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


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


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.