Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fathers and sons.

One of the things about being a monastic celibate is that you don't get to have children, unless you did that before you entered the monastery. In my case, when I entered I was 26, fresh from finishing my PhD at Cornell, and completely unattached and without issue, as they say. From time to time I think about that, mostly when there are especially well-behaved children around, or at sentimental occasions like the Christmas Pageant. I love children, but to be honest, mostly in the abstract, and without having to do the heavy lifting. Thank God for good parents!

So something odd happened last weekend. We had a lovely group of retreatants from several parishes, and one of them was a friend, Carol (I'll leave off her last name -- her friends will know who she is). Carol is an Associate of the Order, and knows us fairly well. Someone remarked to her how alike Br. Scott and I look. In fact, we do. Light red hair, going slightly grey. Short beard. A little jowly under the chin, a little more prosperous around the middle than perhaps we might like to be. Both in large part Scottish by descent.

So Carol shot back, Well, they ought to. They're father and son. To which the respondent, not perceiving the wit, said, Oh I don't think so. Adam doesn't look old enough to be Scott's father. (Thank you!) Anyway, Scott couldn't be -- there's only a 10 year difference in our ages.

This was retailed around, and Scott told me himself. We had a good laugh, thinking up various witty comebacks should it arise again. I thought it was just as well that Carol said I was the father and not Scott. Scott was not especially amused at the thought of trading places. And there it rested for a while, a pleasant little piece of lighthearted fun.

I thought it was over, but a few hours later, I found myself looking at Scott and wondering what it would be like if he actually were my son. And I was surprised that I was getting choked up with affection for Scott, who is an extraordinarily gifted man, generous and kind and fun. And I found that if I had been his father, which I was emotionally imagining myself to be for the moment, I would have been very, very proud of him. Very glad of his life. Very happy to be his father.

Of course, I'm not, and so that reverie soon came to an end. But it set up a kind of spiritual what-if scenario. What if we were in fact related like that to others? What if we could put aside the functional relationships and replace them with the affection and tenderness and disinterested pride of a parent for a child, of a member of a loving and supportive family, rejoicing in each other's gifts and deeds?

In all this I had a momentary vision of what monastic community can be. The love and pride and respect I felt (and feel) for Scott can take root and grow. I'm not his father and he's not my son, but the love we each have for God can create new relationships that transcend the more partial ones of this world.

Jesus invites us into a new relationship with him, one not of father and son, or of master and servant, or even of teacher and disciple, with their levels of inequality, but, almost shockingly, one of mutual regard, to be friends. In John 15:12, he says, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. Christ's directive, his commandment, is to love. Living the new life in Christ, living in love, can make everything new.

Community life is, at its best, a life of people who live together in love, as Friends of Christ. I'll never be Scott's father. But that imaginative moment has opened up to me something truly wonderful -- depths of possibility in monastic life I had not felt so strongly before. Thank you, Carol.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Monasteries have guests. Some have a lot, others have few. But I have never heard of a monastery that did not have any.

St. Benedict has a whole chapter (53) in his Rule on "The Reception of Guests", and since it is one of the longer chapters, it seems important. There's a lot of advice that's good even today. But the whole thing is prefaced by a wonderful statement: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35)."

Over the years Holy Cross has found that guest ministry is a ministry we do well, and that lots of people respond well to it. There is a practical component to it, of course. To make a living some monasteries make jam or bread or cheese, or even fruitcake, as our dear friends the Camaldolese in Big Sur, CA, do. We welcome guests.

I was Prior of Mount Calvary (Santa Barbara) in the 80's and learned there the wonderful blessing that guest ministry can be. All kinds of groups and individuals find their way to the monastery for a day or an overnight or a weekend or most of the week. They are all interested in quiet and prayer on some level or they would not have come. Many of course already know the monastic community and have become friends, and others are quite new. It's not hard to spot the new ones. They're the ones looking around, flipping the pages of the breviaries in Chapel with a lost expression or a furrowed brow. As their time at the monastery unfolds, most of them relax and begin to go with the flow, and by the end of their time, they often seem thoroughly at home.

As guests adjust to monastic worship and community life, so the monastic community adjusts to them. Sometimes this is simple. A smile to an old friend, adjusting the conversation at supper to include a person new to us, noticing changes, catching up, answering simple questions (where's the ladies' room is a popular one).

But sometimes the adjustments are more involving. Today is a good example. A large group began to arrive in the late afternoon. They weren't all here when the usual time for clearing supper things came. Several of the extended community of the monastery were busy and going to be absent from Compline for various reasons -- a meditation group, a twelve step meeting, an EFM class -- and a couple of the others were busy getting ready to orient the group. Most of the rest of us were doing dishes, which was clearly taking longer than normal.

I suppose we could have insisted that this group adhere to our schedule. Get here by six, finish eating by 6:30, everyone into the Chapel at 7:25 for meditation and Compline.

But something else happened. As a group we realized that some of these folks would be late and would need a little something to eat. We were thin on the ground. So the brother in charge decided that we would do the dishes as best we could, we would leave the food out in the pantry for the latecomers, and we would dispense Compline and say it privately. Br. Bernard volunteered to come back a little later and put the food away.

Now I don't want to encourage potential guests to dawdle when they visit us! We do need to try to keep to the timetable, for everyone's benefit. But we were faced with a need. We met it by being flexible.

If Christ came to our monastery and was a little late for supper, what would we do? He informs us in the very same chapter of Matthew that "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me". Tonight I feel we inconvenienced ourselves for Christ.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


When I moved from Anaheim to NYC on May 1, 2001, Bishop Grein generously paid for the move. I did cleanup and some packing, but Pink's Movers of Pasadena did the heavy lifting. And when I had unpacked my things a few weeks later on 109th Street, I realized that the apartment I had moved into in New York was about twice the size of the house I had lived in back in Orange County, leaving out the garage.

In the seven years since that move I did what I suspect most Americans do -- I accumulated things. Rarely a lot of things at once. A book here, a cd there, a set of sheets, some glasses, some clothes. But over time they add up. Perhaps the most involved acquisiton was a set of musical kudu horns I brought home from South Africa, thinking vaguely that we might get a youth group together to play catchy South African melodies on them. Not.

So when it came time to move, well, one word really says it all: More.

I'm pretty organized when I want to be, so I went to work. The food pantry next door gave me about two dozen knocked down Kellogg's Apple Jacks cartons, and the Director of the House of the Redeemer came through with half a dozen boxes as well. I soon became proficient at taping box bottoms and learned the arts of packing. Three trips later and most of the stuff was moved to West Park. After I arrived for good on the 31st of August, I began the process of nesting. Which I have enjoyed.

St. Benedict is basically against Stuff. He devotes an entire chapter (33) to the subject. "We mean that, without an order from the Abbot, no one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, nothing at all -- not a book, writing tablets or stylus -- in short, not a single item, especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies or wills."

Father Huntington is pretty much on the same page. From Chapter 27, on Poverty: "By our vow of poverty not only are we called to a personal surrender of all earthly possessions, saving the cross given to us at our profession, but we are bound to live in the estate of poverty, governing ourselves at all times as having no dependence on earthly resources and ready to endure in submission to God's will the utmost privation even to the loss of life itself."

This is all fairly guilt-inducing. In truth, if I had lived up to this ideal, all I would have had to do is make sure my cross was around my neck and set out on my way. But of course things are never so simple. Even the Venerable Bede was discovered to have Stuff. The saint told young Cuthbert, who wrote the account of Bede's death in a famous letter, "I have a few treasures in my little box: pepper, handkerchiefs and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery to me, so that I can distribute to them these little gifts which God has given me."

"I have a few treasures in my little box... which God has given me." Apart from being one of the proofs that Jarrow did not exclusively follow the Rule of Benedict, this is a delighful frame for monastic Stuff. When I look at the things I have accumulated, they are all treasures. They are all things that God has given me. Every one of them has a story, and so every one of them is a treasure.... Or so I tell myself.

In truth, many of them are treasures, but many of them are just Stuff. One of my spiritual problems is not getting rid of Stuff but hanging on to it. Socks with larger and larger holes. Extra shirts, pants, shoes. Books I haven't finished reading and aren't really necessary for my work. Souvenirs from trips. The class notes from seminary, graduate school, college, even (help me!) a few from high school. I still had piles of Christmas cards from each year spent in East Harlem.

One finds ingenious ways to stow Stuff. Years of careful thinking and arranging made my apartment a miracle of modern placement. And so when the time came, I did not have one little box, but several dozen.

And now a new challenge: greater faithfulness to the call. I suppose I will be writing about simplicity in the course of this blog. When I do, please know that it will be as a student and not as a master.

If there is a consolation in this, for a new novice master supposed to teach the monastic arts of poverty to new monks, it must be in the old adage that the best teachers are the ones who had to struggle with the subject.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why start a blog now?

Why start a blog now? Well, this is an important turning point for my life, and I thought it might
be nice to begin to share experiences and thoughts. The beauty of the web log system is instant publication and distribution, communication with old friends and making new ones along the way.

What is this turning point? Actually, several events have converged.

I have been a monk for exactly 35 years now -- actually, 35 years and one day. I joined the Order of the Holy Cross as a postulant on September 5, 1973. So this blog celebrates an important anniversary for me.

Also, my life has just changed. For the last 16 years I have been what we in OHC call a "monk not in residence" (MNIR) . During that time I have been the priest for two wonderful congregations, St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Anaheim, CA, and The Episcopal Church of St. Edward the Martyr in New York City. In June OHC elected a new Superior, Br. Robert Sevensky, and he asked me to return to living in the community as Novice Master at our monastery in West Park, NY. I spent most of the summer preparing the parish for that change as best I could, taking some much needed vacation and moving. This week I have finally arrived at the monastery and have settled in, ready to begin this new part of my life.

So I thought this would be a good time to start a blog.

And what will I put in this blog? What is it for? Well, partly vanity, I suppose. It's nice to see what you've written out there in public and get a reaction. But mostly to share ideas about the monastic and the spiritual life. I like reading and teaching the ancient monastic writings. I like thinking about my life and other people's lives as places where the Holy Spirit enters in and acts. I like the use of memory as a path to understanding. I like being quiet with Scripture. Actually, I like being quiet period. I like preaching and writing, at least in part because when I express myself in those forms, I do some of my best thinking -- feelings and intuitions take shape.

So this is for me as much as for you, to put feelings and thoughts into words, to try them out and see if they make sense. And to share that, in dialogue if you wish, to send it out and see what it might do.