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.