Friday, March 20, 2009

In Praise of F. Homes Dudden

I have been re-reading the classic study of Gregory the Great by Frederick Homes Dudden. Few major studies of anything remain standards for long, usually having an undisputed reign of 10-20 years before another bright and enterprising scholar's book elbows it to the side of the shelf. But Homes Dudden's work has remained supreme since its first appearance in 1905. 104 years is not a bad run, and despite great strides in scholarship since, there is no effective challenger yet. Which is all the more impressive as Gregory is the towering figure of his age, the subject of a century's harvest of specialist studies by armies of brilliant scholars.

The study is classic late Victorian. Two thick volumes with multiple indices, comprising three sections: Gregory before he became Pope, Gregory as Pope, and his thought and writings. The book marches at a stately but unimpeded forward pace, chronological in the same way that the Thames flows to the sea -- not in rushing torrents, but steadily, and as it approaches the tidal points, with an occasional backward glance. And like the Thames, it is wide and has many tributaries. Along the way one learns a great deal about Constantinople and its church and imperial politics, about the collapse of Italy in the wake of Justinian's reconquest, about the city of Rome in its pre-Gregorian decline and in its time of collapse, the educational curriculum of the day, the Three Chapters controversy (certainly one of the most intricately confusing episodes in the history of heresy), and quite a lot about the Lombards. And not coincidentally, about the monastic project in the mid and late sixth century. This is your solid, traditional life-and-times narrative.

When I read it first, in graduate school more than 35 years ago, I was put off by the author's use of the first person and his amusing and more than occasionally sarcastic evaluations. But after much study along the way I realize that behind these apparently solipsistic forays lies an immense learning. He's almost always right. If you want to profit from reading the best of old style British history, complete with untranslated Latin and Greek footnotes and the undiluted Oxonian quadrangular attitude, this is the book for you.

I had always thought of Homes Dudden as a middle aged or elderly don who had spent his entire life reading up the sources, chasing down the footnotes, getting all the references right, reading all the secondary literature, including the interminable Germans, and then quietly setting pen to paper in the half-light of the Bodleian Library or over a second or third glass of sherry in lodgings after an agreeable first sherry in the Fellows' Common Room. A lifetime of comfortable academic plodding crowned by The Great Book.

So what a surprise was in store when curiosity led me to the internet for further information. Homes Dudden is a somewhat elusive target, but I tracked him down, and he wasn't what I thought at all. Or rather, the book wasn't what I thought it was in relation to its author.

He was born in 1874 and died in 1957. That puts the publication of the Gregory more or less at age 31. Thirty one! This staggeringly learned book, still on the top of the pile after a century, the work of a man in his mid to late twenties! Because everything I said about it is true. All the references are right, all the research has been done, and what is more, on the whole his judgments are mature and have stood the test of time. 31.

He studied at Bath College and Pembroke College, Oxford, was ordained in the C of E, was lecturer in theology and chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford at the age of 24, was Vicar of Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, and in 1918 became Master of Pembroke College, a position he held until his death some 39 years later. He held many offices, including Vice Chancellor, at Oxford, greatly increased the endowment of his college, was a colleague of J.R.R. Tolkien. He published at least six volumes of sermons, several in the important genre of consolation over the devastation of the First World War. In 1935 he published a second two volume life and times, this one about Saint Ambrose. The Ambrose is still respectfully referred to if not as dominant as the Gregory. And then in 1955, two years before his death, a third two volume behemoth, this time about Henry Fielding. And from 1929 to 1952 he was Chaplain to Kings George V and VI.

So, if I had a glass of sherry as I write this, I would lift it to you, Dr. Homes Dudden. Your great work endures. Thank you.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A New Novice

"What do you seek?"
"The mercy of God and of the Order."

With these simple words Charles asked Robert -- or in more formal terms, a Postulant who had been approved formally and publicly petitioned the Superior of the Order -- to be admitted as a Novice.

It's a pretty impressive service. We approved it for use many years ago, but I had not seen it before. The elements are the request and response, reading of portions of the Rules, asking then if he is ready to enter the monastic life, asking those assembled if they will uphold him, the blessing of the habit, a hymn while he and the Novice Master (me) go to the sacristy and put it on him, then a blessing. There is a moment of drama at the end -- the new novice comes back into the Church with his hood up, walking in through the guest court. At the blessing the NM lowers his hood. Then the NM leads him to each of the brethren in turn and the Peace is exchanged. Br. Randy took some wonderful pictures that you can find here.

There's a lot tied up in such a moment, but chiefly Charles's own life leading to that point and the hopes of the Community for him. Charles is a deeply serious person with a clear commitment to give this a good strong try. The Community wants him to succeed.

Each one of us in OHC, indeed, every monk at some point, has gone through this rite, with the essentials the same even if the words are a little different. When I was clothed, in March of 1974, I believe at least 3 of the original class of 10 had dropped out, so there were 7 of us. We weren't formally Benedictine at that point, though we were talking about it even then. The habit was different -- a white tunic with a black girdle knotted on the side and hanging to about eight inches from the floor, a hoodless scapular and a pellice -- a strange garment, a sort of short cape with no opening at the front that came not quite to the waist, a triangular point in the back, and the hood. The Benedictine habit is much simpler. I really don't remember what went through my mind at that point. For me the big moment was becoming a postulant six months before, on Sept. 5, 1973, and that is the day I count as my entrance into monastic life, even if it is not the official date, because it is the day I started to live the monastic life.

I was moved by the readings from the Rules. From Benedict, the beginning of the Prologue (Bede read) and the next to last chapter, 72, The Good Zeal of Monks, which is an almost lyrical prose meditation on community (Ronald). From Fr. Huntington, excerpts on Obedience (Scott), Poverty (which I read), and Study (Randy). For each of them Charles faced the reader and it was clear that we were inviting him to join the monastic project, but only if he understood well enough what he was getting into. I was struck by these moments, left wondering at the solemnity of these declarations and of Charles's eagerness to join us.

I sometimes think there aren't many people who want to join the monastic project, who want to undertake obedience, poverty, study, to join themselves to a sort of monastic militia, the image Benedict uses in the Prologue. But they do keep coming. We have an aspirant coming for a two week visit on Monday.

What sort of men became Holy Cross Benedictines? Well, there are the obvious qualifications: male, between 25 and 50 more or less, in good physical and psychological health, free of family and other relational obligations, out of debt, a practicing Anglican or in communion with us, finished with your education to your satisfaction (i.e., if you want to go to seminary and get ordained, it would be better to do that first!). Those are the objective qualifiers. The subjective ones are more nebulous. The three most important are: wanting to be united with God through Jesus Christ; wanting to be a monk in some realistic way (do you love prayer, silence, the Scriptures, praying the Daily Office, good honest and sometimes hard work, obeying someone else when you don't especially want to, etc?); and able to live constructively in community with others, which has a LOT of subheadings.

OHC wants new members. We are thrilled when a likely type shows up (nowadays usually after finding out about us on the internet) and begins to form a relationship with the community, which is the usual way vocations proceed. But we have been blessed with a lot of shared experience as a community. We've seen a lot of men come and go, and some of them have stayed, but not all, and that's ok. What we know is that God is leading every one of us in ways we don't always understand, so every journey is a worthwhile journey, even if it does not lead to the monastery.

But I certainly hope and pray that some journeys do lead here. Being a monk is not for everyone, but it is for some people, and perhaps for more people than realize it now. It is a good thing to be, a good thing to do with your life. I am so glad for Charles. And I know that the Holy Spirit is working on some others, perhaps not a few, working in their hearts, planting the spark that can burst into flame when the moment is right.

Seeking the mercy of God is a good place to start.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Schedule Change

At the monastery we make most major decisions after discussion, and we try as much as possible to withhold making decisions until a genuine consensus has been reached. So sometimes discussions can go on for a long time, weeks, months, sometimes years. And, of course, once having reached a decision, it may after a time seem not the right one. Humility is a communal as well as a personal virtue. Sometimes something the community has decided doesn't work as well as we thought it would. So the humble thing is to acknowledge that and change it.

One of the seemingly eternal discussions is about our daily schedule. When to pray, when to eat, when to work, how much time to allow for personal prayer and study, whether to label (read: coerce) study and prayer times or let the brethren work out their own rhythms. In the time since I returned to the monastery the continual conversational theme of this perennial topic has been that we don't have enough time, that between five times a day in Chapel, the whole food service aspect of our large guest house ministry, necessary community meetings and activities, and the other work each of us has every day, we hardly have enough time to turn around, let alone the necessary time for significant prayer and study. And the thing is, it was often true.

Our schedule was:
7:00 Matins
7:30 Breakfast
8:30 Eucharist
9:15 Chapter
12:00 Diurnum
12:30 Dinner
5:00 Vespers
6:00 Supper
7:30-7:40 Corporate Meditation
7:40 Compline

As you can imagine, the Matins to Eucharist segment sometimes requires quite a dash to get all the breakfast dishes done and the refectory set up for dinner before the Eucharist. The Refectorian even had to leave chapel before Matins was over to get everything set out for breakfast. Similarly in the Vespers to Compline segment.

So after many months of low level discussion, we had a meeting and talked explicity about the schedule. In fact, we had done so much preparation in prior private and public discussions, that a decision we all thought would require lots of time and energy and probably some personal tradeoffs, was reached in just a few minutes. We decided to experiment with something different in Lent. We have made a couple of seemingly small changes: Breakfast is at 7:45; the Eucharist is at 9:00 am instead of 8:30; the Corporate Meditation has been moved to Diurnum; and Compline is an hour later, at 8:30 pm.

What a difference! Now the refectorian doesn't have to sneak out after the second reading at Matins to set up breakfast. There's plenty of time now to get the dishes done, the refectory cleaned up and the tables set, even when we have a lot of guests. And there's time now in the evening to have an evening session with a retreat group and end with Compline. And, since it's later, our day now really does end with Compline, as it should. Most of us have commented to each other after just a little more than a week what a difference it has made.

It has made my life surprisingly better, physically and spiritually. I am refectorian this week (the job rotates weekly), which means setting up for all the meals, making sure that the serving pantry is stocked with all the food and supplies we need from the kitchen and storerooms, turning on the dishwasher, keeping the coffee flowing, and so forth. I was dreading it. With this change, it seems to work with a lot less stress. The extra half hour in the morning has meant that I don't have to dash from food service to Eucharist (as appropriate as that might seem symbolically) but have some time to calm down, brush my teeth, get my head together better. Which is especially nice if I am presiding.

The evening change is even better. Now there is at least an hour, at most two hours, depending on whether I'm on supper dishes, before Compline. Considering that most mornings I wake up before 5:00 and so have an hour or more of study and prayer time then, with the ample evening time I now feel like a rich man! Time for prayer and study suddenly abounds.

And our retreat ministry ministry is positively changed too. This week a delightful group of people from Christ Church, St. Michael's, MD, was with us, and I was leading them. Our two evening sessions had ample time and the evening ended with Compline, as it should. The old schedule more or less forced us to have a session after Compline, ending at 9:00 pm, which defeats the purpose of that office. But now the flow is right.

And something even more wonderful has happened. When we had our meditation time before Compline, I could never concentrate. I ended up reading because I just couldn't be quiet interiorly. But now with that moved to Diurnum, I find I can. Something I thought I had lost altogether, the ability to sit quietly and meditate with a group of people, is returning. I realize now that I was so tired, physically and mentally, by the evening, that I simply couldn't do it. But at noon I have the energy and strength. So a whole new dimension to my prayer life is beginning to return.

Sometimes change is good.