Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is upon us.

This one will be different from my last sixteen. While I was in parish ministry, Thanksgiving was always problematic. In Anaheim we had a service in the morning, and then people went home for dinner. A couple of times I wasn't invited anywhere and just shifted for myself. Usually, but not always, people invited me in advance, and that was always kind. A couple of times it was at the door after the service. "Where are you having dinner?" Well, actually nowhere, I would say, trying but not succeeding to keep my disappointment to myself. I had some really nice times those years. But to be a guest in someone else's home on a day with so many intimate associations was a challenge for me. I suppose I could have cooked a nice dinner and invited others, but, frankly, I wasn't up to it.

When I moved to New York City, I discovered, I am almost but not quite ashamed to admit, to my delight, that St. Edward's had no tradition of Thanksgiving Day services. Hallelujah. We had the usual Wednesday Eucharist and then I would betake myself to the monastery, catching the always packed train to Poughkeepsie. Being with the brothers was wonderful, but it wasn't quite home. So this year really is home! I'm here already, and so thankful to be in the midst of a loving community.

Things to give thanks for. The usual inventory of the present moment, of course: a roof overhead, heat, clothes, food, which so many do not have. A loving community to live in. Rewarding work to do. Reasonably good health. More interesting books to read than I can ever finish, and doubtless more coming my way. Friends. The Church, in all its present weirdness. The Order of the Holy Cross, now entering our 125th year. The House of the Redeemer, its wonderful staff and trustees, its great programs, the window on other worlds that it gives me. Music (I am listening to Haydn's Esterhazy operas in the evenings). And on and on. I sometimes feel guilty when I am in list mode for thanksgiving in prayer, because I always leave something important out.

And the inventory of the past: my family (though I would not always have put all of them on the list, I do now), especially my Aunt Mary who is 100 this year, made it to the party and beyond and is now beginning to fail; my parishes and their wonderful people, St. Edward's East Harlem, St. Michael's, Anaheim and Holy Family, Half Moon Bay; the brothers in OHC now gone who live on in heart and memory; my seminary, CDSP, and especially the Borschs; the Diocese of Los Angeles, with special memories of the Commission on Ministry for many years; Cornell and Michigan State and Western High School and Hyde Park Junior High School and Edison Elementary School; All Saints, Las Vegas and St. James, Pullman WA; the monasteries I have lived in -- Holy Cross in West Park (in the old days -- the 70's are now the old days!), Toronto, Berkeley, and of course, Mount Calvary; the Camaldolese brothers, with joyful regard to Robert Hale and Andrew Colnaghi; the Camaldolese monastery at San Gregorio Magno in Rome; the Anaheim Police Department, who welcomed me as their chaplain for five years; the Spanish language and Hispanic people I ministered to for so long, and especially the undocumented ones, whose faces just pop into my head unbidden from time to time, needing prayer, I suppose; the seminarians and recent seminary graduates I have mentored and who have now gone on to ordination and whatever their priesthood has been called to; spiritual directees over the years; so many places I have preached; the list is just going to get longer.

And then there are the things which did not seem to be blessings at the time. The disasters and traumas and losses, the conflicts, the closed doors, the attempts which failed. I used to be depressed by them, but now I give thanks for them. Each one proved to be a blessing eventually, from learning from the experience, from moving away from something I wanted but wasn't really for me, from learning t0 love the realities that God had placed me in, from being forced to grow into skills and identities I never imagined I would need to have. I think my greatest growth has always come from the things that did not work out. And one of the things about growing older is that the turnaround time decreases. When I was younger I would spend a lot of energy on my reactions, tenderly nurturing my disappointments. But I have learned that those plants don't bear very good fruit.

So, Thanks for not being admitted to grad school at Yale or Princeton but to Cornell. Thanks for not getting a job in my field. Thanks for being told to shut up about my great learning when I was a postulant in OHC. Thanks for living in our priory in Berkeley when we had no money for food sometimes. Thanks for not being sent to Texas when I graduated from CDSP but to Mount Calvary instead. Thanks for being made Novice Master in a really difficult situation in the 80's. Thanks for the Order losing its wealth in the early 80s. Thanks for the sewage system at Mount Calvary collapsing. Thanks for not being reappointed prior in 1990 when I wanted it more than anything. Thanks for communal problems in Berkeley. Thanks for reaching my limit and deciding to do parish work but not leave OHC. Thanks for all the parishes that did not elect me rector. Thanks for St. Michael's denying its own future to itself and thanks for the conflict it brought. And for two things which are certainly not causes for rejoicing in any objective way, but set up conditions for grace to flow: Thanks for the poverty in East Harlem, because without it there would not have been the parish of St. Edward's that is so faithful there. Thanks for 9/11 just months after I moved to NYC, because without it there would not have been the many opportunities for ministry it brought. This list could go on and on too.

So, this fall, death, the economy down the tubes, Mount Calvary lost to fire.... It's a lot. But I give thanks, because I know that people who meet loss with faith and energy and determination find new life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Fire on the Mount

As usual in the monastery, it is the little things that denote something important. I noticed at breakfast yesterday that Robert, our Superior, whispered something to Charles, our postulant. Soon Charles was doing breakfast dishes with us rather than Robert. And in a few minutes the news spread: there is a serious fire in Montecito. Robert appeared and let us know the details -- that the guests at Mount Calvary had been evacuated on Thursday evening to St. Mary's Convent near the Old Mission; that the brothers had evacuated around midnight; and that the situation looked pretty grim.

We got through the morning without anything definite, but then at the noon meal the news came that a friend of Mount Calvary had contacted the Santa Barbara Fire Chief and that the monastery had burned. As the day went on the confirmations mounted, pictures were seen, a live feed NBC helicopter camera spent 90 seconds or so showing Mount Calvary. It was gone.

We had a scheduled monastery finance committee meeting at 2. During it I felt myself having what I assumed was an allergic reaction to something at the noon meal -- impaired respiration, tingling in extremities, tightening up my vocal cords, raised temperature, flushed face. I have never had a food allergy reaction before, except for a very mild one when I eat raw honey, and that is just a few raised bumps on the tongue. How interesting. Bede suggested it was a nervous reaction. Perhaps it was.

I spent 11 years of my life at Mount Calvary. I arrived there in the summer of 1979, a freshly ordained deacon right out of seminary. I was made Guest Master, and spent 2 years cleaning and improving the facilities and creating a more comprehensive administrative system. Two years later our new Superior asked me to be Prior, and I continued in that position for 9 years, until 1990. In that time we brought our guest ministry there into an almost professional operation. I am happy to say that the brethren there since have made the operation better and better. A few years into my time as Prior it became clear that we were going to have to do something serious about the building. The sewage system was gradually collapsing, the neighbors were objecting to our traffic up the hill, the monastery section was primitive to say the least. We joked that we were living in the Bates Motel. The building was running down.

We spent years fund raising while we also worked on developing renovation plans. We spent those years working also with the City of Santa Barbara and our neighbors to gain access to the City's sewage system. It was a long struggle, but we finally reached an agreement: The neighbors would build a new road up the back of the ridge, which would become the new access road, and we would be allowed to run our sewage line through their property to the City main. That insured our continuation at Mount Calvary, since our most recent effort at a leaching field had utterly failed.

We raised the money, got permits for the plan, found a good contractor, rented a house in Goleta to live in for the duration, and the work began in June, 1989. It finished on schedule, right on time for a writers' retreat to be led by Madeleine L'Engle. Madeleine was a tall person, and she had given a gift to install an extra-long tub in the new room she would occupy.

I like to imagine that I knew every inch of that building by the time the renovation was over. I wanted to stay on and build on what we had accomplished, but new leadership in OHC wanted to make changes, and so I was transferred to Berkeley. It was a hard adjustment for me.

So to hear that such an important part of my life was burning, and then to see the pictures, was heartbreaking. I know what the conventional monastic response to such a loss should be -- gratitude for gifts given and detachment as they are taken away. But. But. It will take me a while to get to the conventional place. A part of my life, a part of my heart, is gone.