Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon

My sermon for Christmas Eve here at the Monastery has been posted on the monastery's sermon site. Enjoy.

A very Happy New Year to all! ¡Feliz Prospero Año!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Last Chance Before Advent...

Another liturgical year has passed, and my blogging has slowed down. I can only plead busyness.

The fall has been filled with work in the monastery library: several kind donors have filled up the acquisitions shelves, and the estate of the late Fr. Karl Layer sent 27 boxes of his library. The auditors have been here and wearing my hat as OHC Corp. Bursar, I have tried to be helpful to them. The Board of Trustees of the House of the Redeemer elected me President once again on Oct. 26. I have been charged with rounding up content for the Holy Cross Magazine, and have finally gotten that off to the excellent Suzette Cayless for formatting. The theme is Vocation, and it features articles by as many of the brethren as cared to write. I have been busy with spiritual direction as well.

Last weekend I led a weekend program at Christ Church, St. Michael's MD, on the Eastern Shore, in the Diocese of Easton. It was wonderful. I was reminded once again of how the lay people in Episcopal churches can take such wonderful care of the fabric and finances of their parishes. It was the Feast of Christ the King, and the program centered on the New Testament as counter to the Roman imperial ideology/theology.

I was asked by our Prior to preach on the Solemnity of James Huntington, the founder of OHC, this week. I tried to lay out themes basic to his life and work.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to wish all who read this blog a spirit of gratitude for all God's wonderful gifts to us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just a note

Just a note to tell you that my sermon for last Sunday has been posted on the OHC Lectionary Blog, available through this link or through the sermons part of the links page of the Holy Cross Monastery website. Proper 23C, October 9. I haven't stopped blogging, but catching up after vacation took some energy.

I will address the adult education forum of Holy Trinity Church, Manhattan, this Sunday morning, Oct. 17, about Benedictine spirituality. It is part of a series on classic Christian spiritualities.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Vacare deo

One of the expressions monks used to use about what they do is vacare deo, which literally means to empty oneself for God. It is an ideal of the branches of monasticism which focus on the contemplative side of things. The idea is to let go of what is extraneous in one's life and not fill it up with other things, but allow God the freedom to move in. I have always thought of it as related to Jesus' promise in his high priestly prayer that "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23). Keeping the Word provides room in the heart for the love and presence of God. Clearing out life's underbrush. Opening space for the not-self, the One who is seeking me/you/us, not my/your/our stuff.

The last few weeks have been bliss on the underbrush-clearing front. We had our long silent retreat at the Monastery from the end of July into the beginning of August. 10 days of silence, no director, reduced schedule. We're pretty good about the silence. But we're not silly about it. If something really (I mean, in actual fact) needs to be said, it gets said and whatever it is about gets dealt with. I loved it, as I always do.

On Saturday, August 7, the day after the retreat ended, much of the community went to the monastery at New Skete, near Cambridge, NY, for their open house and a talk by Fr. Michael Plekon, who used to be a Lutheran and is now OCA. He has been a friend of our Monastery for a long time. The whole outing was fun.

I preached on August 8 (not a sermon I wrote down, so not in the OHC sermon blog), and then took off for vacation. I have been staying at the House of the Redeemer in New York, where I have been president of the Board for some years. I enjoy getting to know the current situation and trying to be helpful (or at least staying out of the way) as deep cleaning and renovation projects take place. And of course I love New York City. I usually look forward to times there with an almost childlike eagerness for the activity, the noise, the hustle-bustle, the energy of the City.

But this year something different has been happening to me. I am usually driven to do things on vacation. There are museums to visit, shows to see, friends to look up and reconnect with. I have been doing that, of course, but most of what I have been doing is being quiet. Most of each day is spent reading, getting a bite to eat, napping, reading some more, doing very little. I think without intending it, I have been practicing vacare deo.

I don't know where it will go or what, if anything, will come out of it. I think I am usually so full of myself that simply putting the projects aside, letting go of some of my concerns, allowing my imagination a freer space, I am letting something new in. At least I hope so.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wanting and Being Wanted

I have tried to write about simplicity, and find that that attempt opens many doors. One of them opened for me yesterday.

I was sitting quietly, enjoying the silence of our retreat. When I do that images, memories, ideas wash over me. And sometimes not. But yesterday the images were of religion in Orange County, when I was working there in the 90's. The images were of religious seeking. There is a lot of it there, or at least there was then, and there are a lot of religious professionals and religious establishments to cater to that seeking. It would be easy to caricature some of it, but I am pretty sure I don't need to do that for those who may read this blog.

The common denominator of those images was wanting. Wanting things -- a better job, a happier family life, a healthier relationship, better health. Wanting good things. Getting involved in religion in order to clarify, identify, find and follow a better path to them. And then as I reflected on these, I realized that I knew a lot of those people, and while they verbalized their desires as things, actually a lot of those desires were more for a life of greater order, stability, productivity, meaning, significance. To have a better job is in some ways to be a better person -- a person who can be productive, a person who is respected for good reasons. To have a happier personal life is to be better at relationships, more loving, more sensitive. To have better health is to be a better integrated self. And so on. The "things" are objective correlatives of deeper personal possibilities.

A fundamental constituent of our lives is desire. We want things, money, what money can bring us. We want sex and we want love, and we mix the two up all the time. We want power, in small as well as large ways. We want recognition. We want answers. We want security. We want. We want. We want. We want so much that we never stop wanting. Wanting seems to be essential to our nature. I can tell you that becoming a monk does not make wanting stop!

And so, it should not surprise us that religion structures itself to deliver on the desire front, as much as any other human activity. You have questions? We have answers, say some. You feel alone? We have community, say others. You're poor and want not to be poor? Come and see Reverend Ike sitting on his golden throne (ok, I couldn't resist one little dig, even though Reverend Ike was in New York and not in Orange County). And those are the less sophisticated religious establishments. The ones that have been in business a long time have honed their appeals quite a lot finer. In fact, most respectable religions offer a smorgasbord with spiritual dishes for most wants and needs.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, no. If wanting is our nature, then following that nature's needs is not only good marketing, it is in fact a very good, rational way to serve those brought to our doors. It is good if it helps us discern real wants from illusions, and to discern more and more genuinely our nature and its directions.

But the truth is, we never stop wanting. Nothing is ever enough. Have you ever been in a truly wonderful store, filled with things of beauty and quality, the sort of place where you don't have to ask yourself the question, Is this real? Is this the best? And then, being in that store, have you ever looked around to see the other shoppers, the ones who have the money to be there as customers (unlike ourselves, for whom this is a sort of vacation from our Target/WalMart lives)?

How many of those people who can afford to be there seem happy? How many light up in delight when they see the perfect watch, the perfect crystal vase, the perfect scarf, the perfect whatever? In the presence of such beauty, perhaps unsurpassed in the world, are they illuminated with joy? Do their faces show their awareness of the good they can have if they act on their desire?

Well, some of them, perhaps, sometimes. But when I have been in such places, I am struck by their serious, not to say grim, countenances. And I am puzzled. I am usually delighted to be there. Perhaps it is because I can't afford to buy anything there that I am free to see these things for their own excellence and be happy that such things exist, that human beings can have such skill and creativity to make them. But wanting in the context of being able to get often gives us a strange experience -- calculation, fear that someone else will get a better one perhaps, expectation of buyer's remorse later on.

In fact, it is the wanting that animates us, not the getting.

If wanting is deeply embedded in our DNA, perhaps that is a clue to a larger reality. Perhaps it is part of the image-of-God thing in creation. Perhaps the One who made us also wants. I know this thought departs from the philosophically strict concept of God as without parts or passions. He may be without parts, but the God we meet in scripture is certainly not without passions. He pursues the people of Israel with an almost insane intensity. One may sometimes wonder, listening to the old biblical stories, Why does he bother? It's like watching a friend pursue a love affair that is entirely too one-sided. Nothing good can come from it, we think. And of course, nothing good comes of God's pursuit. It leads to the Cross. And, then, to the Resurrection.

If we can't stop wanting, we also can't avoid being wanted. I imagine God's infinity sometimes as an infinite capacity for wanting his creation, every creature in it, including (especially, from my point of view) me.

There is this mutual energy in wanting. I can't fill my desires, no matter how hard I try. And God keeps wanting me, in ways I can't begin to imagine. The things we think we want are really simulacra of God, and that is why everything we get, except perhaps a taste of the divine, leaves us dissatisfied. We really are the rich people in that great shop. Deep down we know that things won't do it for us, that at some level we are wasting our substance on anything but the Real Thing.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anglican Values 8: The Daily Office

Anglican Values 8: The Daily Office
February, 2000

Sometimes people ask me, What is distinctive about the Episcopal Church? So much seems similar to what others do - our Sunday service, form of church government, forms of private prayer, are all shared with or similar to what others do. But there is one uniquely Anglican form.

It is called the Daily Office, a forbiddingly bureaucratic title which might better be Daily Scriptural Prayer. It is the basic, fundamental form of prayer in our tradition. In its simplest form it consists of reading psalms and Bible lessons in the morning and evening every day. Nothing very special in that - except that Anglicans have evolved a unique format for this kind of prayer over our 450 plus years as a worshiping community.

The Daily Office has its roots in synagogue practice, in which men would gather and read the scriptures each day at a stated time. Early Christians continued this practice. When the monastic movement arose in the 200's and 300's, the monks and nuns would memorize the psalms and often would recite all 150 every day. When St. Benedict wrote his Rule for monks in the early 500's he arranged the psalms and scripture in eight services each day, saying the whole
Psalter every week. The Benedictine arrangement became the pattern for Christian scriptural prayer for the next 1000 years, becoming very complex with the addition of saints days, seasonal variations, hymns, and music.

One of the main agendas of the Reformation was to make Bible reading central to the prayer life of ordinary people. It was the genius of Thomas Cranmer, who produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, to turn the eight daily monastic services into a twice a day format. The psalms were divided into a monthly cycle and the Bible was read through in course, a chapter from the Old and New Testaments twice a day. The new form, called Morning and Evening Prayer, was required to be said by the clergy in the Church every day, and recommended to the laity. It rapidly became the most important part of Anglican worship, supplanting the Eucharist as the main Sunday service in most places.

The Book of Common Prayer set out the readings for each day, and devout lay people as well as clergy soon made it the basis of their devotions. Countless millions of people over the years have started and ended the day with these services, often in family prayer at home. Its use led directly to the Anglican approach to Scripture. It works against a piety resting on proof-texted theological propositions, since a faithful user of this form of prayer will read the whole Bible through many times in a lifetime of devotion and become aware of the rich dialogues among Biblical theologies in that enormously complex library of holy writings.

[Note: This short essay was followed by a detailed and date-specific way to use the Daily Office, which is omitted here.]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Anglican Values 7: Scriptural Interpretation

Anglican Values 7: Scriptural Interpretation
October 1998

There is no more important area of theology today than the question of how we are to interpret scripture. Many of the current religious battles, both within and between churches (including our own), are fought on this important question.

Scripture is not simple but complicated. It is written in different languages and at other times for other people than our own. In the Christian world over the centuries there have been three main ways to interpret scripture.

The first and oldest is to look for the consensus of the faithful in the organized church. This has been expressed mainly in church councils and in the works of important theologians which have been accepted as normative in different ages. In ordinary life it means that scriptural interpretation is not private, but communal, and that what other people have thought over the ages is the shaping factor in interpreting Scripture: we listen to them and contribute to the dialogue from our own knowledge, point of view and experience.

The second is the classic Protestant position of sola scriptura, which is Latin for "scripture alone". In its original meaning to the Reformers this means that Christian belief is to be found only in Scripture, and that no other agency, such as tradition, church authority or personal experience, can be put on the same level as scripture.

The third position is the radical Protestant position of individual conscience, in which each believer is trusted to read the scriptures carefully, and in prayer and careful consideration, to reach the interpretation which the Holy Spirit gives to the conscientious believer.

The Anglican position was developed by the first great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, in the late 1500's. Bringing together all three classic positions, he stated that Christian belief had to rest on three principles, each of which had to be present and in accord: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. It is not enough to look to what the text of scripture alone says; nor is it enough to consult the past for the consensus of the faithful; nor is it sufficient to consult human reason individually or collectively. All three must be present and in accord for sure interpretation to be held by the Church.

This is an especially important question because of the growth of a new phenomenon in Christianity: fundamentalism. Early in this century an innovation in interpretation arose called "scriptural inerrancy", which is not precisely sola scriptura, let alone one of the other modes of interpretation. This holds that each word of scripture is literally true. This is a radically new form of interpretation, and is increasingly influential in the Christian world today. But it is not the Anglican way.

So when an important question arises, on which scripture speaks, Anglicans begin with careful reading of the text, paying attention to every aspect of meaning in the original language and culture, and dealing with nuances and differences in different parts of scripture on the same question. Then we go on and ask, how have others in the faith understood this question in their time? How does their understanding illuminate us? Then finally, trusting in the Spirit's guidance, we ask, What do our experience, reason, and conscience tell us, illuminated by scripture and guided by the consensus of the faithful in the past?

This is a complicated process. It is by no means as simple as opening up the Bible and finding a verse which speaks to our concern. We accept the great Councils of the Church as the Spirit’s revelatory work, authoritative for doctrine. But we are unlikely to accept as ultimately authoritative a contemporary interpretation by a particular Bishop, theologian, conference or synod of the Church on a question of the day. Interpretation always involves our best intellectual efforts. It is always a communal process, in dialogue with other Christians past and present. And it always involves an honest acceptance that our question is framed in our present life and understanding and by our own best efforts of reason and conscience.

Easy answers are not often Anglican answers. Final answers are hard to find in our tradition precisely because we believe that scripture is the Word of God constantly meeting people in their present situations. And as a result, sometimes what seems to be the secure Biblical answer to a question in one age will change in another. The Holy Spirit has led us to see that slavery is unacceptable, though scripture clearly accepts it. It has led to the acceptance of leading ministries of women in the liturgy, although scripture seems to reject them. It has led to an acceptance of some kinds of money lending, the basis of capitalist economics, though money lending at interest is clearly contrary to scripture. It has led to a more pastoral understanding of divorce and remarriage in many places, though scripture plainly condemns divorce.

Anglicans believe in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church for the problems of every age. and in the Word of God which is as alive and dynamic today as the day it was first encountered. The answers we receive are usually provisional, subject to better scholarship, more complete dialogue with the faithful, and to a more complete use of reason and experience. The fixed point for us is not simply the text of scripture, but also the presence of the Spirit in the Church and in the hearts of sincere and believing Christians of every conceivable sort and calling.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anglican Values 6: The Beauty of Holiness

Anglican Values 6: The Beauty of Holiness
August, 1997

Roofs. Termites. Plumbing. Painting. Signs. Lawn sprinklers. Garage cleaning. The list of things we do for our church property is daunting, and this year the Vestry is determined to accomplish many projects we have known we need to do for some time. Work will be done. Inconvenience will be endured. Tempers will be frayed. Money will be spent.

Why do we care so much about the physical structure of the Church? A clergy friend of mine from another denomination explained to me once that in his tradition, the building is functional, a place to accommodate the real church, the fellowship of believing and practicing Christians. I was touched by his explanation. Sometimes I look around at the myriads of churches with very functional physical settings — rented warehouses, even — and have a sort of envy of their simplicity. But purely functional is not the Anglican way.

Back in the days when most Anglicans went to Evening Prayer, we regularly heard a verse from Psalm 96 at the beginning of the service: "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of Him." Anglicans care about the physical beauty of the Church. For century upon century we have built the very best we were capable of, and in every land where our Church has been planted, beautiful buildings have arisen -- sometimes simple but soul-filling, sometimes gloriously complex — and places have been nurtured to be worthy of the worship of the Lord of Hosts.

There is something about the way architecture, light, music, vestments, liturgy, the ordered worship of the Book of Common Prayer, even landscaping, come together, that is characteristic of Anglicanism. It can be absolutely revelatory to a visitor if it is done well, with joy and lightness and filled with the Spirit. A person can be lifted up to heaven by all of this beauty ~ or so it seems. And many people have found the Lord in the Church's beauty, beauty which reminds them what they were created to be, the high and beautiful calling of human life in this wonderful world of God's.

There is of course a danger of relying on the beauty alone and not practicing the gifts of the Spirit in person, of formalism, ritualism, or worse, idolatry — the beauty becomes its own reason for being. And we trust God to protect us from the dangers of the path he has set us on.

At St. Michael's we are blessed with an extensive property and with two church buildings, one of them a historic treasure without peer in our part of the world. We are blessed with people who love our music, liturgy, and the beauty of our worship. Thank God for our Vestry's decisions. Thank God for those in the congregation who will step forward to help us pay for this important work. Thank God for the beauty He has given us. Let us worship Him indeed in the beauty of holiness.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anglican Values 5: Restraint

Anglican Values 5: Restraint
May, 1997

Restraint is an ingrained custom for Anglicans: we wish not to do or say things too directly, too blatantly, too obviously. We are happiest with liturgy in which the facts of life are alluded to indirectly, in sermons that make their points discreetly, in church furnishing and decoration that are "in good taste", in clothing that is restrained, not to say dowdy, in colors that are not too bright, in theological conversation that is polite and non-confrontational. It has been said in jest that Anglicans do not have sins, but lapses of taste. This habit of ours sometimes drives non-Anglicans slightly crazy.

I am writing this essay on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. His dramatic works include some 16 comedies, 11 history plays, and 11 tragedies, produced between 1590 and 1613. Shakespeare is the premier dramatist and poet of the English language, and all of us have read at least some of his work, if only in high school. It goes without saying that his influence on every aspect of English-speaking civilization is incalculable.

Why introduce Shakespeare into a discussion of Anglican values? Because he is the most important and representative writer of the Elizabethan-Jacobean period in which the Anglican Church took its characteristic shape and form. And also because there is something important about his dramatic work that bears on Anglican restraint.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), to avoid bloody and unnecessary religious conflict, it was forbidden to discuss theology and the Christian religion directly in plays produced for the stage. And so Shakespeare had to find other ways of treating the great moral questions of human life. He found them in stories from the past, in far-away locales, and most of all, in presenting them indirectly through the experiences of his characters in the drama. He treats of sin, but without direct theology: pride in Othello, greed in The Merchant of Venice, ambition and despair in Hamlet, deception in Much Ado About Nothing, the lighter and darker sides of patriotism in the history plays, and so on. But at no point does he preach, or state directly his points.

And this is exactly the Anglican style: when we want to make a point about faith or sin, we tend to tell a story, look for an example displaced from our own context, avert our eyes from the thing itself and trust in people's innate intelligence to apply the moral.

This may not be helpful to everyone in contemporary American culture. People flock to churches with more direct ways of expressing the faith. But it is our way, and it has produced something valuable in Christian civilization: space for difference, room for a person to make up his or her own mind without coercion, and most of all, an ample appreciation for the universality of God's love, laws and revelation that transcends religious language and is at home in palaces, humble homes, enchanted forests, battlefields, town squares and every other imaginable human habitation.

In Shakespeare, and in Anglicanism, Church is not the only place to look for God's plenty and God's truth.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Anglican Values 4: Complexity

October, 1996

What sets Anglicans apart from other Christians? All Christians believe that God is revealed in Jesus Christ, that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth has set the seal of God's love on humanity and has given us the ability to lead new lives, that our lives are no longer limited by death but that God's new life waits for us beyond. But Christian differ in their emphases and explanations of this faith.

Many churches try to simplify faith and life for their people, and many people want this. What exactly does this or that mean? What exactly am I to do in a given situation? What exactly does the Bible say about this or that? These churches are often big and popular. Other churches offer program after program, their staff thinking constantly about how to appeal to the market of this or that age group or segment. And these churches are often big and popular.

The Anglican church may try to answer questions, and it may offer appropriate programs. But we also have a more complex life.

Anglicans are in dialogue with tradition and are not ashamed of the past. It is sometimes said that Americans are not interested in the past, but in the here and now, and in the future. I think this is true. But Anglicans are aware that what we are is a result of what we were, and that the circumstances of our lives were not created from the mind of God yesterday. And so we are in dialogue with the past. Our music is not just the music of our own day. The language of our worship is not simply what we think appeals at this moment. We value the dialogue we have with something other than ourselves, and we call others into that dialogue, because it is truer than ignoring what we and those who came before us were and did.

Anglicans know that some questions do not have fast answers. Many problems of contemporary life cry out for answers. The state of American family life, personal morality in a culture which values gain, greed and instant gratification, present challenges to all Christians. To some questions there are easy answers: not taking experience-altering drugs is better than taking them. Chastity for young people before marriage is better than promiscuity. But for some of life's questions, there are not answers but the shared experience of a loving community. When a marriage breaks up, when a child is inexplicably caught in a cycle of negativity and self-destruction, when our work presents us with two or more choices, each of which is less than ideal: in such cases it is not answers, but fellowship, friendship in the Lord, lasting and understanding relationships, which provide what we need. In such cases the Bible is a resource, not a lawbook, and theology is a helpful friend along a path new to us but worn smooth with the experience of others.

Anglicans know that God trusts humanity to co-create the future. We do not believe that God has a single "plan for man", but that the future emerges as we accept our place as His sons and daughters, growing up, as St. Paul says, into the full stature of adulthood in Christ. We are not cookie-cuttered into a lock-step pattern (to mix metaphors) but rather given power through our intelligence, moral discernment and faith to create the future with Him. We are set free from sin, justified in faith, and then trusted. Anglicans know that this complicates our lives, because we now have responsibility to build and to care for others.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Anglican Values 3: The Sanctification of Ordinary Life

ANGLICAN VALUES 3: The Sanctification of Ordinary Life
September, 1996

It is sometimes said that different Christian traditions are characterized by different doctrines of the faith in their worship and thought styles: Roman Catholics are said to be "Good Friday" Christians, Orthodox Christians, Resurrection Christians, and Pentecostals (of course), are of Pentecost. This does not do justice, of course, to those rich and wonderful traditions, but is useful.

Anglicans are often associated with the Incarnation, because we so fully believe in the presence of God in the ordinary things of life. One of our great poets, George Herbert, in two of our hymns, makes this point so excellently: “Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King” (Hymn 402); and “Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see” (Hymn 592).

We often think that religion is "special" ~ so we put on our Sunday best (or we used to — remember hats and gloves!), we dust off our Sunday manners, and we head for Church, because Church is where God is, right? And we pay our respects - as decorously as we can and as well as the parson is able to produce that day's ritual drama – and pray for one or two things (we'd better choose carefully and not ask for too many things — lest God think us greedy) — and then, with a companionable handshake at the door (nice sermon, Reverend!) and a cup of coffee with our friends, we're on our way, our Sunday duty done.

But in our tradition, religion isn't "special" — it is every day. The first service in our Book of Common Prayer is not the Eucharist, but Daily Morning and Evening Prayer. The idea is that we will read scripture and psalms and pray every day. That's our tradition! And then come together once a week to join in worship with others.

Anglicans take special delight in the homely parables of Jesus: the parables of housekeeping, gardening, business dealings, family relationships, which our Lord, ever observant of God's inbreaking wonderful new life for his world, delights to tell. And as we read and meditate on these parables, we are encouraged to think of our own ordinary experiences as places where God comes in to dwell as well. A certain man had two sons: well, we have children. Now, let's see....; The kingdom of God is like a woman who lost a coin. When was the last time you turned over the house looking for something valuable?....

In so many ways in our Church we carry out this domestic quality of our understanding of Christ's inbreaking love. We make most decisions by consensus, like a family in real life. And like families, there are always loose ends, always discussions that aren't finished, always life carries on in an uninterrupted stream. Things are rarely tidy or absolutely complete. Our worship, while done as well as it can be, with good music from many periods, and using the rich resources of the past as well as the present, has a sort of "homely" quality to it in most of our parish churches - as nice and grand as we can make it, but we will still see the acolytes smiling at each other, we will enjoy the Rector's jokes in the sermons (well, most of them - but then, poor thing, he does try!), we will notice the new parts we aren't used to and remark on them, wonder at how that teenager is able to read the lessons so well, rejoice to hear our own activity or ministry announced. The church is our home!

George Herbert (in Hymn 592, using the image of the drudgery of a servant's work) makes a wonderful point: God turns our most ordinary tasks to times of grace: "This is the famous stone that turneth all to gold; for that which God doth touch and own cannot for less be told".

Friday, July 16, 2010

Anglican Values 2: The Bible

January 1996

Anglicans are people of the Bible. We read as much from the Bible in worship as any other Christian tradition, and more than some. The Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, which is the basis of Anglican prayer life, is almost entirely readings from the Bible.

How do we read the Bible? That depends on what we think it is. Is the Bible a huge book which "has the answers", a talisman of security in a changing world? Anglicans believe it is more.

In Old Testament times Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets, and in New Testament times, Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, the disciples and apostles, and others, encountered God directly. Their experiences, and those of many others became the foundation of Israel and the Church, whose experiences were written down and collected in what we now call the Bible.

So when Anglicans read the Scriptures, we know we are reading the experiences of people like ourselves who lived in the faith tradition stretching from Abraham to our own day.

What is characteristic of Anglican Bible reading?

First, Anglicans encounter the Scriptures whole. We don't proof text - that is, search the scriptures for support for positions we already "know" are right. Rather, we stand in awe of the goodness of God revealed in Scripture, letting it guide us in its own directions.

Second, Anglicans let the Scriptures speak to us in their own voice. The Old and New Testament weren't written in English to twentieth century people, but in Hebrew and Greek to people whose cultures and understandings of life were different from our own. Our Anglican diversity helps us with Scripture reading. We experience in our own lives the different ways people encounter the world, and so we are prepared to hear familiar words with new ears!

Third, Anglicans trust the Word of God in all its complexity. There are different voices in the Scriptures; Deuteronomy is in vigorous dialogue with Job. Memory has preserved more than one account of many events, like David's rise to the throne of Israel, and there are of course 4 Gospels, with many different recollections of Our Lord's life. This complexity of Scripture is heartening to Anglicans, because it shows that God's Word and his world are related, in glorious complexity and variety.

Fourth, Anglicans find truth in a living relation to Scripture. St. Paul warns the Galatians not to fall back into a life governed by the letter only and not by a living relation to Christ, who sets us free. Anglicans believe that God has called us into freedom in Christ Jesus, and that we discover our new life in Christ at least in part in our encounter with Scripture. Our lived experience is in dialogue with the ancient writings. Our present lives come alive when they are held under the light of scripture. God continually surprises us in this dialogue - in insight, in direction, in showing us the deeper mysteries of our life in His life, and sometimes in judgment.

Anglicans care about the Bible. It shows us the path through Christ in the Spirit to the Father. It is central to our prayer and worship, and spurs us on to acts of compassion and justice in building the Kingdom of God. We are truly People of the Book!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Anglican Values 1

I have been practicing simplicity the past week or so by cleaning out some of my files, throwing the truly useless away and digitizing others. Among the latter I have run across my collection of the monthly magazine written for St. Michael's, Anaheim, during the years I was Rector there (1992-2001). I wrote a small essay each month, a sort of mid-90's blog before there were blogs (or at least before I knew about them and had one). Surprisingly, they still read fairly well, at least to me. Beginning in October, 1995, I intermittently wrote a series called "Anglican Values". I wrote it in the hope of articulating what I think are distinctive Anglican values, and I hope they are still true. And before my dear p.c. friends start in on me for being exclusivist, let me just say that every virtue I find and label Anglican can of course be found among others as well, mutatis mutandis. But not perhaps in quite the same combination and packaging.

Through the miracle of optical character recognition I am able to share them. I thought I would publish them between now and the beginning of our Long Retreat, on July 28, as a sort of pre-retreat project, and see if they generate any interest. I'll footnote things that might be unclear to non-St. Michael's types.
October, 1995

Today we hear a great deal about values. People are concerned that their families, communities, churches, workplaces represent and practice wholesome and helpful values. The current debate about values is an important and welcome development in a time in which the only value sometimes seems to be economic productivity. Church is a good place to look for values!

Every Christian church holds up Jesus Christ as Lord, proclaims His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection as the source and power of new life in Christ, both looks forward to and tries to begin to live in the Kingdom of God, and learns and teaches new ways of living according to God's values. But God's graciousness is so great that he has given us many kinds of churches, from many backgrounds, and with many ways to approach the New Life in Jesus Christ. Each church proclaims the same Gospel, but finds in the variety of human experience different ways of living it, and different sets of cultural values it honors as it practices the Gospel. All are gifts of God, each is distinctive and value-able.

Our Episcopal (Anglican) Church has a distinctive history and tradition and so we have distinctive values we stress within the Gospel life. I want to share three with you this month. We are the historic "Church of England", and although the Anglican Churches are now as much American, African, Caribbean, Hispanic and Asian as English, that is our "root". We grew up as the Church for the Nation in a special way, and that has left us with three Anglican Values:

Anglicans Care About Different Kinds of People. The Church of England welcomed everyone in the nation, unless they specifically "opted out". And so we are comprehensive. We expect to have all kinds of people in our church, with a very wide range of ideas, economic backgrounds, interests, causes and concerns. We are interested in everyone's welfare, and Anglican churches typically have a great concern for the poor which leads us to help. St. Michael's Nearly New Shop* and Feed The Hungry Program** witness to this value. Today, our Anglican Church has reached out to embrace people of every land and many different languages.

Anglicans Care What People Think. We have a rich legacy, growing out of our diversity, of differences of opinion within the Church. Today we honor and value that, and try to participate in it as best we can. This means we care greatly about education, and we try to get the best education we can for our children. And it means that we listen to Scripture, to teaching and tradition, and to each other, and don't close off discussion very easily, so that we can hear God's voice in life's complexity. We know that God's world is not simple, and we treasure the depth, wisdom and variety of his Word, ever new in His creation.

Anglicans Care About Beauty. Our Church has a long and wonderful tradition of art, architecture, music and worship. The artists, composers and writers who are part of the centuries-old Anglican tradition are too numerous to mention - indeed, the English-speaking world derives its culture from Anglican roots. And so our worship honors the past as well as the present. We care about form and custom, and about preserving the beauty of creation, while in our own way adding to it, both at St. Michael's and in our lives.

These are three, but only three - a start! I hope to share more Anglican Values in this space again from time to time!

* Nearly New Shop: A thrift store operated out of a store front in a strip mall for many years by members of St. Michael's. The profits went primarily to fund charitable projects in the Anaheim community.
** Feed The Hungry Program: A dinner served at St. Michael's to all comers, mostly indigent and homeless, every Monday night at 6:00 pm for years and years. Those who came were guests: seated at tables with set places, and served on the church's best china. It had a very significant volunteer base from St. Michael's and others who joined in.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ecumenical Martyrs

Today in our OHC calendar we observe the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher as martyrs, who were executed by the English government of Henry VIII for opposing the new structural definition of the Church of England, making the King the Supreme Head of the Church.

I'm reasonably sure that this is a quirk of OHC's practice. More and Fisher are not in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, nor are they in the new Holy Women, Holy Men, the greatly expanded LFF. I think they are there because our community wants to acknowledge the suffering on all sides which the English Reformation occasioned.

I had not thought about it until recently, but three times in my experience visits to Roman Catholic Benedictine monasteries have occasioned something rather different. Years ago I would visit the monastery at Valyermo for spiritual direction, with the estimable Thomas Duscher, OSB, later Fr. Romuald of the Camaldolese, now regretfully departed. On my last visit one of the masses was dedicated to the English martyrs, by which was clearly meant the RC martyrs. The same thing happened on a visit to another major monastery in the last two years (I don't want to identify it). I didn't think much of it at the time. But recently one of our brothers on a monastery visit also encountered the same commemoration at the mass. Hmm. Makes one wonder.

The Episcopal Church does observe the martyrdoms of Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley on October 16. Usually at these celebrations no great point is made of accusing the Roman Catholic regime then in power of wickedness. Rather, the point is often made of Cranmer's changeableness when faced with the stake. His witness was not one of undaunted principle and courage. In religious history, of course, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the lives and deaths of the Marian Martyrs, was hugely important. For a very long time Foxe was the second best-selling book in the English-speaking world. The anti-Roman prejudice it whipped up was enormous, deep and long-lasting. Knowing this, I am not surprised at the continuing depth of RC sentiment about their own martyrs. But I am surprised how often they seem to be trotted out in monastic contexts when Anglican monks come visiting.

The Reformation is not over, of course. Some of what is going on in the Anglican Communion at the moment is a resurgent Calvinism, suppressed by Charles I just as it was getting going in a serious way in the early seventeenth century. It went underground, eventually finding a home in overseas missionary societies like the Church Missionary Society, whose work is now bearing much fruit in African and Australian contexts. And all the decades of friendly contact between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, with the present Pope at the middle of much of it, could be coming to an end in his oddly and obviously anti-ecumenical bid for Anglicans to become Roman Catholic.

I wish there had been some RCs at the Eucharist today. I wish that some of them had been monks, who could go home and say, Those Anglicans observed Fisher and More as saints at the altar when I was there. Maybe something pointed toward mutual understanding could grow from it, instead of something that sets us against each other, even after all these years.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Simplicity 5

The July-August 2010 AARP Magazine arrived today. The cover touts an article: "Live Simply, Be Happy: You can be rich with less". This looks right down my alley. So I turn to page 38 and start reading the article "The Leap to Cheap": "Spending is so old school. With the economy forcing folks to live more simply, self-proclaimed cheapskate Jeff Yeager cycled across the country to meet some of America's thriftiest people. The surprise: They've invented a better way to be rich." The graphic is a goldfish leaping from a bowl with lots of stuff in it to a bowl with a single branch of rather elegant orchids.

It is soon apparent that the article is a trailer for Yeager's new book. He tells a story of people living on less and doing it better, by getting what they really want ("an Architectural Digest-gorgeous ranch-style house" paid for in cash) and skipping the rest. He relates the death of National Thrift Week (in 1966) and how that relates to our long-term national spending spree. He tells of a family who make a pretty good income ($80,000) but moved into a smaller house and stopped buying so much stuff and discovered each other. He interviews the authors of Your Money or Your Life, who make the sensible observation that less can be more. The example is the Hummer. (Note to self: reconsider the Hummer purchase.) Many of us can all spend 20% less and not feel it. A guy in Pennsylvania rents out half his condo, spends very little, and gives a lot (a lot in this context is 15%) to charity. Speculation on whether being "cheap" isn't so stigma laden now. It ends with a good sentiment: "We have enough right where we are, and we realize that is a gift most people don't ever choose to receive."

So you don't need to read the article.

The premise of it is pure American materialism: Do something so you can have more. In this case, it's spend less. But the goal is More.

Is More wrong? Well, no. If you don't have Enough, then More is good. Lots of people need More. In many parts of the world, people have objective, actual material needs: food, shelter, medical care, education, sanitation, to say nothing of a cleaner environment or a safer society.

But what if you have, on an objective level, Enough? The most radical lack cited in the article was clothing dating back to the Jimmy Carter era. Wear it till it falls apart. I'm for that (as my friends know). For a person who in fact has a decent place to live, food every day, medical care, an education, what might More be? The article hints at it: closer family life, ability to help others, satisfaction with the life we already have.

I certainly don't expect the AARP Magazine to be spiritually profound. But what it hints at is, in fact, where our More can come from if we adopt the sensible advice this article peddles. Of course, once we have Enough in objective terms, we can always move the line! I have known plenty of well-off people who thought they were borderline poor, especially at parish pledge time. But if, instead of redefining what our needs are to include our wants and fantasies, we begin to practice other disciplines than getting stuff, More can be very good. Other disciplines like paying more attention to each other. Like giving more to causes we believe in and spending time being personally involved with them. Like turning off the gadgets and being quiet. Like reading the scriptures, like praying, like regularly saying the Daily Office. Like spending time regularly in meditation. When we do these things, unexpected doors open, and a world of spiritual possibilities begins to unfold itself for us.

Like learning to love the poor. Like being poor. "Blessed are you poor" says the Lord in Luke. And if we have a hard time with actually being poor, then pare the stuff down and learn to be poor in spirit, as Matthew recommends. The poor are the ones God loves. In the Scriptures, the rich are given gifts to be used and responsibility comes with it, and they don't often come out of it with their hands clean. So being poor is not a bad thing in God's eyes, but a good one.

Is living simply just another way to get stuff, this time spiritual instead of material? Or is it a way to clear the space out in our lives and let something new and wonderful begin to grow? In other words, is living simply just another way to keep myself in the center, to get my rather elegant branch of orchids, so much more aesthetically pleasing than a junked up fish bowl, or is it a genuinely transforming choice? May it be the second.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The summer begins

OHC finished its annual meetings, which we call Chapter, on Sunday. We had the better part of a week together. It always begins with the Finance Committee, which I chair. That committee collates complete financial reports from our four monasteries and from the OHC Corporation, and considers the proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year, which for us runs from July 1 to June 30. We consider the financial statements and budgets of the monks not in residence as well. There are four of them. And there are always other matters to consider. It is a lot of work, and the work doesn't really stop till Chapter is over. I was quite tired when we rolled it up on Sunday morning. Fortunately the following few days are light. We will re-emerge into full engagement on Thursday.

My summer looks pretty lightly booked for once. The House of the Redeemer does not have Board meetings in July and August. The next big event at the monastery will be the Long Retreat here, from July 28 to August 6. That is always silent, and we all look forward to being monks together in the strict sense. I will take some vacation time in August.

I have always had projects for the summer, and this year is no different. I am hoping that the lack of other major responsibilities will let me catch up on some major reading, and even perhaps some writing. At the moment I am reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It moves along at a pretty brisk trot, but for that reason reads well. I sense that it is selling well, and may well open up the history of Christianity to a wider audience than is customary for that subject. I have acquired a number of specialist studies in the history of monasticism, in Anglo-Saxon studies, and in late antiquity and as I read them, I will share them with you. They are not to everyone's taste, but some of them may deserve a modest push.

Perhaps in reaction to the stress of getting ready for Chapter, I have over the last few weeks read more murder mysteries than usual. When I was ill for three weeks or so this spring I read (in some cases re-read) as much P.D. James as we had around the place. It is interesting to read an author in bulk, as it were, especially if one has had some training in literature. She has patterns. After the third book, I knew that she always kills off a second important victim a little more than halfway through. The guessing about the identity of the next victim was almost as much fun as guessing the murderer.

Br. David Bryan had a DVD set of the television series of James' novels which he loaned to me, and I watched them as well. Roy Marsden is wonderful as Adam Dalgleish. But at a certain point a different director or team took the project up, shortened the adaptations, and generally messed with the formula, as is probably obligatory with new teams. At any rate, in one of the newer series Dalgleish's hair, which had been quite consistent to that point, changed. It was awful. I noticed that in the next one he was back to the original wig. There is some fodder for a meditation on the pointlessness of change for the sake of change there.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Trinity Sunday Sermon

The sermon I preached at West Park yesterday, Trinity Sunday, is up on the Holy Cross Monastery sermon blog.

I wanted to focus on the connection between the observable universe and the divine. It is my conviction that the Trinity is the most adequate religious description of why "what is" is the way it is. I hope I have avoided the worst pitfalls of panentheism. It was well received.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


The second major trip I made this spring was to Toronto (April 20-24) for the annual meeting of the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas, or CAROA. Each year the leadership of North American Anglican religious orders meets for general discussions that last about a week.

Brs. Scott Borden (the Assistant Superior) and Andrew Colquhoun (in charge of formation for annually professed) and I drove to Toronto and were met there by Br. Robert Sevensky, the Superior. He was already there, after making his annual visitation to Holy Cross Priory in Toronto. The drive was nice -- up the NY State Thruway (I-87) to Albany, west on the Thruway (I-90) to Syracuse, north on I-81 to Watertown and the Thousand Islands (beautiful!), across into Canada and west on 401 to Toronto. It took a little more than 9 hours, but we didn't gun it. We had a nervous moment at the border, as Br. Scott had endured a Canadian inquisition the last time he entered Canada, but this time, all was sweetness and light.

The conference was at the new convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. They have a long and distinguished history in Canada, working in hospital administration, medicine and nursing care as well as in education and church work. Recently they have built a new convent on the grounds of St. John's Hospital, now separately administered. The convent is a wonderful modern building, light and airy and spacious. It is built around a quadrangle, with full guest facilities, the usual rooms for community life, a good library (with two copies of my book!), a wonderful infirmary built and equipped for (I believe) eight sisters, and best of all, a magnificent new chapel. SSJD has many gifted members, and music is among their gifts, so the chapel music was especially good. One of the sisters was a professional violinist, and gave a delightful concert Friday night with the music director of the convent at the keyboards (organ and piano).

The SSJD sisters were warm and welcoming. It was wonderful to catch up with old friends from the religious life across North America, and to make some new friends as well. The discussions centered around the agendas CAROA wants to pursue in the next couple of years. CAROA organizes the presence of the religious communities at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (I helped with that last summer in Anaheim) and at the General Synod in Canada. The Canadian Church officially recognizes the religious communities in Canada (at this point there are three active: SSJD, OHC and the Sisters of the Church) by giving them two seats in Synod. The Episcopal Church does not.

The leadership of the conference was under the guidance of Fr. Gregory Fruewirth of the Order of Julian of Norwich, Fr. Donald Anderson, the General Secretary, who is a Canadian priest with wide experience in the ecumenical movement at the international level, and Ms. Suzanne Lawson, a very gifted facilitator with extensive experience at the national level of the Canadian church. Fr. Gregory has recently resigned as the Superior of OJN, and also as president of CAROA, in order to spend a six month time of work and reflection in Norwich.

The day began with Morning Prayer organized around small group lectio reflections on the daily Old Testament lessons for the week, from Exodus. This proved very fruitful. The meetings included function groups for superiors, for formation directors (my group) and for others. In the function groups we had time to share community and vocational issues on a deeper level. But most of the meetings were in whole group format. The discussions were quite frank, with time spent on the possibilities of cooperation in the care of elderly members, in helping declining communities in various ways, in the seemingly eternal topics of recruitment and helping the Anglican churches become better informed about the religious life. Suzanne Lawson did not let us get too diffuse about these and other topics, and had a firm hand in leading us away from pious generalities and toward actual people doing actual things. I ended up being the coordinator for formation directors for the coming year.

A highlight of our time together was a talk given by the Anglican Archbishop of Toronto, Colin Johnson. He has been an associate of SSJD for most of his ministry and understands pretty well what we do. He is delightfully informal, and had warm and helpful words for us. Another visitor one evening was OHC's Br. Reginald Crenshaw, now stationed at our priory in Toronto, who was very much a part of CAROA leadership conferences for many years and is deeply loved.

The time-off time was scheduled at the end of the conference, on Saturday afternoon, with the business finished, and we were tired and eager to return home. So after the business session on Saturday morning we piled back into the van and the four of us drive back the way we came. Well, almost. At Watertown we turned onto NY Highway 12 and drove south through a more rural area, quite lovely, rejoining the Thruway at Utica. I love the drive through the Mohawk Valley and it was wonderful to watch the trees leaf out more and more as we went further south.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ascension Day sermon

Just a brief note to tell you that my sermon for Ascension Day, preached at West Park, has been posted. It was one of those sermons whose impact is hard to judge. Except for a few smiles during the first paragraph, there was little reaction, mostly quiet. Was it the quiet of Ho Hum, another boring sermon by Adam? Or the quiet of, This is something that interests me? A few comments later on indicated the second might be a possibility, so I thought it might be worth drawing your attention to.

And while I'm at it, if you don't know about the Holy Cross sermon blog (actually, it is called the Lectionary Blog), it is worth a look. Most of the brethren post their sermons there. Most of them are pretty good. And it's a good way to get to know the OHC community and get a flavor of monastic theology and preaching, OHC-style.

Monday, May 17, 2010

St. Meinrad's

I feel I should catch up my gentle readers on the main events of the past few blogless months. So here is the first of a pair of reports on two major trips.

The annual meeting of Benedictine formators (that's contemporary Romespeak for novice masters) was held the week after Easter. This was my second year attending this meeting. It was at St. Meinrad's Archabbey in southwestern Indiana. You can fly to Evansville or, as I did, to Louisville KY. Fr. Sean, the Guestmaster, was there to pick me up. There had been a weather disturbance in Chicago earlier in the day which had delayed flights all around. I was more or less on time but another participant was not, so we waited. He eventually showed up and we made it to St. Meinrad's in time for Vespers.

St. Meinrad's was founded in 1854 from Einsiedeln. That area of Indiana is populated by people of the Swiss-German diaspora, and is, even in this parlous economy, pretty prosperous. Hardworking people unto the umpteenth generation, I guess. The monastery's mission over the years has encompassed education, including high school, college and seminary, parish work in the local area, and traditional monastic crafts as well. I have the impression that like a lot of larger institutions, it has had to change with the times (who hasn't!) and though I heard little of their struggles, the new guest ministry building, the fairly separate seminary operation, and the new monastery are physical testimonies to re-conceived ministries. The monastery seems to be undergoing a renewal, with younger and dynamic leadership in the formation program, and it is working. The vocation part of the website is one of the best I have seen.

The building complex is enormous. The monastery church is a mid-nineteenth century romanesque/gothic mix, which I found intimidating in its exterior aspect. I am pretty sure it was designed to impress, sited at the edge of a ridge overlooking a valley. Not only is it huge, but you have to look up from below the hill to see it. The interior is another matter, however. Some years ago the community cleared out the church, stripping it to its bare bones, as it were, and lived with it in that state for a while. (I am repeating my memory of what I heard, so forgive me, brothers, if I get it wrong.) After some years they came to a consensus of what to do, and it is brilliant, in my humble opinion. They completely reoriented the liturgical space. The organ pipes (which must rise two stories) are in the old sanctuary area.

The nave divides more or less naturally into three parts. The one nearest the sanctuary, at the truncated transept area, is devoted to the monastic choir, whose beautifully built and very sturdy seats rise in four levels, accommodating something like 80 monks. The altar is in the west area, near the great doors. It is a large square table whose sides are covered with gilt metal. At the offertory during the Eucharist, the community moves from the choir to the altar, the priests in white albs in a semicircle behind and the rest of the community in a semicircle facing them. It is very effective. The middle section is for visitors and guests (though we were graciously received into the monastic choir). This section is the least marked of the three, consisting of little more than chairs in facing rows. The church "works" remarkably well, I think.

St. Meinrad's is so huge that its three elements -- monastery, guest house and seminary -- don't seem to meet except by appointment, as it were. The seminary occupies a very large complex to the south of the church, and has its own chapel and food arrangements. The Guesthouse is a completely separate modern building at some distance from the monastery. I think the guests attend chapel with the monks, but they are quite separated there as well. The monastery is a modern three-story building, interestingly trapezoidal in shape. The monastic refectory (the guests and the seminary have their own eating arrangements) is the central element, rather like West Park's -- octagonal, bigger, but without the view. There is a long hall from the refectory to the statio, which is the meeting point of the building, and then another hall to the church. A well-thought out plan. The rooms are like the new rooms in the monastery at Collegeville -- large, 15' by 17' or so, with a bathroom at one side of the entry and a closet at the other.

The Daily Office begins with a combination of Vigils and Lauds at 5:30 am, Mass at 7:30, noon day prayer, Vespers at 5:00 and Compline at 7:00. The timetable is built around the need for teachers at the seminary, I think, though it seems that not so many of the monks teach there now as in earlier days. They use the Grail Psalter to tones similar to Collegeville but with many of their own melodies. The liturgical life calls forth a lot of talent at St. Meinrad's, and it shows.

The conference itself was great. Br. John Mark Falkenhain led us in a consideration of psycho-sexual maturity in celibate (male) clergy and male religious. John Mark is a monk of St. Meinrad's and a psychologist whose research has been in this area, with particular emphasis on abuse issues. He is data-oriented and so we got a good snapshot of the condition of male celibates and their developmental dynamics. I was struck by how different the Anglican world is on this issue. It is a cliché to say it, but for Anglicans, celibacy is a choice and is in no way forced. Quite the opposite, actually! The presence of women in the ordained ministry makes a big difference to us. And Holy Cross has for a long time been fairly open in our discussion of these issues among ourselves, leading to a level of mutual understanding and support within the community that I sensed may be harder to achieve in Roman monastic communities.

On our last full day the conference participants went on an outing to New Harmony, Indiana, a town that was founded as part of the early 19th Century utopian movement and was associated with Robert Owen. It is a lovely place, interestingly but not obsessively restored, having reinvented itself as a conference center. There is some new architecture as well. The visitor center is by Richard Meier and the Roofless Church, where we sang Vespers, is by Philip Johnson. There is interesting contemporary sculpture there and in other locations in the town. I dragged a few of the brethren into St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and we had a learning moment about Anglican liturgy, architecture, furnishings, customs and sociology. We ended the day with a wonderful restaurant dinner.

The St. Meinrad's community was warm and welcoming. The Abbot made a point of meeting us. There are a number of younger men in formation, and as seems typical (judging from Collegeville last year) they seemed a little reticent about meeting us. I was particularly moved to meet the older monks at recreation, which takes place daily between supper and Compline. One of them was a former abbot (I did not know!), another the former librarian, and a third a great scholar of African-American Catholicism. And best of all, the brother tailor remembered OHC's request for help when we changed our habits back in the 80's! I felt warmly welcomed. It was a great way to celebrate the week of the Resurrection!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I'm Back

After a 3 week bout of illness in February, dragging into March, (not too serious, bronchitis mixed with flu) and a whole lot of work and travel, some of which I will probably write about, I'm back.

Obviously, simplicity is what I need in my life at this point! I do hope to write more about it, and this time with more experience about its need and its elusiveness.

One administrative thing. Someone has been posting comments to the blog which, if one clicks on them, seem to end up on porn sites from the far east. So I have changed the setting and will now be reviewing comments before they post. I hope this does not offend anyone, but after a half dozen or so of these pesky critters, I thought it the better part.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Simplicity 4

My life hasn't been very simple in the last week or so. But it has slowed down for the monastery's Lenten Retreat, for which I give thanks.

One further preliminary thought about ascetic practices leading to better focus. I was wondering why I was reluctant to write more, apart from general busy-ness, and yesterday it came to me. Focus on what? Focus for what? Whose focus?

If the focus is mine, or on something that comes from me, then what I will achieve in that kind of focus is to narrow my attention down to something that is going to be of my choosing, and will reflect me. But that is precisely what I do not want, as a monk, as a person striving for simplicity so that God may be more present to me and I more present to God. An ascetic discipline which increases intensity of focus on my life, my hopes, my desires, my past experiences, my whatevers, is going to narrow me and draw me deeper into myself, into a place which may not in the end be productive.

Yesterday during the Ash Wednesday liturgy (at which for once I was not a liturgical minister of some kind, thank God) I had an experience of focus. I began to focus on ashes, the ashes of my life. Losses. The literal ashes of Mount Calvary, lost a year ago November, into which I poured my working life for eleven years. The losses at St. Michael's, Anaheim, whose Anglo congregation has largely dispersed and which has reverted to mission status. The ashes of my parents' bodies, buried these many years in that little cemetery by Red Bank Creek in Hawthorn, Pennsylvania. One ash-loss after another. The losses began to cascade in my consciousness. And after I had wallowed in the ashes for a while, it came to me that I was not focusing on something that could let God in, but on something that kept God out. These really are losses. But life -- my life and the lives of others -- has been made possible by these things. Their significance is only partly in their loss. The kind of focus I was practicing was not really on loss as a path to God, but on me -- my losses, my feelings, my failures -- me. Me. Me. And it was not going to go anywhere but deeper into me, and it was not going to produce anything but depression.

That kind of focus is not good because the object of the focus is inadequate. It doesn't expand my life. It doesn't open anything up. It doesn't take me out of myself. Rather, it closes me in, in the name of compunction latches on to my depressions.

Self focus will not take us very far.

So the focus a monk, a Christian, seeks needs to be on the Not-self, on the Other. Setting aside the barriers to focus is not an exercise that should close us down interiorly, but should open us up. And if that Other is God, the focus will illuminate my life, but this time with the light of truth.

If my focus experience yesterday had been better directed, it might have moved in quite a different direction. Instead of taking me into a pity-wallow of depression, it might have shown me how loss is part of the Cross, how one cannot grow unless the past is transformed. It might have led me to speculate on what new wonders can come in the life of our community in Santa Barbara, in the different circumstances we now enjoy there. It might have led me to wonder at a new model of church being born in Anaheim, an Episcopal church for the immigrant poor, with a ministry so large that it can't be sustained by the current model of parish support, and the joyful problem that presents to the Church. It might have led me to speculate on the gifts my parents gave me in their too-short lives, how they and their gifts continue to live in my life.

So as we simplify in order to focus, what are we training our focus on? Is it self, with the inevitable inadequacies of self-smallness, or is it God, who brings life from the ashes?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Simplicity 3

The word monk comes ultimately from the Greek monos, meaning one or single. It is not clear historically whether it originally referred to being alone, as in celibate and so forth, or whether it referred to a more interior unity. I think probably it began as a description of a state of life -- single, alone in the relational sense, and then in time had the other meaning added to it. In fact, both are true.

The monastic wisdom of the ages is that you really cannot achieve unity of focus on God unless your external life facilitates that focus. And while very few would say that a conventionally placed person, married or professionally employed, can not focus on God, the preponderance of texts seems to move in the direction of recommending the monos state of life for the monos state of focus on God. But then, many of the ancient texts were written by, and certainly all of them were transmitted by, monks. So there is a certain filter at work in Christian spiritual tradition.

I have, as a monk for 36 years and a monk not in residence and parish priest for 16 of those years, been on both sides of this issue. Not married, of course, but with plenty of experience in befriending and leading in a churchly way a lot of married people. The longer I am at the monk thing the more I am convinced that the point of spiritual life, whether married or single, employed in a career or living in a monastery, is focus. The ascetical disciplines do not exist for themselves but as aids to focus. The life of prayer in its organized forms exists as a way to achieve focus. Our concentration on the person of Jesus is a way to achieve focus. Silent, wordless and (sometimes) formless prayer is a way to achieve focus.

The whole point of any genuine religious life, in fact, is to help us redirect our attention from what doesn't ultimately lead anywhere very productive to the source of life and being itself: God. Focus on God is what we hope to achieve.

And so, yet another exercise in simplicity. What in our external lives, what in our inner lives, gets in the way of focus on God? That, it seems to me, is what the traditional ascetical program is for. That is what the leaving behind of the usual major life commitments for a monk is for. That is what the redirection of the life of a baptized person who is not a monk is for. And, frankly, in many ways, being a monk makes focus on God easier. I think achieving God-focus as a person "in the world" is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things I know. I have been privileged to know more than a few people like that. I admire them, and I know that I probably don't have half of their capacity to achieve that focus in the midst of ordinary life. Which is why I, and I suspect many others, become monks (and nuns, and other type of monos-people).

But all of the people on this path, it seems to me, face very similar challenges, monk or married. In a word, the challenge is to learn to evaluate the phenomena of our life in terms of how they promote this focus on God. This activity, this work that I am doing -- will it in some way bring me closer to God? This thing I have -- does its use help me in some way to get closer to God? This thought, or fantasy, or fear, or dream that I have -- can it open up a door for me to get closer to God?

There are the tried and true paths. Serious seekers will read the scriptures with these questions in mind. They will consult the ancient traditions, made accessible to us in texts like the Rule of Benedict, or John Cassian's Institutes and Conferences, or a thousand other wonderful places. These need to be read with an understanding of their original setting and purpose and the cultures out of which they came. But at a certain point we need to move from study to action. We need to apply what we read. I am going to write something about that process soon. But the bell for Compline is about to ring. And for sure, one of the ascetical practices that monks undertake to help them focus on God is to get into Chapel at the stated times and pray the Divine Office! So, off I go.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Earthquake in Haiti

A disaster of almost unimaginable proportions is slowly being revealed as the reports from Haiti come in. This should be a special concern to Episcopalians and Anglicans, as Haiti is a diocese of the Episcopal Church, and by membership is our largest.

The Sisters of St. Margaret have worked intensively there for many, many years, and their work is one of the most significant not only of our Church, but of Christians in Haiti in any sense. Over the years they have established or worked in educational, medical and adult education programs of every kind. Their convent has been a spiritual center for thousands and thousands of people. Their Haiti web page:

They have a brochure as well, in pdf format:

To make a donation for Haiti emergency and reconstruction work through Episcopal Relief and Development, click here:

Please keep the people of Haiti and our dear friends in St. Margaret and the Episcopal Church there in your prayers.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simplicity 2

I ended the last post with an appeal to the practical benefits of a simpler lifestyle, with food leading the way. But in this post I would like to say something about the spiritual benefits of a simpler life.

The more things we have, the more things we worry about. If you don't have anything worth stealing, for example, you won't worry so much about your neighbor the thief. At least you won't worry about him in his thief persona, or at least, in relation to yourself. In fact, you will be freer than you would have been otherwise to regard him as a human being and to develop a relationship with him. Whereas, if you have Aunt Tillie's silver and an expensive big flat screen tv and a bunch of money salted away in the cookie jar and so forth, you will have (and should have) some suspicion toward him. Without them you do not need to fear their loss. Monastic spiritual writers all agree that this is a foundational principle for our life with God. The more you have, the more there will be between you and God. So, in the famous phrase, Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.

The same is true with regard to less tangible things, especially with regard to things we have agreed to do. I know more than one person who is fairly careful about their possessions but loves to collect responsibilities. The more things we have to do, the more important we feel we are. And in fact, it is true. The more things we have to do, the more important we are. People depend on us. Good things happen when we do our work well, and bad things happen when we don't. Either way, it puts us in the center.

And that's the crux. If we have a healthy attitude to responsibilities, we will do them first because what comes from the work we do is good, and secondarily because it lifts us up. But if personal uplift is first, then something is probably wrong. The word for it is vainglory, and although vainglory was one of the original eight problematic thought categories, it got merged along the way with pride, and shoved into the corner. But in fact it's pretty primary. It's about the self, the ego.

If we are doing things primarily because they make us feel important or give us a good name among others, then we may begin to act to increase our sense of importance rather than to do a good job for its own sake. In fact, it is not unknown to sabotage our work in order that self-importance can be validated by disaster ("They'll be sorry...").

So simplicity is not just about stuff. It is also about what we do, the mutualities we enter into in the world of work and responsibility.

Things are good. We should value them for what they really are, and if we are fortunate to have them, we should use them if we need them. We should enjoy them. But we should not hoard them, keeping from others what might make their life better when it is simply a marker of success or status or inner security for us rather than something we need and use. A spiritually mature person knows how to share, how to give.

Responsibilities are good. We should value them for the good that work accomplished gives to others and to ourselves. Good work builds a healthy sense of self and contributes to the well-being of others. But piling up responsibilities for the sake of self ultimately undermines both self and others.

A humble person, a person who has been learning who he truly is in the sight of God, will try to discern what he really can do and what he should let others do. He will do the things he can do well and which he has has agreed to do, and let their value speak for themselves. He will be able to concentrate better on the responsibilities he has agreed to if he is able to let go of the ones he has that are too much, or which he has taken on to increase his sense of self, or which others can do better. One might actually relinquish some that one does well so that others may have a share in the work -- and in the glory. (Which is not to urge laziness, but that's another issue!)

I am of course speaking to myself in all of this!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Simplicity 1

The new year is now launched. The Three Kings have visited the Child, observant Christians are packing away the Christmas decorations, and most new year's resolutions are facing reality.

So I want to put in a word for a monastic value I want to last beyond its new year's resolution shelf life for me: Simplicity.

Poverty is not one of the Benedictine vows, which are Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Life (to the monastic way of life). A friend of mine once rejoiced (in jest, I think) that OHC, in changing from its older form of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, was putting aside chastity. But, of course, Not. Conversatio morum, conversion of life, encompasses the whole monastic program as known to Benedict, and is shorthand for the way of monastic life in general. So, chastity and poverty stay in.

As fraught as chastity may be in our modern church context, I think that in some ways poverty presents a greater challenge. People simply do not want to be poor. Being poor is looked on as an affliction, an affront to human dignity, something to be warred against, which is rather non-scriptural, actually. The monastic tradition, however, is a help here. Benedictines are not Franciscans. Which is to say, personal poverty aside, radical corporate poverty is not part of our ethos. Benedictines have things -- property, buildings, libraries, money. These things are held in common and used as necessity dictates. Less is more is the ethic, but not destitution. The famous Benedictine moderation is very much the way Benedictines have always lived, mutatis mutandis.

Having said that, however, we are still left with our modern dilemma. Ours is a culture which urges us to get what we want. Monks are not exempt from this cultural imperative. The idea of doing without is as difficult a sell within the cloister as without, except for a few exceptionally evolved ascetic souls. Suggesting that we might not have what we want, let alone what we need, is quite a hard sell in modern society. The word No is not heard very often.

And for good reason. We understand that to pray well, we must be well. An underfed or overtired or unhealthy body is a poor vehicle for prayer. Scientific understanding of human needs has made considerable progress since the early sixth century. So an ascetical regime based on the idea of deprivation alone is no longer viable. The ancients may have understood that the soul's capacity for contact with God increases as the body's strength diminishes, but that is not our understanding. Health and genuine well being are necessary for a good spiritual life.

So deprivation is not the path. But then, neither is having everything we want. Mary Margaret Funk, in her little book about Cassian called Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life, makes the good point that even Cassian did not recommend edgy practices about food, which might be a stand-in for our consumption practices in general:

"Refrain from eating too much, but also refrain from eating too little. Eat at the designated time. Refrain from eating before and after meals. Eat the type of food appropriate to the season and the geographic region in which I live. My menu should not be too rarified or too delicate, nor should I select foods that are inadequate for the body's sustenance. I should prefer a middle fare."

Taken as a general principle, this can point us in a healthy direction. The word we are searching for in this ascetic is not deprivation. The word is sufficient. Or adequate. Or enough. Eat, use, take what you really need. Leave the rest for others.

Most Americans have more than enough, and not just as regards food. Putting this ascetical practice into effect in all the areas of our life will probably result in a slimmer body, a cleaner house, a less-stuffed clothes closet. It may also result in less money spent, less debt, more savings, in fact, more material security.

I will be writing more about this. But it is a good way to begin the new year.