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.