Sunday, January 30, 2011

A New Priest and a Dog

Well, I didn't blog, did I? I really had intended to keep the blog going while I was in Kansas City, but it didn't work out that way. My time there was busier than I had counted on and the time for getting myself relaxed and centered for writing was quite limited, so I let it go. Now, with apologies for the absence, I'm back.

I had a great time, saw many friends and acquaintances, and had some really nice experiences, including the Asian galleries at the Nelson Atkins Museum (which has a world-famous Asian collection) and lunch at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and all sort of meals with old friends.

One of the highest points of the trip was an Ordination. My friend Michael Bell, whom I knew here in New York before he moved to the West Coast, and now to Kansas, was being ordained to the priesthood and had asked me to be one of the people who presented him for ordination and who vested him with his chasuble just after the ordination itself. I was really delighted to be asked, and moved my visit forward by a week to accommodate the occasion.

It was, in a word, wonderful. Bishop Wolfe has made ordinations in that Diocese into a sort of diocesan family reunion. Ordinations are now ordinarily at the Cathedral in Topeka and, to begin with, he expects all of the clergy of the Diocese to be present - and they respond in large numbers, so you begin with 60 or 70 priests and deacons, all gathered to welcome the newly ordained into their ranks.

At this service there were 6 people being ordained, 3 as priests and 3 as deacons, so with all of the people from the parishes that they represented, plus families, friends and well-wishers, Grace Cathedral, which is quite a large building, was jammed. And the congregation overflowed with that sort of laid-back friendliness and joy that Midwesterners specialize in for that sort of event. One of my friends said: "It felt like everyone was there because they wanted to be, not because they had to be - and that made such a difference." And it really did.

I had expected such a large ordination to be unwieldy and was half expecting that it would be more of a trial than a pleasure. But a pleasure it definitely was. The liturgy was beautifully organized and exactly suited the complexities of ordaining six people to two different Orders. The bishop's sermon was splendid - and he looks so much like a bishop when he's got up in his finery. The Cathedral choir is excellent, and they sang wonderfully. They also have two very fine organists, who saw to it that the organ pealed and thundered at all the appropriate places. Michael was radiant - he radiates especially well. Presenting him and vesting him was very moving.

The service did, in fact, take two hours, but I never once felt it was dragging, and was so happy to be there helping my friend get ordained.

I served the Diocese of Kansas for a number of years as a part-time consultant in the area of spiritual development, so I know it well, but even so, I wasn't prepared to see so many people I had known over the decades of my association with the Diocese. It was certainly a family reunion for me, and a very joyful one. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Nor should I fail to mention how nice the reception after the service was and how plenteous the food, nor the fact that there were plenty of gluten-free choices on offer. You don't find that often at church gatherings, I can assure you.

Then just a few days later I had another treat given me - 2 days with Baxter, who is a Golden Retriever who belongs to my friends Doug and Kirk in whose condo I was staying for a while. They were both going to be gone on business for a couple of days in the middle of that week, and they asked if I would dog-sit.

Joy! I love dogs, and I'm very fond of Baxter. Baxter is also fond of me, but then he's a Golden Retriever, and if you're a person, a Golden will love you to death. That's just what they are like.

So Tuesday came and Doug and Kirk departed. Baxter moped. He was sociable enough, but he was definitely moping. He's a rescue dog. Though we don't know the story in detail, it looks like his old owners dumped him in a wooded area north of the City. He was found by a lady who lives in the area and she advertised and inquired and did everything she could to find who he belonged to, and finally, when she couldn't locate an owner, she offered him on Craig's List. And so he came to Kansas City.

The day passed. Baxter consoled himself by lying on the bed in the master bedroom. And then the end of the afternoon arrived and it was time for Baxter's walk and then his supper. I went into the bedroom and said: "Baxter, come." No response. "Walk" I said. He looked balefully at me and didn't move. And he practically dared me to do anything about it. "Your walk" I said, "You love your walk". No movement. "Supper", I said, thinking I might bribe him - if a Retriever loves anything more than people, it's food. Nothing. He wouldn't budge.

So I walked over to the bed. He raised his head, not in a friendly manner. I took hold of his collar and tugged. He did something I have never seen a Golden do - he growled. I said: "You have to come!" He growled more. I tugged harder. He snarled and then he bared his teeth. My friend Mark, who is a Vet, says that he's convinced that dogs who are abandoned never get over the experience. So here I was, confronted with an angry rescue dog of uncertain temper.

What do you do with 57 pounds of dog when he's snarling at you and won't take his walk? I briefly considered bribing him with food, but then decided to leave that go for a final desperation move. I went and got his leash. When I appeared at the bedroom door, he growled again. But then I held up the leash and dangled it in front of his nose. His ears went up. He moved on the bed. "Ha" I thought. Gradually I coaxed him out of the bedroom. By the time we got to the front door he was pretty lively, and he let me put the leash on him. "Victory!" I thought.

We had great fun on the walk. Baxter loves the snow. He puts his nose down and shovels the snow with it. Then he lies down and rolls around and covers himself with the snow. I took him to all his favorite places. I was forgiven.

When we came back to the condo he bounced. Supper-time. No hesitation here. I put the food in his bowl just like he expected and he wolfed it down. Enough food for a 57-pound dog and he got it down in less than a minute.

And then, having identified me as the person who was now supplying the walks and supper, he fell irretrievably in love. He followed me everywhere, and wouldn't let me get further away from him than about 18 inches. I was it, for the interim. He was total affection, in the way that only Goldens can be.

Rather to my surprise, he turned out to be a natural for meditation. I sat on a cushion on the floor in the living room and Baxter would wait until I got nicely settled and then come and lie down and put his head in my lap. And he never moved for the whole time. He was perfectly still and no distraction at all, and Baxter is normally a fairly restless dog. In fact he provided perfect warmth in that cold weather. "Oh yeah," Doug said when he returned. "He does that when I meditate, too."

This has given me something to reflect on about relationships - what it takes to get one going, and what happens afterward. I don't need to elaborate, I think. I'll just leave you with the picture of that formerly snarling beast, with his head in my lap while I prayed.

God bless Baxter.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Alert

Just a few words to let you know what's going on.

I'm leaving in a few hours to go to Kansas City for most of the rest of the month. This trip isn't for work. It's partly for celebration - an ordination and a couple of birthdays - plus seeing a lot of friends, and doing some planning for time that I'll be spending there later in the year.

It means that my blogging schedule will be irregular, though, because I'll either be in church or be occupied in some other way on Sunday mornings, which means that I won't get my regular posting in. I do plan to do some writing when something comes up that I feel like talking about, but it won't be the regular Sunday thing. So if you're interested, just check in every now and then.

I'll be back to the Monastery the last week of January, and things will settle down then.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Presents Are Where You Find Them

I had an unexpected holiday present this year, one that brought great joy. I was up in the foothills of the Catskills one late afternoon this week with a friend of the community who was here for a couple of days. He had really wanted to see the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, especially their Meditation Hall, which is quite amazing. But they were in the midst of their annual New Years Retreat, and it was doubtful that we were going to be able to get in. However, when I thought about what we would do, I knew another place that I thought would fill the bill.

So we went into the hills above Woodstock to Cooper Lake, which is a hidden place, off the beaten path, and one of the loveliest places around. I've gotten used to the little gasps of pleasure that I get when I take people there. "Oh..." people usually say. "how beautiful". Peter was no exception. I heard an intake of breath wen he first caught sight of the lake through the trees. And as always I also marveled at what a wonderful sight it is.

There are a couple of ways up to the lake but the way I usually choose gives people a first glimpse of the Lake nestled in a bowl in the mountains. It's a medium sized body of water and the shore line is covered with trees and little inlets. It's not a recreational lake and there are only two houses on it, so it looks pretty pristine.

Across the lake are the Catskill Mountains, looking almost as though they had risen out of the Lake. They are typical Adirondack mountains, with weathered peaks and forested heights. There are lots of sites much like this in the Catskills, but there is something about the shape of Cooper Lake and the way the mountains frame the view of it that is especially lovely. The people I have taken there testify to that. In the summer there are often people there, just strolling along the road that circles the shore or in one of the coves painting or stretched out sleeping. I'm not the only one who appreciates the special beauty of Cooper Lake. But on this winter evening we had it all to ourselves.

When we first got out of the car there was an extraordinary sunset taking place across the lake. The clouds were very thin and whispy, and they had caught the light of the setting sun and were producing a purple/violet color that I can't recall ever having seen in a sunset. Sunrise and sunset at this time of the year often produces colors that we don't see at other times - rich pastels, usually in pinks and peach and sometimes shading almost to green. But I've never seen this deep violet before, and the thin cirrus clouds that were producing it made it look gauzy, almost like we were seeing it through a sheer curtain (which I guess we were, actually).

It lasted only a few moments and then it was gone. If we had paused down in Woodstock as we went through, even for the briefest time, we would have missed it. That heightened the marvel of it. How many sunsets have there been that I missed because I was looking the other way? How much beauty is perceived as an accident of time and place? Interestingly I didn't want to stop time, and I wasn't anxious to keep the sunset from fading. I was content to let time do its work and the fleeting nature of those minutes only heightened my appreciation of what we were seeing.

And it was so still. The Lake was frozen over, so there was no sound of water or waves, and there wasn't any wind. Aside from the sound of an occasional passing vehicle on the road across the lake there wasn't a sound. It was a deep, deep stillness, the kind that makes me think of the eons of time that the lake has been cradled there in those mountains, and of how those mountains have slowly weathered during those centuries and of how their pace is so different from ours.

But it wasn't, in fact, entirely silent. As we settled into the quiet of the lake shore we realized that the Cooper Lake was speaking - making sounds. There must have been some stresses in the ice. Maybe it was the cooling of the air as night came on that was causing some contractions. Because the sounds increased in frequency as we stood there and then walked around the shore, I tend to think that was probably it. But who knows - a little heat from springs on the bottom of the lake perhaps or other causes that I don't know anything about; whatever the cause, the Lake spoke.

"Grumph" it said. "Grinnnk". "Spueak". Grooooor". "Aaaaaaaam". Each little noise was just a second or so long, and the sounds were each in a different pitch. Then just about the time that darkness was becoming established there was a sharp "Crack" as somewhere out on the lake a sheet of ice fractured. And then the small noises continued as the lake reflected for us the coming of the night. Peter said that he had heard of this phenomenon, but had never heard it for himself. I had never known of it. For both of us it was an introduction to a new part of our world. No wonder that people of old spoke of the forces and presences that lived deep in bodies of water.

It wasn't at all loud. If the surroundings hadn't been so still we might have missed it altogether, even the sound of a significant breeze might have covered it. But everything conspired to let us eavesdrop on the Lake's "conversation" with the mountains. We're used to the voice of the Hudson river - the tinkling sound of thousands of ice pieces being broken up by the tides and scraping against each other is a constant companion in our winter months, and can sometimes, on still mornings, be heard even up at the monastery. This was different, more private, just a whisper or the slightest groan.

Peter is a musician and a composer, and he spoke about silences like this being times when he can just receive music as it comes to him, almost like dictation. I reflected on meditation and the way that deep silences make it possible for things to emerge and be recognized. We both realized that what had come to us was a revelation, one of those rare moments when the curtain is pulled aside and we see something we normally miss. Winter's gift.

Then, when it was becoming too dark to see much more we went down the hill to Woodstock and The Little Bear, which I usually refer to as The World's Best Chinese Restaurant. It has large plate glass windows that look out on the Beaverkill, which was also frozen over, and had the treat of that great view and their wonderful food.

A great evening. A real gift. A Christmas present. One of the thousands of nice things about living at the edge of those mountains.