatical and the expressions of appreciation for the blog. It does feel at this point like I will be continuing it, but I want to wait until I actually get into my new situation and have some time to feel what that's like before I make a decision. I'll also need to see what my rhythm is and when the best time to write would be because, as I've said, I'll be away from my house on Sunday mornings and not able to do it then. But I won't be dropping the blog suddenly in any case, and will give some notice about any changes.

That being said, I don't know when my next post will actually be. Next Sunday we'll be in the midst of our Chapter - which is the annual business and planning meeting of the Order, so I won't be free to do my usual writing. I'll try to get a note in to let you know what the situation is. I move a week from Wednesday, so my life will be unsettled for a couple of weeks now, but I'll be back with news of what's up when I'm able to do it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Plans and More Plans

The community is making plans: plans for the future, and especially for the next year. All sorts of things are afoot.

This is, of course, a result of the sort of transition we are making. Scott is being installed as the new Prior on the 12th of June, and I will be gone on the 15th so, as I have explained in the past few postings, we are doing a transition process in the days leading up to the new Prior's installation instead of afterwards.

So plans, as I say, are being made. Important space is being given to thinking about the integrity of the community's life. There has been a very large increase in the number of people using the Guesthouse in the past couple of years, and especially in this last year. We've been experiencing these increases for some time now, and periodically we need to stop and make sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog.

Of course, we earn our living by running the Guesthouse, and it's important that it thrive. It's also important that we take a look periodically and make sure that we have the time and the silence necessary for our lives as monks, for prayer, for lectio, for reflection. Scott has asked the community to plan more retreat time into the schedule of the next year, and this is a really good beginning. More than anything, we need to have these reflections on a regular basis, just to make sure that we're still in balance.

And to move to the other side of the balance, James, who will be the new Guesthouse Director, has asked for more of the community to be directly involved in the hospitality side of the ministry - welcoming guests, helping them find their place and get settled, orienting them and seeing that they are comfortable and know how to negotiate this mildly complex set of buildings. We hope this will increase the hospitality of our welcome.

We're also considering a new initiative in ministry. We are investigating the possibility of running an intern program for college students that would be based on ministry in the local area and spiritual formation for the interns.

This would be a direct outflow of the living of our monastic life; sharing with young people what it's like to live a life of prayer, and leading them into the practices necessary to sustain such a life. We think this would be a gift to the church, and a very rewarding ministry for us. Enough college age men and women come here now for us to know that this is an attractive place for young adults. Having a ministry directly focused on them is an obvious next step.

This will mean some construction, of course, and some fund-raising. If you've seen our newsletter, the Mundi Medicina, you'll know that we have a space that could fairly easily be made into a suite of 4 bedrooms with a bathroom and a common room, so that the interns could have their own space, which would greatly assist in their community building.

So the next year will be for planning, for fund raising and for various practical considerations. If things go as we hope, we think we could be ready to launch this ministry a year from this fall.

We also considering how we can better provide for the elderly members of our community. Since the earliest days in West Park, we have regularly had to place elderly brothers who are in need of care in nursing homes in the area. This is far from optimal and we don't like it any more than any family does, but it is sometimes necessary. But we think that the time that our brothers spend in such care might be lessened, or in some cases even eliminated by some remodeling of our space, so that we could provide a monastic version of Assisted Living.

We have been very lucky over the years that such a large proportion of our community has had vigorous health into old age, and that we have had to make relatively little use of nursing homes. But this is something that we can't continue to count on, especially as modern medicine is prolonging life so markedly. So Scott has been consulting with our architect about the renovation of some space in our monastery building, and we will talk with the wider community about this at Chapter, and see how we all feel about it after we have talked it over.

So we are moving forward. I've expressed to the community how excited I am about what the transition is revealing, and how much I am going to miss being part of the process. But I know that a period of time away will be good for me and most helpful for the developing of this next era in the community's life. I'll just have to look forward to my return and to seeing how things have worked out, and where I fit into the life that is yet to be revealed.

PS - as part of the transition, this blog will be renamed "Bede's Blog." It will continue to be featured on our web site's "Community Meditations" page. Come visit me there!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Advent in May

This is truly a fascinating experience. The path we have chosen for the new Prior to take over is slowly but surely exercising its power. I have less and less to do - at least of those things associated with being in charge. I've arranged everything that needs arranging. I've made all the lists that are needed. Slowly but surely the brothers who need to ask something are beginning to ask Scott and not me. I still sit in the big chair. But I'm more and more a symbol and not anything functional.

This means the process is working, of course. Once you announce that a transition is taking place, there's no way to stop it from beginning. A certain amount of the change just takes place because of its own energy. And a symbol is not an empty thing. A good deal of the power of any office is symbolic. It's just different - quite different.

This afternoon we have a meeting for the community to begin considering issues for the living of the next year. I expect there will be a good deal of energy for this meeting, and that after it the process will be even further advanced. Then we will be in retreat for three days this week. This is simply our usual quarterly retreat, but it comes as at particularly significant moment in the community's life and it will have its own significant energy.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, there's plenty of stuff that still needs to be done. There are filing cabinets that could be cleaned out. But they could have been cleaned out long ago. There is long-delayed correspondence that can be done. Ditto. There are small things that I always wished I had the time for. Is that it? Well, I may do one or another of those things, but I don't think they are it, if by "it" I mean what this time is really for.

I think my principal occupation now is to wait. The energy has gone elsewhere, for myself as well as most of the community, and this is the way it should be. Now I wait. That's my job. I have my own personal Advent this year, only it's in the Spring.

A time to wait. A time to feel what waiting is like.

I don't want to live in the future or the past. I want to live now. I treasure many, many things about these years of being the community's leader, and I know that the (immediate) future is going to be really good. But neither of those is where I am now. And so I wait. Waiting has its own discipline and its own feelings.

I might not have described the process this way as recently as yesterday. But when I started to think about what I was going to write this week, I realized that I couldn't think of anything. I usually write about what's going on now. Well, I've said what I have to say about ceasing to the the Prior, and I've given a beginning description about what I'll be doing after this. I couldn't think of a thing that needed to be said. And so I thought I'd explore that and see what was there, and that's when I knew that I'd entered into this waiting time.

It will not be long. And it will have its own disciplines and rewards.

PS - a few of us were having a discussion the other evening about what I should call this blog after I'm not the Prior any longer. Elizabeth said it should be called "The Prior Prior's Column." That really tickles my sense of the use of words, and I do love it. But I'm not sure I want to emphasize the fact that I used to have this position. Something more about what I will be next, I think, is more what I'm looking for. "Bede's Blog" is the first thing that struck me, but I'm not sure that's it, either. Hmmmmm. This will require some thought.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Transition Continues

The transition of my stepping down as Prior involves a lot more people than me, of course, and we have begun that process.

Our practice in the past has been for the Superior to discuss the appointment of a new Prior with the Order's Council at Chapter (the annual meeting of the Order in June each year). Then the appointment is announced, the new Prior is appointed, and the transition begins.

This year Robert decided to try a new pattern. He met with the Council a couple of weeks ago, at the time of Br James' life profession, because all the members of the Council were going to be here for that event. A number of appointments had to be decided on because all of the terms of the Order's officers expire every three years, and that occurs next month. The Council discussed the proposed appointments, and consented to them, and Robert made the appointments at that time. This means that we now have a month or so of "Lame Duck" status. Br Scott will be the next Prior, and he will be installed on June 12, but the transition has already begun.

This has proved helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, doing it the old way was going to make for a very abrupt change, because I have to leave immediately after Chapter. Our friend Elizabeth, in whose house I will be living this summer, is leaving for a period of residence with our community in South Africa at the end of that week, and I have to be there for a couple of days before she leaves so I can learn what needs to be known about the house, and the care of the cat, and the relationship with the neighbors and all of that sort of thing. This would mean that, in fact, there would hardly be any transition time, and that didn't seem satisfactory. So the new way was proposed and agreed on.

Right after his appointment was announced Scott and I agreed that I would be in charge of anything happening between now and June 12 and he would be in charge of anything happening after that. It has worked very smoothly from my point of view. It has made a natural way of turning things over and has contributed well to the sense that things are changing, but at a measured pace and as a natural part of our life, which of course it is.

Scott set to work very quickly to organize things for his term. He has announced a couple of appointments of house officers and started to meet with the Brothers who will be on his Council. People are shifting into new positions. Shifts in work responsibilities are happening. For instance, Br Mark will be doing the Incense work while I'm gone. I've been working with him about this since last fall, but he has now taken over completely and is doing the work on his own, with a bit of looking over the shoulder from me. Br James, who has been doing all of our weekly work lists for a long time, has now offloaded that onto Br Julian, who took some time to learn this particular craft and is now doing it himself. Brothers seem to be taking their time making shifts and adjustments, and the process has been fairly placid.

But it has come along in a major way. Yesterday when I had finished writing some notes to people who had sent gifts to us, I realized that I had finished just about every administrative task that needs to be done. A couple of minor things remain - putting out the next preaching rota and getting the calendar of community events arranged for the time between now and June 12 - and then I will be done with the administrative part of the job. I have not been looking at this much free time in many years. It feels really nice.

Not that I lack for things to do. There are always files to clean out, and in my case, they date back to when I returned to this house from South Carolina in 1990. Fortunately most of that stuff can just be pitched at this point. Not much sorting, just into the trash can they go. I need to make sure that I have books that I want to take along organized and in a box. But just doing that makes clear that I'm now making detailed plans for the future and not wrapping up, so there's another shift.

It's been a good process, and I think it will serve the community well as the turning of things over continues. I'm grateful for the way it's going.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Big Transition

There's a major transition coming up for me. In just a little more than a month my term as Prior will be completed, and I am stepping down and will be taking a period of sabbatical. I wanted to let my readers know that this change was coming rather than spring it at the last moment. So what I am going to do this morning is post a copy of an article that I wrote about it for our Newsletter, Mundi Medicina, which will be appearing very shortly.
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Sabbath, Sabbatical and Us – and Me

Few things are as deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the keeping of a Sabbath – a regular day which is given to rest, to socializing (especially with family) and to worship. Reading of some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures can give the impression that there is really only one Commandment – you are to keep the Sabbath; and this means one simple thing. No work.

The provision of a regular day on which the routine is entirely different, when the focus is not on the usual business of life, is based on a deep intuition. We get into a routine, which becomes a habit, and then becomes a rut. It is necessary to interrupt the routine periodically and regularly so that we can think differently, so that we can pray differently, so that we can be different. Over a period of time, Sabbath keeping introduces us to deeper levels of experience. The Hebrew Scriptures present the Sabbath as the meeting place between God and human beings, and the keeping of the Sabbath as the sharing in the very being of God. It’s not a small thing.

We have a Sabbath here at Holy Cross: for us it’s Monday, since our Guesthouse ministry means that we work on weekends. We do our best to make a real Sabbath possible. The usual schedule is suspended and our business offices are closed. There’s no pressure to get things done, except, of course the pressure that comes from within. We hope that the space we create for ourselves on Mondays will relax us, refresh us – and more than anything, sanctify us. Above all, Mondays are about expanding our time, so that we have time for quiet, and for each other, and most of all for God.

Sabbaths gave rise to a different kind of rhythm, that of the Sabbatical. Now largely restricted to the academic community and to the clergy, sabbaticals offer – at least potentially – an expanded experience of Sabbath, one in which a person is able to relax, expand, see things differently and get the creative energies recreated.

And so we come to my plans. In June my term as Prior of Holy Cross Monastery will come to an end, and being 73 years old, it seemed the right time to draw this part of my monastic vocation to a close. These years of being at the helm of the monastery have been full of wonderful blessings, and I have a great sense of joy and thankfulness for this time. I will always be grateful for this opportunity, and for the marvelous, creative and most unusual community that we have here!

What now? The first thing is a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals have been traditional in Holy Cross, especially for people who have been in leadership positions for a long time. Our Superiors have, ever since I have known, taken a long time away after their terms expire. I’m going to step into this tradition and have an extended sabbatical over the next year.

The opening time is going to be a good long retreat. I will leave the monastery directly after Chapter in mid-June, and during the summer I’ll be house-sitting for our friend Elizabeth Broyles, at her place in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Elizabeth was for some time a Resident here at Holy Cross, and she is going to be at the monastery in South Africa for 3 months this summer, and while she’s gone, I’ll keep her house occupied and her cat tended. I’m intending for this part of my time to be largely one of solitude, though I’m not going to be rigid about it. I’ll have a bit of social life, and I’m planning to spend some time with the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, just to have some community life. But mostly I’m going to have quiet, and space, and time to luxuriate in the Scriptures and some other reading, and lots of time for prayer and meditation. I’m also going to roam the Catskills and sit by mountain lakes and learn again what morning and noon and night feel like.

Then in the late Fall I will set out for Kansas City, stopping to visit with some friends and family along the way. When I arrive in “KC” I’ll be occupying a lower floor “apartment” in the home of my friends Mark and Clare Romain. They have a beautiful home in the far western suburbs of the city and from my hillside room I’ll have a view of deep woods and a stream, and have access to hiking trails right outside the door. I’ll build on the foundation that I hope to establish in the summer, and continue to give much time to prayer, to lectio and to study. I’m also going to set to work to recover some of my long-lost cooking skills, and I’ll do some craft work – I hope to work with beads, making rosaries, prayer ropes and such. And of course I plan to have good time with friends I haven’t been able to be with in many years. I’m hoping that it will be a deep time, and also a leisurely time. I will return to West Park in the late Spring of 2012. I hope for the prayers of many of you while I’m engaging in this adventure, and I know there are going to be lots of stories to tell both during and after this time.
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At the present, I do not know what the future of this blog will be. I'm not sure that the reminiscences of a solitary will have the same appeal as a blog about what it's like to live in a monastery. I think I'm just going to have to feel it for a while and see what I want to do about writing. I do know that I will not be able to do it on Sunday mornings, because on that day I'll be with the Sisters in Brewster most weeks. So we'll just have to see.

The years of offering a perspective on our life to all of you have been a real joy, and I've loved seeing the blog develop and grow. I also look forward to what happens next, and hope for your interest, and for your prayers.

Br Bede

Sunday, May 1, 2011

And One More!

Just as you were beginning to think that we had reached the end of the Big Community Events, along comes another celebration to cap off the two we have already had - the Clothing of Br Mark as a Novice and the First Profession of Vows by Br Julian. On Thursday of this week we had the Profession of Life Vows by our Br James.

And what an event it was! The crowd was really something, by the standards of the size of our Church, at least. There were people from all parts of James' life: his family, a number of them, his mother included, from England, where one of this brothers is now working, a nun who taught him in high school in Virginia, people who knew him when he belonged to a religious community in the Roman Catholic Church a good many years ago, people who knew him in his professional life as a Theater and TV Director, and of course those who have come to know him since he has been a member of our community, including the people involved in the ministry of Ecclesia, the Newburgh ministry to street people with which he is deeply involved.

And, of course, all of that was topped off by a good helping of people who were here because they care for the Holy Cross community - local clergy, members of several religious orders, both Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, our Associates, our friends. It was a fine old crowd, and they sang with unusual gusto, and they were so happy that you could almost have weighed the joy on a scale. And did they sing!

At Chapter, just about 2 hours before the service, Jim said to the community: "This is a wonderful day for me. I have wanted to do this for all of my 49 years." Not a one of us doubts that.

The service began with a question with whose nature you are now surely familiar: "James, through Baptism you are dead to sin and risen in the Lord. Are you resolved to pursue this consecration to its fulfillment in your life by undertaking Monastic Profession?" To which he answered simply: "I am."

Then all of us knelt while James prostrated himself before the altar and we sang the Veni Creator - the great hymn to the Holy Spirit - and then he read out his vow of Stability, Conversion of my life to the Monastic way of Life, and Obedience, and took the Vow which he had written out in his own hand ahead of time, laid in on the altar and signed it.
Br. James signs his Life Vow - Picture by Br. Julian
Br. Julian's photographic report of Br. James' Life Profession

He was then given the black cross which marks the Life Professed in our community and a copy of Benedict's Rule and the Rule of Fr Huntington, our Founder. I am always particularly moved by the words that are said when Benedict's Rule is delivered to the newly professed: "Receive the Rule of St Benedict. Many saints have been formed by it. Be faithful to the tradition now passed on to you." That's the point at which I see most clearly the line in which I stand, as it goes back more than a thousand years and stretches ahead of me into the far, far future.

Who knows what monks will be like a thousand years from now? But they will be bearing that rule and that tradition.

The rest was all happiness and celebration. And just before we gathered around the altar for the consecration of the Bread and Wine, we sang:

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord,
If you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

It is a perfect expression of what this life is really about: God calls, we answer - as best we can - and we hold the world and all its people in our hearts, and we also respond to them - as best we can. Monasticism is never going to be a majority movement in this society. But there are some people who belong here. I am one of them. And I doubt if there was a person in that crammed Church that morning who didn't know that Br James is also one of them.

So one more time in this Eastertide - Alleluia!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Alleluia!!!

Easter Day once again. Joy and exhaustion - that's the feeling of Easter morning. It has been a consuming and powerful week, and a very busy one, what with about 50 guests in the house.

What I usually talk about on Easter morning is what hit me this year as we went through the days of Holy Week. This year, the thing from Maundy Thursday that stays with me is an impression of the Eucharist around the dinner table, and how different it feels. It has an immediacy and communality that is more apparent to me than it is in the way we normally celebrate the Eucharist in our Church. I was so aware that this was something that we were doing more than it was something that I was doing. The informality of it helps me to see things in a different way.

Then early in the morning - about 3 a.m. - after I was finished with my time at the Watch - I went outside to see the Paschal Moon as I always do. There it was, a gibbous moon this year, well past being full, riding low in the Southern sky. And it was deeply silent; so quiet that I couldn't ever remember having heard it so still. No wind, no traffic, no voices, no sound of waves on the water. It was as though the whole of the earth was holding its breath, anticipating. I could hear a single car across the river in Poughkeepsie, driving up some street, and then there was the sound of a siren as the police chased someone (the same car?). And then it was still again. All of creation seemed to be in suspension, waiting.

Good Friday. As I've said in my Easter posts before, I am always greatly moved by seeing people come forward for the Veneration of the Cross. All of those folks, some of whom I have known for many years and some of whom I was seeing for the first time. They come forward and approach the Cross that two of the brothers are holding. Some kneel, and some stand. Many kiss the cross, and some reach out and touch it, some press their heads to it, some just look. I never fail to feel very close to so many of them as they stand or kneel there in that very personal, very revealing way.

And this year, something additional happened. As the Blessed Sacrament was brought in from the Altar of Repose, and as the people got down on their knees, I could feel the power of faith. And it wasn't just the faith of a bunch of individuals. It was the faith of the congregation, of the group. The faith that reaches out, that longs for God, was so apparent to me that it was almost physical and I know that I took a step backwards because I was so "taken aback". It was another moment in which God's presence and our intimacy met. And it was the surprise gift of Holy Week this year.

The Easter Vigil was the crown of it all, of course. I could enumerate the parts of the service, but many of you will know them well enough. For me the deep joy was the evidence that the diversity for which we have worked so hard it taking another step forward. We were 70 or 80 people. We were beginning to be a sample of all the people of this area. We were old and young - from one who was about 8, I would guess, to one who is well into her 90's and who stood through everything and sang everything. We were men and women - and about equal numbers of each! We were straight and gay. We were black and white. We were (mostly) Americans, but we were also West Indians and Hispanics of several different countries, and Asians, and a Belgian and 2 Hungarians and a lady from Nigeria who had the most extraordinarily beautiful dresses. We were people who have known each other for years, and people who were total strangers.

And we were filled with joy as we shouted: "He is risen indeed, alleluia!" and rang our bells.

At breakfast afterwards, one of the college students who was here said to me that someone had said to her that people find it hard to leave their own Churches and come here for Easter, but that after they do they never want to be anywhere else, and that now she understood why. And one man, an Associate of ours, brought his sister because he knew she would see and respond, and she said to me, "Now I understand." What a wonderful promise for the future.

We really celebrated. And we haven't even had Easter Dinner yet! Or the Cantata that Kairos, our Artists in Residence, will sing this afternoon.

But first, a nap.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It's Holy Week

Holy Week always comes as a surprise to me.

You might think that's kind of odd. In fact, I think it's kind of odd. We do really pay attention to Lent around here: our routine during these weeks is different in small but meaningful ways, and my impression is that most of us do pay attention to "tightening up" in some area of our lives, both corporately and individually. And since we observe the entire season, and the readings at the Offices are attuned to the season, you'd think that it would have the effect of leading a person right into the climax of the season wouldn't you?

Not me.

I'm never ready. I always wonder how it got here so fast and why I don't feel better prepared. I always think there must be something I could do differently next year, so I'll be really ready for Holy Week.

Never works.

But, on the other hand, Palm Sunday always does the job. I arrive all unprepared and the opening prayer asking God to "assist us in the contemplation of those mighty acts...." always pops me right in. And then we read the Palm Gospel and get a piece of Palm (and this year a stalk of Pussy Willow, too). And we have a really fine procession from the Guesthouse to the Church, singing a lively "Hosannah, Hosannah, Hosannah. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord" and we ring hand bells, and bang drums and clap clappers, and even skip a little, sometimes, and that does it.

Now the service is over, and I'm in Holy Week once again. My Palm and my stalk of Pussy Willow rest behind the Triptych of Christ and two angels that hangs in my cell, and I closed the doors of the Triptych to match the solemnity of the season, so now I see the angels on the back side, guarding what's hidden within. That will keep me reminded. (As though one needed reminding around here!) (But a little visual symbol never hurts.) Yes, it really is Holy Week.

I guess whatever works is what works.

And this week we had another of our big moments. On Wednesday at Vespers, Mark, our Postulant, became a Novice, and is now Brother Mark.

The Clothing ceremony, which makes a man a Novice, is the most dramatic of the services of passage in the community. That's because he's been sitting with us in choir for six months, dressed in civvies, while the rest of us are all in white. Now, at the beginning of Vespers he's asked if he really wants to do this (see last week's post). Then his habit is brought out, all neatly folded, and blessed by the Superior and given to him. While we sing a hymn he goes to the Sacristy and changes into it, and towards the end of the hymn he comes back in with the Novice Master, and he's all resplendent in white, and with his hood pulled up. Very dramatic, this change to the monastic state. And it serves as a reminder to me of the day that I did the same thing, and of the years that have passed since then.

Brothers Mark and Robert rejoicing in the occasion after Vespers

I think of all the men who have put on our habit in the 127 years since our community was founded - and of the ones whose lives were changed and who spent the rest of their lives in Holy Cross - and of the ones whose lives were changed, but who left. We often hear from men, now long forgotten in the community, who still remember vividly the time they spent with us, and the effect it had on them, and this is now sometimes 40, 60, even 70 years ago. And it all began with putting on a white habit.

It's common to say that something is "only a symbol", but symbols are powerful, and often never forgotten. This symbol of how a life changes when you give it to God is one of our deepest ones, and after nearly 50 years in our habit, a little something "comes over me" still every time I put it on.

May that be true for Br Mark as well, and may he live long and prosper with us.

Br. Bernard's pictorial notes:
- You'll find a set of pictures of Br. Mark's clothing on Br. Julian's Flickr gallery "Cloister Walk".
- You'll also find a set of
pictures of Br. Julian's First Annual Profession of the Benedictine Vow.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A High Point

Just to begin by picking up a couple of threads from recent weeks:

This week we finally got a day or two that were both mild and sunny. We've waited long enough since I reported the first daffodil, but now that one is no longer standing there all by itself. There are some others, and some hyacinths looking very brave and dark blue. And tomorrow is supposed to be both sunny and warm - the first really warm day of the year, so after that Spring should really be established. We've waited a long time this year.

We've also continued the Lenten retreat and program ministry. Andrew has been in Montreal conducting a retreat for clergy on Celtic spirituality, Scott went to Albany to do an evening of speaking and conversation about the monastic life at St Paul's parish and yesterday Adam was in Stamford, Connecticut at St John's Church, conducting a program on the crafting of a Rule of Life. It's been a long time since we did this much outside retreat and program ministry. It's still too early to tell if it's a change in things, but it's a hopeful sign in any case.

Now for the big news of the week - an event that is always a high point in the life of any monastic community: our Brother Charles (now Br Julian) made his first profession of vows on Wednesday.

Br. Julian sings at his First Profession mass
accompanied by his Mom in the background


It's a simple service, actually (if a Solemn Mass can ever be referred to as "simple"). It was conducted by Br Adam and Br Andrew, the two brothers who have been Novice Master while Charles has been in the novitiate, and by Br Robert, our Superior, who received the vow on behalf of the community and preached a very fine sermon.

After the sermon Charles came forward, along with Andrew, who presented him to the Superior for Profession and certified that he had been trained according to our tradition.

Robert then asked the usual question: "Are you doing this of your own free will?" (not the exact words, but that's what it means). This is really important when you are doing something that involves promising your life to someone or someones. Although the days are thankfully past, by and large, when people are forced into marriages or into a monastery against their will, it's still a very good thing for people to hear you say - and for you to hear yourself say - that you are doing this because you want to. The marriage promises have this as one of their functions, and no marriage can be performed if the people being married don't agree that they are undertaking this relationship freely. And the same is true for people making monastic profession.

Then Charles knelt and read his commitment to our vow of Obedience, Stability and 'Conversion of my ways to the monastic way of life' for one year. He signed the paper on which he had earlier written out the Vow by hand and then he went to the altar and laid it there. Then the large full robe called the Cowl, which in the Benedictine life is a symbol of Profession, was brought and put on him. This is always something of an awkward moment, because the Cowl is so big and so cumbersome and there's no way to get it on someone in a dignified manner. It involves a lot of pushing and shoving and pulling and straightening, but it gets done, and when he's finally clothed, he's the newest Benedictine in the world! He then gives the Peace to the members of his community and then we proceed to Communion.

And from that moment on, he is going to be known as Br Julian. Well, in theory. It takes a while to get used to someone changing their name and there have been a good many slips, when someone will refer to "Cha..., uh, Julian", or just forget altogether and call him Charles. I remember how long it took people to refer to me as Bede, or for me to think of myself as Bede. Now, of course, it seems like it's really me. (It was the kids who really made the change easily. I was deeply involved in youth work at the time I changed my name, and the kids loved 'Bede' because it was short and sharp, so it made a good nickname for them, and also because it went so well with 'Bad'. So 'Bad Bede' it was for a number of years, and an occasional person, now well into middle age, will still come up with that from time to time.

Our Church was filled with people, friends, Associates, and some just plain guests. Julian's mother was able to come from Florida. I was especially moved by the number of people from other Religious Orders who had come. Sr Hildegard, a dear friend from the Redemptoristine nuns up the road was here, all splendid in her deep red habit, and Br John, whom we are just getting to know, came. He's a Marist Brother from their place just to the north of us. Sister Eleanor Francis, the Superior of the Community of St John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey was here, and it's always a significant thing to have one of their sisters, because that community was involved with Holy Cross in our very earliest days in New York City in the 1880's and mentored us very lovingly for many years. Suzanne Guthrie was here from Brewster and represented the Holy Spirit Sisters, who are dear friends. Sr Susan John, a friend for a long, long time who is a solitary sister who lives in the Catskills came and also our really good friend Br Vincent from St Joseph's Monastery in Natchez, Mississippi. Vincent began coming to the Flute Master's classes some years ago, and quickly worked his way into our affections. He's a splendid organist, and he played for the profession. (He's also quite a tailor, and when he's here he can always be convinced to do repair and altering work - quite a gift to us).

So all of the monks, nuns, family, friends and well-wishers made quite a crowd in our refectory for one of our chef Edward's splendid feasts. All in all it was a grand day, and now Holy Cross has one more professed monk.

But stay tuned. There's more to come later in the month!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's Happened!

Well, it's official. Yesterday the first two daffodils bloomed. This morning the first hyacinth was nodding serenely by the front door, and over by the monastery the grape hyacinths are waving in the breeze. We have hundreds of daffodils planted around the property, and with just a little more warmth and sun we'll have our annual Great Spring Display. And then, God and the deer willing, will come the tulip-daffodil crosses and the tulips. So it is actually going to happen again. Spring is coming.

The first daffodil as captured at dusk this Saturday 02 April by Br. Charles, n/OHC

Because I'm feeling so much into it now, I try to remind myself of the old adage: "April is the cruelest month." You can't really count on anything around here until May. I was living in England once at this time of the year and remember thinking about that poem that says: "Oh, to be in England, now that April's there", and wondering: "What on earth could he have been thinking about?" There are still going to be a number of weather set-backs. But my attitude to it is now changed for the season. I never realize how deep the winter consciousness goes in my bones until the first day like this in the Spring. And then I know, once again.

There's actually lots to be celebrating. One thing that's been on my mind is the Guesthouse season. This has been an extraordinary time. February is always the month in the year that has the highest occupancy rate (go figure). But this year it started in January and hasn't quit. Week after week we have been full or close to full not only on the weekends but during the week as well. Of course the pressure of that tells after a while. But it's also very gratifying. With retreat centers closing all around us, it's quite amazing to be on a upswing here.

And there are other interesting signs. A quite remarkable percentage of the weekday guests have been men. There have been weeks when every guest in the house except one or two was male. This is quite a change. Like most church institutions we can usually count on groups having one man to every two women. But come to think of it, when I look back, the percentage of men coming to the Guesthouse has been slowly increasing for some time. And now there seems to have been some sort of breakthrough. To be the sort of spiritual place that men find attractive and relevant is very encouraging.

The other thing is that the average age of the guests is going down noticeably. Few weeks pass now without a number of young people coming, and this is also a change that has been coming for a while. College and seminay groups have have been part of our life since I was the Director of the Guesthouse some years ago. But again, some kind of threshold seems to have been crossed. Towards the beginning of March there was one week when there was a quite unusual number of younger people here, and when we asked around we discovered that it was Spring Break, and the kids were here for part of that time, along with a significant number of faculty from several different schools. Quite a number of them were male. Who would have thought? Not the kind of Spring Break that I remember!

So there's life all around, and I'm feeling very grateful for all of it. Just the kind of sign that we need at the end of a long, hard winter.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where Has Everyone Gone?

Monastic customs and our life-style are a mystery to a lot of people. We get asked some very predictable questions. For instance, at one Sunday dinner some time ago the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said: "Tell me, do They ever let you go into town?"

This kind of inquiry always leaves me a bit at sea as to where to begin. Usually I look for some way to explore the considerable amount of unexpressed agenda that lies behind the question. In this case, I decided to address the nature of the mysterious "Them" who seem to lurk behind the scene and issue or enforce mysterious decrees about our life. "Who are 'They'? I asked."

Not too surprisingly we didn't get too far, but far enough to know that the existence of "Them" was not to be questioned, but their exact identify was a bit fuzzy. The questioner also got to know that as far as I knew "They" didn't live here - only Us. And, you may be relieved to know, I also revealed that yes, we did go into town from time to time.

Ideas about monasteries and the people who live in them can indeed be very curious, and sometimes just plain outrageous, and all of us encounter this now and then because of the amount of contact we have with the Guests who come here. Our freedom to come and go is one of the most frequent issues raised.

I'll just say that, for those of you who don't know Holy Cross, being restricted to our 25 acres plot of ground is not part of the deal here. Of course you have to want to be part of this community, and that includes being here for the offices and meals and for your work, but going out is part of the deal, too.

In fact, it's been a big part of the Holy Cross identity, at least historically. Holy Cross was known for many and many a year for giving retreats and parish missions all over the United States and in Canada as well. It was one of the things that was most characteristic of Holy Cross monks - we furnished programs for parishes. There is even an old tale of the years when seminarians from General Seminary were hired to perform the Holy Week liturgies at the Monastery because so many of the brothers were on the road preaching during Holy Week.

Times have changed that part of our life. The yearning for a deeper living of our monastic vocation has meant a greater desire of the community to be at home for our life of prayer. In addition, society has changed, and so has the Church, and the demand for parish retreats and missions is much less than it once was. Some requests do still come, but nowhere as many as used to, and with the Guesthouse operating at its present level, that's not a bad thing for us. There is plenty to do at home.

But this week rather looked like Holy Cross in the old days. The guests wanted to know where everyone was. That's what we who were still at home wanted to know, too.

Br Robert, the Order's Superior, was in Toronto, making his annual visitation to the Priory there. Br Adam was in Manhattan, conducting a Quiet Day at the Church of the Transfiguration (also known as "The Little Church Around the Corner") and he also preached there twice this morning. On Wednesday he will be giving a program on Lectio for the congregation at St Ignatius of Antioch Church in Manhattan. Then he goes to Richmond, Virginia to lead a Benedictine Experience program for the Friends of St Benedict. Br Scott was leading a Quiet Day at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Br Bernard was gone for most of each day as he led a Guesthouse Retreat that had been scheduled to work on the building of a house for Habitat For Humanity, and ended up to be work on a City Farm in Kingston.


Holy Cross volunteers working at Kingston's South Pine Street City Farm - March 23, 2010
From left to right, Leone, Br. Bernard, Lori (Ken is behind the camera).
Thanks to Ken and Leone for the pictures of the day.


Br Charles is at Emory House, the monastery of The Society of St John the Evangelist north of Boston, making the retreat that precedes the occasion of his First Vows, which will be in a couple of weeks. And Mark, our Postulant, is on the 10-day leave that marks the end of his Postulancy, and he will then also be doing a short retreat before he receives the Habit of our community and officially becomes a novice monk.

That's half the community! And when you add to that the various occasions of meetings in the local area, necessary shopping, doctor's appointments and other things that often come along, we have sometimes been struggling to keep the Sung Office going. On one occasion this week, there were only 4 of us in Choir for the noon office. I judiciously rearranged the seating. All you really need is one strong voice on each side of choir and it can be managed, and the two brothers who remained are good singers, even if they're not (yet) leaders. And it did fine. It may not have been exquisite, but it was perfectly acceptable. We even got through all of the elaborate Offices for the Feast of the Annunciation quite beautifully, I thought.

It also helps us to long for the latter days of Lent, when the whole community will be at home again, and the choir will be full.

This life, as is true of all kinds of life, has its ebbs and flows. We pray the Office with a full choir and with a nearly empty one. Sometimes the Church is packed full of people, and sometimes it's just us (and the Holy Spirit!) Sometimes there are lots of people to do the dishes and sometimes not. As much as the rhythm of prayer in the Church and in our Cells, the rhythm of brothers arriving and leaving is part of this life. .

St Benedict bids us pray at the end of each day for the brothers who are away, and from that we learn that this rhythm has been part of the Benedictine life from the very beginning in the Sixth Century. And we still end the Office of Compline each day with the Officiant saying: "May the Divine help remain with us always." To which the Choir responds: "And with those who are absent from us." And then we file out of choir and into the Great Silence, carrying with us in our hearts our brothers who are away.

One community, wherever we are. One Office, however it may sound. All of it wrapped up in God's presence and offered for God's glory.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fixing Up

I don't write often about things like decorating and the care of our buildings and our rooms, but this is supposed to be a blog about what it's like to live in a monastery, so some attention is appropriate to how we keep things fixed up and in order.

Maybe you'd be interested in our rooms (or in monastic parlance, cells). They are all the same, since this building was built in the 60's. They are each 10'x14'. A cell indeed, you might say.

On one wall is a unit that has a desk, some shelves and our bed, which is a foam mattress on a wooden board, and it folds up into the wall when not in use. This is a good thing, because the rooms don't have much room when the bed is down. On an adjacent wall there is another unit with a sink and medicine cabinet, some shelves of various sizes and a small closet. The floor is a cork tile. There are two narrow windows, one of which opens, and this is the source of most of our complaints about the building, since getting any ventilation in the summertime is very difficult. Especially on the top floor, right under the black roof, it can be pretty awful in hot weather.

So there it is. We have what we need and not much else. Appropriate, you might say.

We all have the freedom to put some decoration in the rooms as we please - a carpet, a chair, some things for the walls. It isn't possible to get too elaborate - the size of the space takes care of that. And the nature of our life tends to exercise a continuing pressure as well. I'm always interested to watch new men arrive and struggle to see how much they can get to fit into a 10 x 14 space, and then see, as the years go on, how often the things they've put in the rooms are gradually cleared out. Something about the monastic life makes simplicity seem the best way, and we don't have to have much in the way of rules about it. If we're living our life well, that seems to take care of itself.

My room has needed some fixing up for quite a while. For a time in the late 70's we didn't use the monastery building because we couldn't afford to heat it, and a certain amount of damage was done to walls and ceilings, and my walls showed some of the damage as did the hot water radiator that stretches across one wall. The bed had also gotten damaged somewhere along the line and needed to be fixed. And things were looking shabby. As far as I can figure, the room was last painted about 30 years ago, so I'll just draw a decorous curtain over the subject of how it looked. So some plastering had to be done, and some carpentry and the radiator needed to be cleaned and sanded.

And then painting. Oh my! Do you know how long it's been since I chose paint colors? Jaimie, our building manager, appeared one day with the folder of chips illustrating 500 different colors I could choose from. You all know how this goes. But I pulled a surprise on him - I took about 30 seconds to choose the color. I knew what I wanted - a light gray with just a little hint of green in it, and I knew it the minute I saw it. Jamie was astounded. "Don't you want to think about this?" he kept asking. I could just see him worrying that I was going to change my mind halfway through the paint job, and I'll bet he's seen plenty of that in his years as a contractor. When I insisted, he went on his way, but all of his workers knew the story within a few minutes. The Man Who Chooses Paint Colors Fast - that's me!

And the work happened fast. One man plastered while another worked on the radiator cover. The painting started and was nearly done by late afternoon. The one cinder block wall got washed - I decided not to have it painted, because I like the look of the blocks and the subtle color differences in them. By noon the next day the whole job was done. And yes, the paint did dry darker than it first looked, and it proved to be exactly the color I wanted. Big sighs of relief from the work crew.

Meanwhile I sorted through the stuff that I had carried out of the room. Books which I hadn't read and wasn't going to - off to the library. Knickknacks that have lost their charm to be discarded. Clean the rug. What's going back on the wall?

The result? It's great. All that freshness and the greater degree of simplicity make my space feel more welcoming and more comfortable. My spirits are a little lighter - we really are influenced by our surroundings. Every once in a while I stop and admire that color I chose so quickly, and grin. Nice color. Nice cell.

As I've indicated, we don't do this very often, and that befits our life. But it certainly is nice when we can do it. It feels good to be in there, and it feels good to pray in there.

Spring cleaning is a good thing!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Happy Heart - An Aching Heart

My heart is happy today, because it looks as though our Br Ron is recovering well. It will take him a long time for his recovery. Indeed it takes anyone a long time to recover from pneumonia, and someone with Emphysema has more hurdles to clear on their way to healing. But he's breathing on his own now, and he's on his feet for short periods and talking about getting out of the hospital and back home, which hopefully will be in the next few days. So there is much to be thankful for, and I feel a lot of happiness.

I'm also feeling a lot of aching right now, because I've just come from looking at the collection of pictures in the New York Times of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. The destruction is one thing when it's unimaginable. When you've seen the pictures it's no longer unimaginable, because it's right there in front of you.

It would be nice to think that it's my spiritual nature sensing the oneness of all humanity that causes me to feel this way. And though I won't rule out the reality that some of that is true, it's also true that a lot of it is just memory. Once you've lived through something like that, it never leaves you.

In the 1980's I was living at our Priory in South Carolina, in the village of Pineville in the Low Country between Charleston and Columbia. and it was towards the end of that time that Hurricane Hugo devastated so much of that part of the South, particularly South Carolina. So many of the newspaper pictures I've just been seeing are not like a horrible scene in a faraway place. They look like something I knew - and know - all too well.

I wasn't in Pineville when the hurricane hit, so I didn't go through the worst of it. I was, in fact, deep in the Rockies in Northern New Mexico on a fishing trip with my friend Mark, and we didn't even know there was a Hurricane until we came back down to where there were some newspapers. I got home 2 days later, my flight having been diverted from Charleston to Columbia, where the airport was still functioning. And then we drove 2 hours through a devastated land - forests flattened, towns terribly damaged, people wandering about in deep shock.

Everyone at the Priory was fine, physically, and we had shelter, at least. The Priory was composed of a large central house and a collection of hermitages in which the monks and the guests lived. The main house still stood, but the roof had peeled off in the storm, which the community had experienced because they took refuge in the house, several of them under large pieces of furniture. Several of the hermitages were damaged. A tree limb had come through one wall of my hermitage. There was, of course, no electricity. But the phone lines were underground, so the phone worked sporadically. In one of those ironic happenstances at times like this, for several days we could call out but no one could call in, or people could call in and we couldn't call out, and we never knew which was going to be which.

It was September, so the weather was ok, and there was no major suffering from heat or cold. But we usually used water from our own well, and the pump didn't work. Then very quickly one of our Associates from Florida came with a small generator which would run the pump, so after a few days we had water. We could cook because the stove used propane gas, and the tank was still connected. We were without electricity for several weeks, so we went to bed early and got up early.

We cleaned up. We piled up trash. We burned debris. To this day I think the worst part of the whole experience was not any deprivation but just the living in the middle of all that destruction. The Priory Church was a modern building and it had a lot of glass, some of which was broken out. It had one glass wall that looked out on what had been a grove of pine trees, but now was piles and piles of debris. It changed our worship, in a big way. Both we and our neighbors found that periodically we simply had to stop our cleaning up. We could do just so much, and then we couldn't do any more. And there was nothing around us for miles and miles and miles but more destruction. It was terrible to live in.

I drove to the house of a friend in Alabama who had electricity so that I could get some word out to our friends and Associates, and I remember that drive vividly. It seemed that no matter how far I drove I couldn't escape the destruction. It was everywhere. The world had turned into a nightmare.

I also remember the day the electricity came back. The first we knew of it was when Br Tom Schultz pointed at the ceiling fan in the living room of the main house because it was turning. It took a moment to realize what that meant. In the midst of the chaos, a fan was blowing.

Well, we had a place to live and we had each other, so we were in much, much better shape than many were. There were houses in our county that had survived didn't have electricity a year after the storm. We were fortunate in so many ways. That doesn't lessen the trauma.

I'm not saying that I understand the magnitude of what has happened to the people of Sendai in Japan. I'm just saying that this is what comes up for me in looking at the pictures of what has happened there.

How do I pray?

Well, I pray with my emptiness and my aching heart, or I don't pray at all, that's for sure. When I think the phrase "the people of Japan" or hear it in our Church during the Prayers of the People, that ache opens again. It's what I have right now.

And with it I have my old friend the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." Over and over. And I have the beads that I wear on my right arm, always close to hand (literally!). And just writing this has opened me up more to the prayer that I have to have - that I have to be. I have no doubt whatever of my call to pray now. And I'm glad beyond words that I've had my years of experience at negotiating hard times in prayer, so that I don't have to use a lot of energy figuring out "how can I possibly pray in this situation?" I have my tools. I just have to use them.

The result of my prayer? I have no earthly idea, and I'm not terribly concerned with that. I am a person who aches for the people of Sendai (the city where the earthquake was strongest). That's the truth - part of the truth - about me. Part of that truth is my memories of the trauma of natural disaster. The reality is that I simply have to pray that and lay my prayers in the hands of God. We are all really one, and this is what I have to offer to those on the other side of the words with whom I am one. The "results" of my praying are not my business.

I know that doing it will work some grace in me. I have trust that God will do whatever should be done in those for whom I pray. I choose just to step into the reality of the oneness of all people.

Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Update

The news of Br Ronald today is encouraging. The brothers who visited him report that he is lively and communicative (communicating with notes, of course, since he still is on the ventilator). He is breathing on his own about half the time, his blood work is good, and there is no heart involvement. He may be out of ICU by tomorrow. So we're very encouraged, and thank everyone for their prayers. We - and especially Ron - appreciate it greatly.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Emergency

I'm late today and this will be abbreviated, because of an emergency.

I got up early this morning. I'm Refectorian this week and needed to make coffee for the guests and had to do it early if I was going to have time for prayer before Matins. I got the coffee done and then got into the shower and I had just finished when Br Rafael appeared at my door to say that Br Ronald was having trouble breathing and he had called the ambulance.

This is serious business. Ron has had Emphysema for many years and has been on oxygen for a long time now, as many of you will know. A couple of years ago he had several episodes of breathing problems, which turned out to be due to side effects of a medication he was taking at the time, and I got to know that inside of the Emergency Room of Kingston Hospital very well.

By the time I got to his room, he was breathing fairly well, but was weak and shaky. The EMS crew arrived quite shortly after that and got him on some concentrated oxygen and whisked him away to Kingston. Br Bernard went with him, and I stayed home in order to get breakfast served and to have some myself. I have blood sugar problems and I can't miss a meal.

I got to the hospital soon after breakfast to find that there was a diagnosis of double (bi-lateral) pneumonia, but with no heart involvement, which is a blessing. They had started intravenous antibiotics and were sedating him, because anxiety is very much a part of breathing problems, and it can complicate any recovery.

As Ron's consciousness faded he got quieter and his breathing slowed. Bernard went in search of his own breakfast. Then we talked some to the medical personnel, and they told us that Ron would be transferred to ICU later in the day, and would be kept sedated for several days, while the healing process has a chance to get well established. All was quiet. The new Emergency Room at the hospital seems to be a fine facility, and he was treated with exactly the right combination of friendliness and professionalism. I was impressed.

So I got home in time to get lunch served and then have a short nap. I leave before long for an event that several of us are attending at the home of a friend who lives in the mountains west of here.

That has been my day. We are very concerned, of course. We'll certainly appreciate prayers from any of you who would like to join in. I'll let you know how things turn out.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Is It Spring Yet?

It's the time of year when it gets harder and harder to convince oneself of the virtues of a good old fashioned winter - especially when you wake up, as we did this morning, to another good old-fashioned blanket of snow all over everything.

Even I, who am an unabashed lover of winter and of snow, felt my heart sink a bit as I looked as the lovely soft white cover all over everything.

And yes, it was lovely, white and soft, but. . . . The piles of snow and ice that the plow has left are still nearly head-high in some places. And we usually have Snow Drops blooming a couple of weeks before this, and this year the bed in which they are planted has 8 inches of ice on top of it. And This Has Gone On Long Enough!!!

So much for the rant.

This is supposed to be a column about what it's like to live in a monastery. So I can begin by saying that what it's like is that we get tired of winter just like everyone else. Some of you may find that consoling, and some will find it irritating, but it's the truth.

Next, one of the things one does as a Benedictine Monk is to apply him (or her) self to noticing what is around, especially to signs of life and of hope. Sure, it's a gloomy experience to wake up and discover that there has been yet one more damn snow storm in the night. But what else is there? What signs are there?

Well, as we were standing in the sacristy waiting for Mass to begin this morning, the clouds parted and the sun came out. And everything was suddenly different. The gloom lifted. It was really beautiful. The minute the sun shone the snow began dropping off the limbs of the trees, and that was a nice little sign. By the time Mass was over the driveways had melted nicely. And if you opened a door and stepped out, the birds were singing.

A few years back a friend pointed out to me that the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is February 2, is the day that the birds start singing their spring songs, and it has become a wonderful spring ritual for me to go outside on that day and hear the new year begin in song. That feast must have been an old pagan festival that Christianity took over and replaced with its own feast, but that kind of observation reaches back into the early history of human beings, and that moves me greatly, Long before Jesus, or Abraham for that matter, people were noticing the date that has become February 2. Life returns.

And if we wait long enough the Snow Drops will bloom. They are incredible little flowers. They produce a tiny amount of heat and sooner of later they melt their way to the surface of the ice pack and come up right through it - I've seen them do it before. I watch for it every year.

And our Guesthouse is full of people who have come here for a variety of reasons, but at least some of them - perhaps a good many of them - are seeking God's presence, or at least discover themselves confronted with it once they get here.

There are a couple of parish groups here this weekend and a group of students from Swarthmore College, which is a sign of hope all in itself. The students have been in silence all weekend (well, except for Texting) They come every Spring - Episcopalians and all other kinds of Christians, a Buddhist or two, some seekers, some agnostics, some with no label at all. It is a great privilege to welcome them and let them see our life.

Last night after Compline I lingered in our Church, as I sometimes feel moved to do. And the Church was filled with a huge and gentle Presence. It was so strong that it just about slapped me across the face. And interestingly enough, I wasn't the only person who noticed, because there was an unusually large number of guests who lingered for quite a while after Compline. A number of them were the students. The silence and the Presence caught me and held me, and was obviously having some effect on a number of others. When the time came I took myself off to bed, leaving a small number of people still there.

To live in a monastery is just this - to look for God. And then to share what we find or what we have with others. In the case of Holy Cross it means spending our time and efforts operating a Guesthouse and sharing our meals with several thousand people a year. Other monks teach, or do social work or counseling or any of a number of other things.

But the life is just that - to seek God, and then to share what you have found. And today I share the gloom and the joy one finds in a lingering winter, and a Presence that found and held me last night.

And I share it chiefly so that you will reflect on your own search and what you have found. After all, it's unlikely that you would have read this far if you didn't have a search of your own.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Of Knowing God and Eating Lentils

Yesterday I went on a sort of pilgrimage. I went looking for a Thin Place.

Thin Places, as many of you will know, are spots that the old Celts used to identify as locations in which you can most easily sense the presence of God. Because God is more easily found in these places, they often serve as pilgrimage spots, sometimes for huge numbers of people, but the majority of them are local spots, known only to those who know the neighborhood. This part of the country is full of such places. The whole of the Catskill mountain range was holy ground for many of the Indians of the pre-European days, for instance.

I went to a long thin valley in the Litchfield Hills, which serve as the approximate boundary line between Connecticut and New York, to the home of Mary and Dan Gates. Mary is the person with whom I often conduct meditation retreats. They have an old house close to the stream which runs through their valley, and over the years they have remodeled it so that it now is full of windows that look up the valley and down to the banks of the stream. At the present snow fills the valley and ice covers the stream, but there are a few places where open water gurgles over rocks and lets us know that warmer days are ahead.

But that valley was not the Thin Place I was looking for. I was in search of the thin place that lives inside me.

I joined a group of about a dozen people who had come for an all-day meditation session. The group gathers more or less monthly. Some months there is a weekend retreat and in alternating months there is a Saturday gathering. Our schedule at Holy Cross, with the busiest days of the week being Saturday and Sunday, means that going away for a weekend isn't often realistic for me. But a one-day thing is easier to manage, and I try to get to these events when I can.

One of the interesting oddities of the search for God is that God is everywhere, but you have to go somewhere to find God. Since the days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity - and for centuries before - people have felt the need to make a journey to find the Holy, and to look for the knowledge of how to experience that Presence which is everywhere around us and in us.

In the case of our little group the vehicle is entirely simple. We sit, we walk. We sit, we walk. We sit, we walk. We do that all day long. At noon we have lunch and then a nap. Then we do it all over again. We begin at 9 and we finish at 5.

We also have a notable friend and excellent teacher in Doug Phillips, who used to conduct retreats at Holy Cross and who now concentrates some of his energies in the Litchfield Hills. He leads and interprets these retreats with great skill.

So what happened? Those of you who have embarked on adventures such as this could write the story just as easily as I can. The wind howled up and down the valley. The stream gurgled. The sun came out and warmed the room in which we were sitting, and then it disappeared. The pain in my back came and went. The itch on my right cheek came and went. My sense of concentration came and went - and came and went....... My conviction that this was a good thing to be doing came and went. Joy came and went. Love came and went. And the day by the stream came and went.

And two things happened that are staying with me. One was the experience of lunch. We had a lentil soup and a fresh lettuce salad. That's it. And it was delicious. I could hardly believe how wonderful the soup was, and believe me, I'm no fan of lentil soup. Ir was so good that at the end of the day I asked Mary if there was a recipe for it. She expressed some astonishment that I was asking. Apparently you boil lentils, and that's about it (I exaggerate, but only slightly). And plain lettuce, all by itself - who would have thought? The most obvious explanation is that something had opened in myself, something that made me aware in a way that I haven't been before that there is goodness and delight in even a lentil, and in the lowly lettuce.

picture by Netsu

The spiritual tradition of Christianity, and of most of the faiths of which I am aware, stresses that knowledge of God is not found principally in spiritual experiences, but in the ability to see clearly and in loving even the unlovable. Even lentils? Had I perhaps spent the day sitting in the presence of the One that I was seeking? And was that presence signaled to me by my delight in some very humble vegetables? My experience of the presence of God is that it always comes as a surprise. My mind flashes back to the Eucharist on the streets of Newburgh about which I wrote a few weeks ago.

The second thing is that on the way home I became aware that I was feeling light, as though a burden that i didn't know I was carrying around had been taken off my shoulders. That sense has remained with me into today, so maybe this pilgrimage will be one that provides my life with a bit of leaven which can be the basis for growth and change and deepening.

When I'm awake and aware, I sometimes realize that the simplest things can provide a way. There is always somewhere to go from here.

I think my pilgrimage may have been to the right place.

(And no, I am not unaware of the irony that I, who live in a place which thousands of people find to be the most significant Thin Place in their lives, have to go away in search of my Thin Place. Well, life is full of ironies.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Another Farewell


As I mentioned last week, this Tuesday we celebrated the Funeral Mass of our Brother Cecil. He actually died about 3 weeks ago, but in recent years the funeral of one of our brothers has been somewhat separated from the actual time of death. Immediately after our brother has died the community has its own observances; we sing the Office of the Dead for one entire day and have a simple Requiem celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and we do our own reminiscing. The funeral is then set on a day that gives friends and family a chance to get themselves together and arrange transportation, and it has become increasingly important to be able to find a day when the Guesthouse isn't completely filled and we have room for those who are coming from a distance.

Cecil was 80 years old and, like so many brothers at the present time, he had come to the Order after a full life of work and family. He was from Texas and Arkansas, and loved that part of the country dearly. He had a Masters Degree in Library Science and worked as a college librarian both before and after he entered the Community, and had held other clerical jobs as well. He had married and had a family - a daughter and 3 sons of whom 2 are still living. Those who spent time with him here when he came to West Park knew very well how important his family was to him and how deeply he felt any alienation or brokenness between himself and them, and how hard he worked to overcome such wounds.

Cecil had most of his formation in the Order on the West Coast, in the days when the novitiate was located in Santa Barbara, and he came to West Park only later on. When he was here he served as Librarian, and also ran the Bookstore for a time. He also had a period of service in West Africa, when we were still in Ghana, and helped organize the Library for the Seminary in Cape Coast with which we had a good deal of association.

Then in his later 70's Cecil had a space of a number of years when his health began to diminish. Several years ago he recognized that the time had come when he was having increasing difficulties living in this location and that caring for him was proving to be steadily more difficult. After a period of discernment he moved, with his own agreement, to a nursing home. After some time he relocated to a facility that was about 10 minutes from the monastery, which made visiting with him much easier. Br Lary faithfully visited with him each week and others of us dropped in on him when we were in the neighborhood. He was also able to have occasional visits with us here, especially at the time of the great feasts. We came to know his daughter Sara especially well during her visits to him during those years, and also became acquainted with his sons.

The funeral was a really fine occasion, and was one of the most intimate of these events that I can remember. All of his children were here, of course, and his sister, who is 8 years older than he, called that morning to express her sorrow at his passing and her gratitude to the community for his years with us.

Br David Bryan, our former Superior, came from Toronto to preach the homily, and it was exactly right for the occasion. It was gentle and also realistic. It was quite honest, and very graciously so. He spoke of the Cecil that we had actually known, and of the love of Christ that transforms us. It's hard to Imagine any sermon for Cecil that could have been better.

The attendance was not large, as one expects for the funeral of someone in their 80's, but it was a very personal occasion. I could identify every single person there, and knew why they had come. Besides Cecil's family, and our community, there were several of our local clergy, who had known him or who came to be a support to the community, and this included one priest who had been a regular visitor and counselor to Cecil after he entered the nursing home. There were 3 men from a 12-step group that Cecil belonged to, who had never lost touch with him and who occasionally had their meetings in the nursing home, which he greatly appreciated. There was a woman from the Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck who is a Eucharistic Minister and who brought communion to him every week. One of our Associates from New Jersey who was a particular friend of his was able to come. And Sister Mary Klock of the Sisters of Mercy, and Fr Tony Cayless, who have both been Residents of our community also came, Tony from North Carolina and Mary from Philadelphia.

Cecil's children all came forward at the time of the Committal at the end of the Eucharist and each of them had a bit to say, just in testimony of their life with their father. Then Robert, our Superior, gave his ashes to them to carry back to Arkansas. Most of us are buried in the Columbarium here at West Park, but Cecil had a great desire to rest in his family's plot in Arkansas and we agreed that it would be good for that to happen. Cecil's plaque will join those of the few who are buried in other places, either where they ministered for many years or where their families are buried.

And so we bid farewell to one of Holy Cross' most colorful characters. And of course we don't bid farewell at all. His presence will linger with us in our choir, in the refectory and in our halls. This is a place of history, among other things, and those who have gone before are very much a part of the life of Holy Cross.

Before I sign off, I also wanted to make sure you noticed the link to the MyAuntMarty blog, written by a recent guest and old friend of Br Bernard. She is spending a year eating in a different place each day for a year and writing about each experience, with an eye to producing a book about her experiences.

We had a wonderful supper with Marty this week when those of us at the table with her shared her experiences of the journey so far and then also heard from another guest who happened to be sitting with us of his bicycle journey from Seattle to Washington DC about which he is also writing a book. It was one of the most fun and stimulating meals I've had in a long time. I think you'll enjoy her reflections on the meals here and her time with Edward, our chef. I certainly did.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Snow and a Goodbye

This week I did the same thing that millions of Americans did: I shoveled snow.

Though we didn't have the amount of snow and ice here that many people had to cope with, we were still socked in pretty securely, and no one went anywhere for a while. Mike, our Groundsman, does quite a good job of plowing us out, but there was more to do than one person could take care of in one day. So I got out my Knicks parka and a shovel and went to work.

My appearing in that parka always elicits some comments when I put it on. I guess people don't experience me as the typical sports fan. And I will have to say, in all honesty, that I am not a Knicks fan. In fact, I know so little about them that I even had to look them up on the Internet to be certain of what sport they play. Nor are electric blue and orange my colors.

I can get excited about most sports, but not in the ordinary way. For me, watching basketball or football is a communal event. I'm really happy to join friends in Kansas in rapt adsorption of the Jayhawks when they're playing a game, and I can get pretty wound up about going along with my friend John to a game at Yankee Stadium, and I have a great time when I do. But when I get home I go in other directions. It just never occurs to me to watch baseball or any other sport when I'm by myself. That's what I do when I'm with friends who are really turned on to the sport.

So I'm not making a statement when I wear my parka. But someone either left this behind and forgot to claim it, or gave it to us when he was done with it. Whatever the case, there it was, and I needed something warm, so I adopted it and wear it when there's work to be done in the cold.

There were a couple of specific things to be done. I shoveled out the door on the river side of the building where the UPS man makes deliveries, so that I could get incense packages to the shipping area. I also take care of replenishing the salt in the water softener for our 3 buildings, and the plow had dumped snow right in front of the door to that shed, so I shoveled that out as well. That was a larger job. And I fooled around a while longer, cleaning up places on the monastery porch and in the parking lot.

I love the snow. In the days before my feet failed me so that I can't take long walks any more, I would get out my boots and take a long hike in the hills to our west every time there was a big snow. I love the beauty and the silence of the hillsides in the snow. When Br Bernard gave thanks at the Prayers of the People at Mass a couple of days ago for "our diamond studded hillside", I knew exactly the view he had from the upstairs windows, since I rejoice in the sparkle of the snow in the early mornings, too. Snow always raises up my impulse to praise. So getting out and shoveling is not drudgery for me. It is work that I love doing, and I am glad that at nearly 73 I am still up to doing it.

I had fun. I even had my picture taken.



So that was a pleasant moment for this week. And with that bit of joy, there was also a somber time, too. A couple of days ago we got the news that our friend Robert had died. His death was a surprise - he got pneumonia and wasn't able to throw it off and succumbed fairly rapidly, as his brother called to tell us.

Robert was probably our longest-standing guest. As I remember it, he was already visiting regularly when I arrived here in 1964. And even if my memory is wrong, it was certainly shortly after that that he began visiting here, and he has been a regular guest ever since. If you are one of the people who comes here fairly frequently, you may never have heard Robert's name, but it wouldn't surprise me if you recognized him immediately when you saw him.

Robert was a fairly short man, bald, very quiet. He kept very much to himself. He lived in Southern Vermont, I believe in a group home, though I'm hazy on the details. He had some disabilities, and his face wore the look of those for whom life has not been an easy place to be. I think he found some peace here that he had trouble finding elsewhere. He certainly loved to come.

Robert didn't communicate much, and never until he had been around you for some time and was sure of you. He always left the Refectory immediately after he finished eating and in good weather he could mostly be found on a chair on the south lawn, smoking and looking at the river. In recent years he would have some conversation with me - almost always about the weather and about his travel plans. He would let me know exactly when he would be departing and exactly how he would be traveling, usually on the bus. Several years ago, when Sister Mary Klock was living here, she struck up a friendship with Robert and he would talk with her. But Mary could charm people, animals and even plants. She has that gift, and Robert was the beneficiary of it.

As I mentioned, Robert's brother Bill called us to let us know what had happened and talked for a while, reflecting on his brother. He said that the two of them had been best friends since childhood, (and in recent years it had been Bill who made all the arrangements for Robert's visits.) He was obviously quite moved by Robert's attachment to Holy Cross, and he thanked us greatly for receiving him openly and being attentive to him, and for the kindness he found here. It was especially the kindness that he valued, and he mentioned that several times.

Our ministry here is to be a praying community, and to let our prayer open our hearts to God and then let that overflow in whatever ways it moves. Very often what happens in the course of our ministry remains a mystery to us. We know that people love coming here, and that they do it with enough enthusiasm and in large enough numbers to keep the place going (actually, "to keep the place flourishing" would be more descriptive of what's happening at the present time).

But sometimes the curtain lifts in one way or another and we see what has been happening. To know that we have given welcome and peace for nearly 50 years to someone who needed them is a great gift to us, and one for which I am really grateful. As I thought about Robert after hearing Bill's reflections, I was kind of surprised to find myself getting teary at the thought that Robert will not be coming here again. Except, of course, we may find him with us in our prayers.

May Robert rest in peace and rise in glory.

(If you get to this Blog through the Monastery web site, you also probably know that our Brother Cecil died recently. His funeral will be on Tuesday, and I'll probably have some reflections on that later). Meanwhile you can join us in prayer for him and for his family.