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.