Thursday, October 23, 2008

Talk, talk, talk

This has been one of those days filled with talking. The Office and Eucharist are pretty word-based, though, fortunately, not conversational. The work day for me today held, in order, our Chapter meeting (a community meeting beginning and ending with prayer, containing a reading from the Rule, confession of faults, announcements of the day's appointments, agendas and needs, and intercessory prayer); choir practice; the monthly house meeting, to discuss matters pertinent to the common life; the mid-day meal, which was a talking meal because today is a feast day (James of Jerusalem); dishwashing, which can get chatty; several short conversations with the monastery bookkeeper (who is delightful); a meeting of the vocations team (three people, 75 minutes); and the novitiate class, which is mostly me talking but has dialogue as well. By Vespers at 5 I was about talked out. So many words, so much sound. Good things were said and decided and (I hope) taught, but I came away from the workday feeling inundated.

Which might sound a little strange to people who know me. I usually like to talk. But when the mouth runs pretty much all day long, even a chatty type like myself gets a little weary of it.

My spiritual reading (actually, re-reading; I love this book) at the moment is the classic (first published in 1975) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, translated by the incomparable Benedicta Ward. One of the passages (25), from the section devoted to Abba Arsenius, says this:

"One day Abba Arsenius came to a place where there were reeds blowing in the wind. The old man said to the brothers, 'What is this movement?' They said, 'Some reeds.' Then the old man said to them, 'When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart no longer experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.'

So much to unpack. First of all, there is nothing here about the dangers of talking, which are so many. The Letter of James sums up a long, long scriptural wisdom tradition, doubtless shared in most traditional cultures, when he says, "Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest; the tongue is a flame like that" (James 3:5-6). He goes on in that vein. Benedict's Rule is constantly warning of the dangers of talking. Less talking is universally recommended by the tradition. Well, fortunately, I think I got through today's conversations without actually committing a sin, or upsetting anyone, or even gossiping much. There's something to be said for a day full of talk when nothing overtly bad has escaped one's lips. For me, such a day is like running a race with a lot of hurdles to jump. How wonderful when I haven't knocked some over, as I often do. For which I am grateful and count it a blessing.

Abba Arsenius is not talking about the damage talking can do. He is in another place altogether.

Have you ever just stopped talking -- to others and in your head, to yourself -- long enough to hear the sounds around you? I love the early mornings in New York City, before the serious noise begins, because you can hear nature as well as the ever-present machine sounds. And out here in the country, around the monastery, you can easily go outside and be still and listen. That kind of listening, to the sounds of the world, is very restorative to me. I especially like the sound of the wind when it blows through the woods that surround the monastery, rustling the branches and leaves.

Abba Arsenius, surprisingly, is not especially positive about nature's sounds. I don't know many texts where the gentle sounds of sparrow songs and reeds in the wind are held up to criticism. This may be unique in the literary canon. So deep is the silence in which he dwells that even the gentlest, loveliest natural sounds are like nature's fingernails on God's blackboard to him. He wants complete silence -- from himself, from other people, from the world around him -- so that he can listen for God.

Perhaps this saying was remembered because it holds up an ideal to the monk, whose work it is to be quiet and listen. I was both shamed and thrilled when I read this word today. Ashamed because of how often I fail even rudimentarily, giving in to talk that is profitless, or worse. Ashamed because of the time and energy I waste in talk when I could be cultivating habits of silence. But thrilled to hear the goal set up once again before me. Thrilled because I know, after 35 years at this, that I really love silence and thrive in it. Thrilled to be reminded once again that others have trod the path of silence before me.

Because this silence, the silence Arsenius loves, is not a vast emptiness, a void, a negativity. It is attentive waiting for God, for love, for joy, for that moment when your heart swells with that intense word/feeling/knowledge/urgency which is the Word speaking to you. You can't summon it. It comes to you when it will. If you want it, you need to make yourself available for it.

I am certainly not yet ready to dismiss the sparrow's sweet song or the wind in the reeds. But what bliss it would be to reach that point where the silence is so profound and so meaningful and so God-filled that even their exquisite beauty is a distraction from the joy of listening for God.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A death in the family

Brother William Sibley died on Tuesday morning. He had been in gradually declining health for some years, but over the weekend he fell at least once, his temperature went up, his breathing became heavy and labored, and so the EMT squad was called, and they took him to the hospital in Kingston. Robert, the Superior, went with him, and stayed until 11pm, when he was taken from the emergency room to intensive care. He died about 7:30 in the morning.

On Tuesday morning I barely made it to Matins. I had had one of those nights that is becoming more frequent as I get older -- waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep till 5 or so, then dead to the world until something wakes me up. In this case it was the monastery church tower bell calling us to Matins. It rings 5 minutes before the office. I leaped -- well actually, it wasn't really a leap, but it felt like it -- out of bed, dressed, and made it to the church on time. I knew something was up because Robert wasn't there, and then I saw the printed order for the Office of the Departed on the stall in front of me. No details yet, but in regard to prayer, the details can wait. Our job was to pray the Divine Office for William. And so we did.

After Matins Bede, the Prior, called us together in the sacristy to tell us what had happened. As the day went on, decisions were made, and by mid-afternoon things were pretty much in place. The funeral itself will be on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Our custom is to cremate and place the ashes in a columbarium in the crypt where Fr. Huntington's tomb is. But we also want to honor the body, so we decided to have the body brought on Wednesday afternoon for a vigil, and then to have a requiem mass instead of Vespers at 5pm. Those observances were very simple, and very moving.

When you've known someone as long as I knew William the memories are bound to be complex. He was in charge of the Guest House when I started visiting Holy Cross, and when I spent most of one summer at Holy Cross he put me to work with some of the brothers. We painted the dark wood in bright primary colors. Very 70s. It was a happy time. It's probably then I realized I might have a vocation. And then I joined, and over the years more involved interactions with William ensued. He was, among other things, Superior of OHC for 9 years.

It's no secret that William had a problem with addiction. He practically made his it his trademark. He did a lot of wonderful ministry as a result of his efforts at recovery. A lot of lives were changed for the better. I think this is what lay at the core of his gifts -- his knowledge of himself and his limitations, and his ability to be empathetic with others.

When I was a parish priest I presided at a lot of funerals. I almost always ended up saying something like this, which is true of all of us, and certainly true of William:

The human mind and heart are a mystery. Just about the time we think we know someone through and through, there's a surprise. We never know each other completely. But God does. He knows everything about us, and not only the things we have done and said and thought, but the things we might have done and said and thought, and all the infinite consequences of each of them. He knows every road not taken, and somewhere in his wisdom knows what we might have been, if only. And the miracle is, knowing all that, looking straight into our heart and knowing it complete, in fact, better than we know it ourselves, he loves us. That's the miracle.

So, end of sermon. Or at least until the next time.

The interesting thing is that as I have gone through William's death time, I find the complexities of my relationship with him softening. Perhaps at times like this God gives us the grace of a little bit of his wisdom. When someone we have been involved with much of our life dies, we can recast our minds and hearts, and in just a small way, with the eyes of God, see the person God loved and loves. I'd like the grace to do it more often and earlier.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Becoming Poor

The last week has been wild for everyone with even the smallest interest in the economy. Because of my various responsibilities over the years, I have acquired the habit of watching the markets and putting my finger in the air to see what the breeze is doing. I don't have to tell you that it is scary.

The last time something like this happened to me was in my first parish. The parish had a little money socked away, largely from the sale, ill-advised in my opinion, of the rectory years before I got there. It was invested in so-called junk bonds, which actually produced pretty high returns quarter after quarter, remarkably stable over most of the time I was rector. During the autumn of 1999 most of the Vestry decided that it was time to increase our returns by increasing the value of the capital. Stories of churches that had seen fabulous returns were told. And so, despite my urgings, it was decided to get into a risky but potentially high-growth technology mutual fund at Merrill Lynch. Well, you can guess the rest. March, 2000 and it tanked. We went from a more or less guaranteed $17,000 a year to zilch, overnight. People who were happy to proclaim their expertise got very quiet, and the rest had no stomach to talk about it. It became The Thing That Didn't Happen. And the parish had a lot less money.

I would like to say that this made everyone wiser. It didn't. It did not increase the capacity for making do with less. It did not increase selflessness. It did increase anxiety and all that can flow from that. I am afraid of the same thing happening again.

Monks believe in poverty. We may not practice it very well. In fact, we may be as bourgeois, even as haut bourgeois, as any around us. But at least we proclaim poverty as a virtue. And in doing so, more than once I have heard my profession described as crazy.

At its best I think monasticism is the practice of working together in an organized discipline of simplicity for the Gospel. This takes a number of characteristic forms, usually expressed in the vows. For Benedictines the vows are Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Life. The first two are pretty straightforward. The third is a complex matter. Conversatio morum is the Latin in Benedict. Literally it means something like "completely turning your habits around". Included in this are chastity and poverty, but also a whole raft of other things, like how you use your time, how you relate to other people, where you find your values, how you choose to think and speak, and on and on. Poverty is just one of these many values system changes.

But it is an important one. Benedict knew, and all "successful" monks know too, that a person's value is not, is never, determined by what he or she has. In direct opposition to "the world" on this score, the monastic movement makes a virtue of exactly the opposite: How little can you get along with? How much of what you have can you share or give away? How little is the big question, not How much.

If you have read this blog for a while, you must know what a challenge this is to me. There is an art to monastic living. And part of the art is knowing how and when to give what one has to others. Anthony of Egypt began his monastic career hearing the Gospel injunction to the rich young man: "Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me". He did. He sold his property and then made careful provision with it for his sister, for the people of his extended family, for the community of workers who surrounded his parents' farm and made its life possible. He didn't just strew it about indiscriminately but used it wisely for the future. In doing so he seems to have created a mutually supportive community, because all through his career as a hermit, people helped him as he helped them, with food and other things he genuinely needed.

When a community of monks work together and share and are content with little, even with less, then economic disaster has another valence. It is not the end of things. It is a storm to be weathered, a lean time, to be faced calmly, intelligently and in confidence that what is truly needful will be given by the Lord. If it keeps on and gets worse, we won't hide our heads in the sand and pretend it didn't happen. We'll just get thinner and work harder and be more creative and have more opportunities to pray and serve each other. An economic storm is a time to look to our communities and strengthen them with what we each have, and to take care of each other.

Holy Cross went through some really tough economic times, beginning in the early 1980s. The signs were there to see some years earlier, but it was a dramatic loss in investment values that galvanized us. We had to change. We had to organize ourselves to make a living, and bit by bit we did. It wasn't easy, and not everyone stayed on board as we turned the ship around. But in the end working together produced more than a modest renewed prosperity. It produced habits of work and accountability and realism and loving, honest mutuality that have remained with us. It's not news that most people want to hear, but poverty can be good for people. You learn who you really are, what you really can do, and how to trust each other.

I would like to think that how a monastic community reacts to real poverty has something of value to offer to others. I think in Holy Cross we'll have some opportunities to turn our customary habits around in the face of the loss which is almost certainly on the way. I pray that if this present crisis endures and deepens, we will meet it with increased courage and confidence born from the authentic springs of our tradition. I pray that as we struggle with our real difficulties in faith and mutual love, we may be able to find in our poverty gifts to share with others whose economic lives are shrinking as well.

Monday, October 6, 2008

On going back.

I've just returned from the last in a series of trips back to New York City. The first was to lead a long-planned Eucharist and preach for the New York Diocesan Daughters of the King. The second was to chair a meeting of the Board of the House of the Redeemer. And the third was to be with a clergy group which meets monthly for lunch and a presentation. All this between Sept. 26 and today, Oct. 6, about a week and a half.

The trips were superficially quite similar. First get to the Poughkeepsie train station, a trip made easier now by a new shuttle bus every two hours or so from Highland, about 4 miles down the road from the monastery. Then the always-beautiful 90 minute (more or less) train ride to the City, then to the destination. And the reverse coming back.

The DOK program was at St. Edward's, so I stayed there. I have left my furniture in the rectory apartment for David Bryan Hoopes, OHC, who is the interim priest there, and who has invited me to use the guest room when I come to the City. So there I was, back again. Same church, same altar, same sacristy, same parish hall space for the lunch, same people, the usual food. It all seemed the same. Except for me. A strange feeling.

The second trip was for the first meeting of the House of the Redeemer Board since my move. Many people didn't understand that I had already moved, and some of them don't know what OHC and the Monastery really are. Distance has made the frequent contacts I had with the House and its staff rarer, and the dynamic has changed. I can't give it the same attention I did when I lived just 14 blocks north. I've been President of the Board for 4 years, and so I indicated it might be time to think about someone else for next year's election, as I will have served 5 years. It was all fine, but subtly different. Then I had dinner with Carl Sword, a member of OHC who lives and works in NYC, and stayed overnight with him. A different space than I was used to, and dramatically New York -- the light from the top of the Chrysler Building shone into the window all night. Then a walk up Third Avenue to Grand Central -- the same trip but a different context.

And then today. A congenial group, some of whom had got the message, others of whom had not. All of them friends, the event in a familiar place, but then afterward, instead of back to 109th Street and the familiarity of St. Edward's rectory, it was off to the train station and back up the Hudson to my new home. And then, waiting at the Park and Ride in Highland and realizing gradually that there had been a mixup. Perfectly understandable, and actually the wait was enjoyable -- fresh air, quiet, a chance to read. But after almost an hour the beginnings of a sense of abandonment. I wasn't abandoned, of course. I called and one of the brothers quickly and kindly picked me up -- the misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, and here I am, home at last and safe and sound and comfortable typing this blog entry. I think this experience was slightly dislocating, bringing up feeling of possible abandonment because leaving things behind was the theme of the day.

I was asked to help represent the Order at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Detroit in 1988. General Convention is quite wonderful for about three days, as one sees old friends and renews acquaintances and so forth, but about the middle of the 10 day meeting the joy diminishes and the tedium begins. So I jumped at the chance some friends offered to drive to East Lansing and see Michigan State. I had graduated in 1969 and had not returned in 19 years. We arrived and I went from place to place, still physically much the same as when I had been an undergraduate. But of course it was all changed. The classroom where I had studied Milton with Prof. Lawrence Babb was still there. But I was different and Babb was long gone, I'm sure. We went to 525 M.A.C. Avenue, Beal House, a cooperative I had lived in for two years and been president of as a Senior. I knocked on the door and a young woman answered. There was a change! I told her who I was and she invited me in and I looked around. The living room still had the same very red carpet that seemed old when I was there many years before. She, however, looked at me like some old fossil returned to life. So I gave her a little money for beer for the members of the house (she was pleased), thanked her and was on my way.

It was like being a ghost. I was there but I wasn't there. Certainly not as I once was. St. Edward's and New York City aren't like that yet, and I hope they never will be. I want to have an ongoing relationship with both. But it will be different. It will be based in the present, not a memory but a reality. How do those I have left in New York feel about me? How does anyone feel when change happens and relationships shift and people move? There is sadness as well as joy in change, even change that happens for positive reasons. And I realize how much love I still have for St. Edward's, for the Redeemer, for the group.

But, still, the feeling on these visits was already beginning to seem akin to the visit to MSU. I know that as I live into my new life here, their reality will change, but I want it to be real. I don't want to wait years and then go back as a revivified fossil!

One of the disciplines of contemplative and monastic spirituality is to be in the present moment -- not drifting into memory or imagining the future but concentrating on the reality of now. The past is gone. We can rearrange our memories mentally, and that can be useful and even therapeutic. But the physical reality is tougher, and has changed and kept right on without us. It can never be the same again. One mark of being spiritually alive, I think, is to love the past, but to live in the present. I certainly understand that better today.