Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Simplicity in Santa Barbara - 1

As promised, I will begin more detailed posts on simplicity, space and contemplation, in particular about Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara and our life here.  At least as I see it.

First of all, I would say that my life is not as simple, after being here going on three months, as it was a few weeks after I arrived.   I have a few more responsibilities now: breakfast dishes, picking up the mail at the post office daily, keeping an eye on maintenance and workmen from the outside.   There are also other things, but they really have not changed my basic insight: That our monastic life here is actually fairly simple.

I have been pursuing the ideal of monastic simplicity for a long time.  What might that mean?  Does it mean less is more?  This, it seems to me, plays out on two fronts simultaneously: on the front of things and externals, and on the front of the will.

For some an ideology of simplicity in the monastic/religious life definitely implies poverty of a very literal sort.  Having nothing, wanting nothing, is supposed to set us free to be with God.  I sometimes find this appealing in an esthetic sense.  In my mind there is this sort of "Idea of the Monastic Cell": a very small room with a bare floor, an uncomfortable bed, an armless wooden straight-backed chair, not enough heat, and out of that is supposed to flourish an amazing encounter with God, bringing forth a rich interior life.  Well, that's exactly what I had when I joined the Order as a postulant 40 years ago this month.  The bed was rumored to be a reject from Sing Sing prison, and the metal slats overlaid with a 2-inch "mattress" caused me actual physical distress.  When the winter started I discovered I had no heat and an electric heater with an extension cord was found.  I did not find holiness in physical deprivation.  I decided then that I am not cut out to be a desert father, at least in their life of physical austerity.  It was not until I could have a decent night's sleep and enough heat that I could begin to settle down into the monastic life as OHC led it at that time.  So, learning number one about simplicity: You have to have enough.

For some, a monastic ideology of simplicity means redirecting the will through obedience.  The ancient advice, enshrined most notably in the Rule of St. Benedict, is that the monk finds Christ in obeying another, which is imitating Christ's obedience to the Father.  This is the basis and justification of the vow of obedience.  Christ was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.  Monks can at least do what they're asked to do by the head of the monastery, which is usually not as severe as what Christ was pointed toward.  In fact, every Christian is called into an obedient relation with God through Christ.  The tricky part, of course, is discerning what to be obedient to.  In the Rule it is Christ in the Abbot.  My experience is that religious superiors aren't much trained in being Christ to others.  The ones who really want to be Christ to others probably don't want to take an abbot's job, not least because we really do not know, cannot know fully, and so cannot ever really successfully embody, the nature of Christ.

How can anyone be Christ to another?  Without getting too abstruse, there are universes of assumptions in every Christian culture about who Christ was and is, about how his humanity manifested itself, and what the application of his example to the Christian, to the monk, might be.  Most often, of course, we don't ask the question and plow right ahead as though we already have an adequate understanding of who we are, much less of who Christ might have been.  In fact, we are largely mysterious to ourselves. And we have to reconstruct who Jesus of Nazareth might have been using history and literary criticism of the texts and cultural anthropology and so forth, discovering along the way that perhaps he wasn't what we think he was at all.  The work of Margaret Barker, as curious and off the beaten path as her Temple theology is, has opened my eyes to this: that what we have thought was going on in the time of Jesus is as much a projection of our own cultural concerns as it is genuine insight into His world and time and character.  It seems to me that one can only be Christ to another, become an abba, to the extent that one has allowed one's own life to be filled with Christ.  But how do we, twenty-first century people with our own understandings of self, how do we leave self behind and follow, be filled with, in some sense become, Christ?  I sometimes suspect this is the real reason why Benedict revered the hermit life: he would rather be seeking Christ himself than embodying Christ for others.

As regards monastic life as well.  Things change.   As with scripture, so with the historic Rules of monastic tradition: We look for our answers to a text not written for us.   What it meant to a sixth century Christian who wanted to be a monk might be significantly different to a twenty-first century Christian who wants to be a monk.  I do not find that holiness, closeness to God, comes from depending on a superior to organize my life.  That way, for me and for others I know, leads to passive dependency, which I do not want and no religious superior in his or her right mind wants either.  I do find that closeness to God comes from a fruitful interaction with an experienced, God-directed person who is first of all seeking the Kingdom.  There are plenty of fine leaders in the sense of building the institutions and ministries and activities of our daily life.  They are good and they do good.  But they are not always, perhaps not usually, abba-material.

The abba keeps his eye on the ball, which is: How does this get us closer to God.  The abba is not himself the center of that question: It is not about his desire, not his will.  The monk who is seeking God is the center of the question.  I count myself lucky to have encountered a couple of abba figures along my monastic road.  They were usually not the people in charge.  They cared about where we, which included themselves and myself and the others who were on this particular monastic journey together, where we were going in an ultimate sense.  They could point the way.  So, learning number two about simplicity: You have to have a direction.

So, simplicity requires at least two things -- already it is becoming complex!

First, it requires enough.  Without enough, a monk simply cannot concentrate.  Part of the monastic journey is to redefine enough for ourselves, and the technologies of asceticism are there to assist in that project.

Second, it requires direction.  Without direction, real God-direction, the monk is caught up in an institutional and missional machine, run by good-hearted people to build a monastic future worth having.  We must have institutions and all they imply.  We must have mission(s).  Without them we have neither the structure to provide "enough" nor the instruments to put our God-directionality into practice.  But because it is a continual dialogue between what has been and what we are trying to do, monastic life, Christian life today requires a program of interpretation, a hemeneutic. We can never assume that because we have read a text we understand it and can apply it ad literam to our situation.  Simply because we have read the texts does not empower legitimate obedience.

Perhaps in the paterfamilias culture of the sixth century, or the feudal culture of post-Carolingian Europe, or the authoritarian/Enlightenment culture of the post-Renaissance,  the communal situation was abbot-in-community.  Perhaps Benedict and others gathered communities around them as abbas because of their charismatic and Christ-filled lives and teaching.  Perhaps the abbot was central because of social convention.  But today most monks are drawn to the monastic life not because of an abba but because of a community that embodies the Godward direction they seek.  For this reason,  I think we now are much more in a position of equality in monastic community.  The I-and-others, abbot-and-monks, situation has become we: the leader, usually now much more the builder of institution and mission than an abba or a feudal lord, is also a seeker after God.  In our culture, obedience is mutual or it cannot be authentic.  

First for the monk then, and this is what monos means, first, the direction: Where does one want to go?  Whom does one seek?  Are the where and the who God?  Or are they displacements of less adequate goals?

Monastic simplicity is simple: The monk seeks enough so that (s)he may go looking for God.

And I'll tell you:  The enough part is both necessary and doable, a reachable goal.  The looking for God part is not reachable.  It requires a restless heart, an adventurous spirit, because what we thought was God yesterday is not adequate today, and certainly will not be tomorrow.  To be free to look for God, and to use that freedom to go where God may be: in a phrase, that is the monastic life.

At least that's what I think today!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Simplicity, Space and Contemplation

Today is the Feast of St. Benedict.  If you are into numbers, and I did grow up in Las Vegas, after all, the date is 7/11.  How lucky can you get?  I certainly feel lucky to have been called into the family of St. Benedict.  I hope others will experience that good fortune as well, and hope that some of them will be moved to join us here in Santa Barbara.

But "luck" is really just a construct we  place on reality, a projection of our desire and will onto apparently random occurrences.   Dice and slot machines and card games and roulette wheels are structures of chance (unless, of course they are fixed, which god forbid should ever happen in my old home town!).  It is possible to view the events of our life also as structures of chance, and many people do, not taking responsibility for choices, looking for divine or magical intervention when things don't go our way.  But Christian monastic life is not a roll of the dice.  It is a life choice leading a person into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ through liturgical prayer, study, work, community life, ascetic discipline and contemplation.  Benedict offers a way out of lives led in the misdirected hope of luck into lives purposefully directed toward the Kingdom on God.  No less.

So these reflections today are the beginning of a small series on three monastic values I have found to be especially striking here at our monastery in Santa Barbara: simplicity, space and contemplation.  I want to begin in this blog entry with a bit of prologue -- after all, the Prologue of the Rule of Benedict is what frames to whole text! -- and then over the next few days comment on each of these three values I find here.

I have been at Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, almost a full month now.  And some initial impressions about our monastic life here are becoming more settled -- no longer first impressions but observations about our life as monks here.  They come as something of a surprise to me.

The Holy Cross Benedictine monastic life that we lead here is different in some ways from the other monasteries of our Order.  The brothers who have developed it for the last four plus years and are living it now in some ways don't see it, because it has evolved, and when you are part of an evolution you don't notice as things develop in the same way as someone might who comes in from outside the process.  In some ways I feel that way, a monk from another monastic situation who has watched Mount Calvary Monastery from afar but has only recently arrived.  I find that both fascinating and heartening, since I am becoming part of it now.

Monastic life is always situational.  Usually when we reflect about monastic life we concentrate in a sort of abstract, nonspecific way on the personal aspect of the monk's promise of stability -- what does it mean for the inner life of a person to commit to a particular place, a particular group of people, a particular and unique form of monastic life.  We stress what that means for the life of the individual monk -- how it roots and grounds and specifies and particularizes his or her life, what it does for his or her character and personality and commitments and prospects and hopes and dreams and so forth.  But there is another aspect to it. Stability is always to something particular, something objective: This place, not that.   This community, not that one.  These people with this history and not those people with another history.  Those situations will shape the monastic identity of the monk and of communities of monks.  It makes a difference if you join Cluny or Citeaux, whether your monastery is near a big city or in productive agricultural land or in mountainous terrain, whether you join Collegeville or La Pierre qui Vire.  Those choices are very different, and will take your life in very different directions. 

So the situation in this monastery is different.  The property itself is both close in -- we are right next to the Old Mission, which is the center of Santa Barbara if anything is -- and very private.  It is big enough to be spacious, and enclosed in the sense that you really can't tell much about it from outside the entrance.  The buildings are different from what was "up the hill": instead of a single large structure, there are five -- two large houses, two small houses and a chapel, as well as several smaller utility structures.  There is a view off to the west and north through the canyon and up the hills. The grounds are fairly elaborately landscaped, with some spectacular species of trees and a small fruit orchard which is just getting going.  All this shapes the space and defines our lives as a monastery.  The space shapes us. 

The brethren have evolved a style of living which is perhaps best described as an adequate simplicity.  Nothing really necessary is lacking.  The attention given to the needs of life is quiet and unobtrusive.  There are some major health issues, but these are addressed without much drama.  Food is excellent but understated in its presentation.  We are content with normal clothing most of the time, but no big deal when habits are required.  We have three cars, but there isn't a lot of dashing off to do this or that.  Anxiety about things is fairly low.  I suspect this is because economically our objective situation is more or less sustainable for the size of community we are.  I know we will have to pay attention to its growth as we grow in size as a community, but it is an objective reality which promotes our desire for a simple adequacy.

Because we have a great staff and we let them get on with their work without a lot of looking over their shoulders, and also I suspect because we are all in what the French so charmingly call le troisième âge, there is lots of time for lectio and prayer.  This leads the community to a different emphasis than I have often encountered in other situations as a monk, including my time here in Santa Barbara in the 1980s.  So much in monastic life can be objectively structured to require the busyness of constant responsibility and work.  Here at least the objective situation works in the other direction, leaving more time for prayer than I am used to having.  Which is itself a challenge for me!

So ... the prologue.  An objective situation, unique in its own ways, leads to a particular manifestation of the monastic life.  More on these values of simplicity, space and contemplation, and perhaps some others as well, in the days to come.

Happy St. Benedict's Day.  Oh -- and we have a flock of ravens who live in the canyon!  How Benedictine can you get?  Though I have yet to see them go after the bread on our table!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Settling In

The trip west was mostly without incident.  I spent a week at the House of the Redeemer in New York City, seeing old friends once again.  Then on Monday, June 17, a United flight at noon from JFK to San Francisco.  It was delayed an hour, apparently because of a paperwork mixup.  That made us an hour late at SFO and so I missed the connecting flight to Santa Barbara, but that was not much of a problem as there is one every hour or two through the late afternoon and evening.  I was on the next flight, and Nick Radelmiller was at the airport to meet me.  We had a lovely dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, and then up to the monastery.

I was warmly greeted by all the brethren and their welcome made all the work involved in the move worthwhile.  Nick, Tom Schultz and Will Brown have held the fort for four plus years and have done a good job of it.  The place looks good, the ministry is solid, and the worship life is real.  More about all of that in subsequent posts.

The next five days or so were devoted to putting my room together.  I carted my professional library west with me, and it needed a place to go.  So much research about bookcases.  I settled on the cheap of the cheap, white particle board numbers from Target that cost $32.99 each for a 6-foot, 5 shelf case.  I knew from experience that you could add another shelf cut into the proper length at Home Depot, and so I set to work.  I'm not the strongest or most agile laborer in the western world, but one by one they got done, and the books placed, each collection in its own section: Anglo-Saxon, Classical and Late Antiquity, monasticism, Bible, spirituality, literature, French and Spanish, music and art, church history.  They all more or less fit on the shelves (some of them are double).  It actually looks great!  Then fitting the art and objects of a lifetime around a new room.  I love the room.  It has four windows, facing west and north, a door with a window to the deck outside, its own bathroom. It is in fact quite lovely and I feel quite at home in it already.

The other acclimating experience in a new monastery is, of course, the schedule.  It is more relaxed, more spacious, than West Park.  7:30 Lauds, 8:00 breakfast, 8:45 OHC community chapter, then the morning is open for work or whatever.  Noon is the Eucharist, 12:30 dinner, then the afternoon is open.  5:00 Vespers, 6:00 supper, 8:00 Compline.  There is a lot more open time for lectio and quiet, which I am enjoying a lot.

I have charge of breakfast dishes, and have been given some maintenance tasks to do.  I have been in and around Santa Barbara enough now to notice what is different from years ago.

It is beginning to feel like home.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Heading West

The last couple of months, roughly since the last post, have been a sort of blur of activity for me.

In the course of the early part of this year the Order decided to purchase St. Mary's Retreat House from the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity (SHN), and committed in a pretty definite way to remaining in the West, and in Southern California in particular.  This was quite gratifying to me, as I have spent 25 years of my life in California, first in Berkeley at CDSP for 3 years, then in Santa Barbara for 11, back to Berkeley for 2, and Anaheim for 9.  So I was happy when the process led to the decision for me to move back to Santa Barbara this summer.

Back to Santa Barbara.  Well, "back" in the sense of returning to the geographical location.  But of course everything else has changed.  Our former monastery there burned completely to the ground in the Tea Fire in November, 2008, and OHC has devoted a lot of our energies since then to discerning what to do in its wake.  I think that process, while lasting 4 and a half years, has been careful and responsible.

The first reality was that we lost everything in that fire except the people.  The data backup disk, the ancient tin painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the emergency suitcases of the brothers were basically all that was rescued.  I asked one of the brothers shortly after the fire what were his feelings about losing everything, and he said something surprising: It was a relief.  All that "stuff" was gone and he had none of the guilt or angst about deciding to get rid of any of it.  A form of liberation.  I think it is that sense of liberation that has made the remarkable progress of OHC in Santa Barbara since then possible.

The second reality was that SHN welcomed the brothers on that fateful day and opened their house and hearts to us in truly unexpected ways.  The sisters had already realized that because of their diminishing numbers they could not continue personally to run the retreat ministry there, and soon offered us St. Mary's as a new home to continue our monastic life and ministry.  The brothers who remained there - Nicholas Radelmiller, Tom Schultz, Laurence Harms, Roy Parker and Will Brown - worked hard and with success to re-establish the monastic life as OHC lives it and to rebuild the retreat business.  Roy eventually moved to West Park.  This work has proven that OHC can continue in Santa Barbara in our new situation.  

The third reality is that OHC as a whole had to come to a sense of what we wanted going forward.  At more or less the same time OHC opened a new school in South Africa, a kindergarten through third grade school for the disadvantaged rural children we have come to know and love around our Grahamstown monastery.  We have begun to face in practical ways the fact that many of our members are getting older and to do something about that.  We have finally found (we think) a satisfactory answer to the roof problems which have plagued the 1965 monastery building at West Park.  And we have been living seriously into our Benedictine commitments, which seem to be leading us in the direction of empowering individual houses to focus and grow more on the local level in terms of ministry, formation and finance.

The Chapter has considered the progress of the Santa Barbara situation in depth every year since, watching the various possibilities unfold and carefully deliberating what the course of our future there should be.  In 2012 we came to a consensus to remain if we could, and entrusted the process from that point to the Superior and Council.  A lot of hard work went into the details.  In January OHC bought St. Mary's from SHN, and in April the property "up the hill" was sold.  The cross from the old Mount Calvary garden has been brought down the hill, and after the numerous permissions required by the Santa Barbara civic entities have been obtained, it will be erected in the gardens of our new monastery.  The new monastery, for reasons of legal continuity, is to be called Mount Calvary.  The old Mount Calvary was always Mount Calvary Retreat House.  The new is Mount Calvary Monastery.  A subtle but important difference.

The erection of the cross and the the name embody a degree of continuity.  But something new is happening, something important for us and for our thousands of friends in the West.  The decision to remain in Santa Barbara is a decision not to replicate the past but to build something new.  I am excited to be joining our community there because we are in a process of rethinking our monastic life and practices: to be a monastery first, a monastery out of which retreat and other ministries grow.  At the former Mount Calvary it was the other way around: the community existed first to service the ministry.  We fitted our monastic life in and around the spaces left by that ministry.  I think our Benedictine identity is going to help us envision a stronger community and individual monastic life, and in that energy to realize that our retreat, preaching and teaching, spiritual direction and outreach ministries will grow out of our monastic life and reflect its values and energies. 

So I am charged up.  I am going back but not "back".  Back to that lovely part of the world.  But not "back" to what once was.  That is gone.  We are in a different place, literally and figuratively.  And so I expect are the many friends I enjoyed in California before I moved to New York in 2001.  My life has moved on and so have their lives.  It will be lovely to re-establish old bonds and make new ones.  It will be exciting to live into our monastic development. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Year in Sermons

For some years the Holy Cross sermon blog has been publishing sermons by members of the community at West Park.  I have been happy to be part of that enterprise.  In time there will be sermons by the community for most if not all the Sundays and occasions of the 3-year lectionary cycle.  It gives as well an interesting look at the thinking and expression of a spectrum of people preaching at West Park, though not quite all, since some of our best preachers don't always preach from a manuscript, and so their offerings are not able to be included.

I imagine some who might read this blog also check out the Holy Cross Monastery website and link to the sermon blog from there.  You can also use the link above.  But for those who don't, here are links to my sermons from the last 12 months or so, which I thought might be of interest to those who might follow me here, and also to show that I have not been completely off the reservation during my long absence from this blog.

Easter 3B  April 22, 2012

Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012

Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2012

All Saints Day, November 1, 2012

The Solemnity of Fr. Huntington, November 27, 2012
This was also published, with an introductory essay, in the Order's Holy Cross News edition for 2013, which focused on the topic of the desert.

Lent 3C, March 3, 2013

Easter 3C, April 14, 2013

Those who know me know that I love to preach. I hope that love comes through in these very different sermons.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Rest of Geneva

Four months, almost to the day, since I promised to blog again.  I have an average of 7 hits a day on a blog that hasn't posted in four months.  Talk about faithful!  Or maybe (probably) they are set on automatic to see what might come up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, which, among other things, celebrates the community gathered around Jesus and continuing in fellowship ever since.  Not a bad day to take up the communication again, sharing with the little community of this blog. 

I promised to say something about the rest of my experience in Geneva.  It was wonderful.  I found more new friends and enjoyed the parish a lot.  I had dinner out several times.  I visited Lausanne and Bern.  I spent four nights in Zurich at a great-priced Priceline hotel and visited St. Gall and Einsiedeln.  I spent the better part of a day at the Fondation Martin Bodmer, one of the great collections of books and manuscripts in the world.  The parish had its annual picnic at the house of a member family that had a huge lawn running down to the lake. 

Particularly fun was the Sunday we celebrated the youth and children's ministries.  The gospel that day was the story about the disciples out in a boat on the lake in a storm and Jesus asleep on a cushion in the front of the boat.  We -- the kids and I -- acted out the story, forming a boat, putting Jesus -- our Jesus was nominated by the kids -- on a cushion in front.  We swayed and moaned and pretended to barf out the side of the "boat" and generally had a good time of it.  Then I asked the kids how they felt about Jesus sleeping through all of it, and one of them got up and kicked "Jesus" in the butt.  It brought down the house!  What fun that day was!

The last Saturday I was there I arranged to visit the ancestral village of some of my mother's relatives -- the Mohneys, my mother's mother's father's line.  I am named for that gentleman, Adam Mohney.  He was the male figure in my mother's early life, as her father had been killed (and the family left without pension) while he was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad a few months before she was born in 1919.  In their Swiss days they were known as Manni.  Busy family genealogists (online!) had traced them back to the village of Dotzigen, in the Canton of Bern, a little south of Biel, on the River Aar.  Apparently they left around 1685 or so, moved to the Alsace and then around 1710 emigrated to Philadelphia.   Parishioners of Emmanuel, Samuel and Helena Mbele-Mbong and their grandson, volunteered to drive and we had a perfectly wonderful day.  Samuel is a retired official of the United Nations weather service in Geneva.  I had contacted the pastor of the local Swiss Reformed parish, a combination of four villages with two church buildings, who could not spend much time with us (the mayor had just died and much pastoral work and planning needed to be done) but found us a terrific guide in the person of Manfred Baumgartner, retired from the Swiss telephone company and treasurer of the four-village parish.  He was absolutely wonderful, and guided us around Dotzigen and the area, and even introduced us to a couple there who had us in for coffee.  The husband grew up in Southern California, and had been to Mount Calvary as a teenager!  Talk about a small world.

As Manfred explained it, Dotzigen and the three other villages are on the edges of a roughly circular plain that used to flood every few years.  The soil there is rich, but the hardships on the farmers at flood time there were great.  The river was finally re-channeled in the 1890s, but I think I have an idea why these ancestors of mine left.  They were probably tired of the insecurity of it all.

What a wonderful time all of us had that day!  I owe a great debt of thanks to the Mbele-Mbongs!

One other thing deserves mention.  A member of the staff of the parish discovered that her Swiss visa was about to expire.  The severity of the Swiss government response to her application to remain in the country where she had lived, studied and worked for a long time came as a surprise.  Immigration is a huge issue in Switzerland, as in other Western European countries.  They, being Swiss, have a different take on this sort of process than we have in the US.  In my experience working in Hispanic ministry in Anaheim and East Harlem the US approach is draconian in theory but the INS is so slow in doing its work (I hesitate to use the word incompetent, but I only hesitate a bit) that often years go by and lives are established and processes have to be adjusted from time to time to accommodate the human realities of people's lives.  Not so in Switzerland.  One ignores deadlines at one's peril.  One makes a mistake in one's application and one receives that interestingly detached look that Swiss bureaucrats cultivate.  One receives a first response and then tries to change it and one discovers that rules are not meant to facilitate one's own life.

There is an upside to all this efficiency, of course.  Everything is clean.  Everything runs as it is supposed to run.  There is an awesome honesty to Swiss public affairs, and a real righteousness in public dealings.  I am not making fun of this.  I really loved it.  But.  The downside of public efficiency is that when it concerns one personally, one discovers how very thorough it can be.  My understanding is that she received a grace period and had to be gone last fall.