Thursday, February 26, 2009

To be an Oblate - Part 1

Lay people who choose to affiliate themselves with a monastery are most commonly called oblates. These people, in communion with the monastery and its values, hold up and support the monastery by their prayers, their works and their resources.

I am associated with Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Holy Cross is situated on the left bank of the beautiful Hudson River in the small township of West Park, approximately 100 miles north of New York City.

Across the river, you can watch the Amtrak train as it snakes its way between Poughkeepsie to the south and Albany to the north. You can also see the Vanderbilt Mansion, listed as a National Historic Site, National Park Service. It is located in Hyde Park, on the east bank of the Hudson.

The Order of the Holy Cross, of which Holy Cross Monastery is a part, was founded by Fr. James Otis Sargent Huntington in New York City in 1884. The Order is a Benedictine Anglican monastic community.

The community moved from New York City to Maryland before settling in West Park in 1902. The grounds comprise 2 Guest Houses, the Monastery Church of St. Augustine, and the Monastic Enclosure, which is the private residence of the Brothers.

The Order of Holy Cross is comprised of 4 houses in the United States, Canada, and Grahamstown, South Africa. One of the Order’s houses, which was located in Santa Barbara, CA, was recently destroyed by the wild fires that raged through southern California in the last months of 2008.

The brothers of Holy Cross live in community under the threefold vow of obedience, stability, and conversion to the Monastic way of life as stated in the Rule of St. Benedict. Their lives also reflect the rule of their Founder, Fr. James Huntington.

I first became aware of Holy Cross Monastery many years ago while attending a week long retreat on Gregorian chant at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, across the river in Rhinebeck, NY. It was there that a chance conversation over lunch led me to my first spiritual retreat at Holy Cross. It was given by Br. Andrew, a wonderful Scotsman who speaks with a delightful brogue. It was a Celtic retreat and we discussed Celtic spirituality, walked the labyrinth as a prayer tool and listened to Celtic music played on the harp by self-taught Br. Andrew himself. It was a wonderful, Spirit-filled retreat weekend. And I fell in love with the monastic life, especially as lived out by the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.

Since then, I have returned to Holy Cross Monastery many, many times. I have found peace, solitude, camaraderie, prayer and friendship there. I have studied, chatted, taken long walks in the woods and along the shore of the river, taken longer naps and eaten my share of wonderful food over the years. I have formed friendships with people who live within a few short miles of my home but whom I would never have met unless our paths had intersected at Holy Cross Monastery.

I have written a Rule of Life for myself, based on the Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life. At Holy Cross, I have pondered what it means to be a true disciple of Christ and I have been both challenged and encouraged to follow the path that the Lord has set before me, wherever that path may lead.

During the Easter Triduum 2004, I journeyed to Holy Cross to spend the three holy days in preparation for the great Resurrection celebration with the brothers and guests of Holy Cross Monastery. I was there to take a public vow to become an oblate, or as we are called at Holy Cross, an Associate.

I will never forget those three awesome, holy days. Good Friday was spent in silence. We were all assigned some small tasks to do during the day, in preparation for Easter. I was sent to the Sacristy to help polish brass candlesticks. We polished in silence. I spent time in the Great Hall, reading Scripture and spiritual books. We all read in silence. Whenever the church bell rang, summoning us to the Daily Office, we gathered in St. Augustine’s Chapel in silence, walking down the hallway to the Chapel, side by side with friends and fellow Retreatants, all with one purpose, to worship God in this holy place. We returned to the Great Hall, awaiting the dinner bell, filing into the Refectory in silence, eating in silence, clearing our places and returning our used dishes to the kitchen, in silence. We spent the evening in silence and retired to our rooms for the night in silence.

I found this enforced silence terribly difficult. Even if I don’t know someone or don’t feel the need to speak to someone as we pass in the hall, or share a spot on the couch in the Great Hall, I, at least, always look at the person and offer them a smile. I soon discovered that smiling at each other during a silent day was discouraged…
I felt awkward about this, as if I were denying my own nature and found myself seeking places throughout the Monastery where I would not encounter other people, to spare myself the discomfort of not smiling, not speaking.

I asked Br. Ron, my spiritual advisor at Holy Cross, about this ‘not smiling’ rule. He taught me about the monastic practice called “custody of the eyes”. He explained that since we speak so much through our eyes, our smiles, our presence, we must avoid the chance of breaking silence by being ‘drawn in’ to someone, that monastics learn to avoid looking into someone’s eyes during silent hours or silent days. Once I understood this, it seemed to make it so much easier the next time we were in a period of silence. I learned to just not look. I learned to not take it personally when someone didn’t look at me or return my smile. I learned custody of the eyes.

On Saturday, after breakfast, the silence of Good Friday was over. There was work to do. I helped fold bulletins for Easter morning worship. I polished some more brass candlesticks. I spent time in the Monk’s Cell Bookshop, browsing at books and chatting with the Brothers and guests. It was a happier, more up-lifting day than the somber, silence-filled Good Friday. I took a nap in the afternoon because I knew that Easter Vigil began at 4:00 a.m. outside in the chill of a March morning. And I knew that Saturday evening I would take my vows as an Associate of Holy Cross.