Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Manger

Christmas is coming here at the monastery. Yesterday we put up the manger. It is a manger that reflects our place in the world. It is made of thin branches to look something like a log cabin. Evergreen boughs are then used to decorate it all around. A painted scene of an angel announcing good news provides the backdrop.
Then this morning we had the grand procession immediately after Morning Prayer.

Several sisters went into a closet and carefully brought out all the actors in the divine play. Sr. Clarissa stood in from of the manger and took each statue and carefully placed it in the tableaux. There are sheep, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, a crib and finally, in the crowning moment Baby Jesus is placed in the crib.

It has taken me a while to get used to our nativity scene. I confess (and ask absolution) for my comments that it looked like we had “the little manger in the north woods.” Somehow it seemed so culturally incorrect, the very Northern European looking holy family, a manger that might reflect Idaho but not Bethlehem, not to mention some very odd looking sheep who seemed poised to gaze adoringly at the child.

But I have finally figured out (I’ll admit I’m a slow learner) that what I had seen as “cultural incorrectness” is precisely the point. If we re-create a scene from history, something from far-off, long-ago Bethlehem, then we can feel like we are off the hook. If the manger is only history then the birth of Christ happened far from our modern concerns. But that isn’t how it works. God is being born again into our culture, our time, our lives. Christ is being born again, now, here, in our lives. The vulnerability of God, the incarnation, takes on our flesh. The baby in the manger isn’t only a story in history, it is a story of today. The manger is in Idaho, the manger is in your heart.

As if that all wasn’t enough it is true that Christ is still being born on the margins. God comes in unexpected, difficult guises and is recognized by people who are not recognized by society. Jesus was born in the middle of nowhere in a cow stall. Where is he being born today? Who are the people we ignore, look down on, don’t have time for? What are the aspects of our deepest selves that we try to ignore, suppress or deny? Be careful, those are the places of incarnation.

So now I think that perhaps the problem is not that our traditional manger scene with evergreens and pink-cheeked babies is culturally incorrect but that it is not culturally incorrect enough. Maybe those of us who are sometimes slow to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation need something a little more shocking. Maybe the manger needs to have characters who look oddly like the people I live with in a stable with two twin towers.

That’s the point isn’t it? Wherever we are to say: Behold, God is born in our midst.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Monastery Time: Feast Days

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In most places and for most people these Catholic feast days probably pass with little notice. It is just another work day, a feast day that may not even be noticed. But in the monastery time has a different meaning. Part of the purpose of a monastery is to sanctify time, to hold in deep awareness the alternative reality of the liturgical year with its feasts and seasons.

On a major feast day like this everything is a little different at the monastery, time has a different feel. There are multiple small indications that this day is special, set apart. Often we start prayer later than usual, a reminder that this day is unusual. Everyone dresses up on the major feast days, there are skirts and nice blouses. On a day like today, a Marian feast, there seems to have been a secret memo that went out for everyone to wear blue, Mary’s color. In the hallway, in the refectory, everyone wishes everyone a “happy feast day.”

In the chapel there are special decorations, altar clothes, flowers, the candles are color coordinated. Even the prayer books are different. There is a “feast day” book which marks the celebrations that are apart from the ordinary days. Even the meals reflect the altered sense of time and occasion. The special “Sunday” plates are put out. There is a treat of pie and ice cream at dinner. One some feast days the tables are decorated with cloth table clothes and decorations that reflect the feast.

The special days and times are set apart, they are consecrated through our actions, our behavior, our acknowledgment of the gift of this day. Today we remember the mystery of Mary’s conception without sin. In our rituals we make space in our lives, in our hearts, in our thoughts to ponder, to reflect, to be present to this mystery.

Monastic life is about creating theses little oases of time and space. Together, through this way of life we can acknowledge the holiness of time. In coming together to pray, in acknowledging feast days, in the tangible practices that remind us of the holiness of a particular day we create a way of life that emphasizes the presence of holy.

Maybe this different sense of time is one of the gifts of monastic life to the world. In a world that seems to run at a frantic pace, when for most people time represents the tyranny of the urgent, the monastery is a witness of a different reality. In the midst of the ordinary, on an otherwise undistinguished day, we stop, pause, give thanks and remember. Today is holy. Today we give thanks for the mystery of Mary. Today is a gift, let us rejoice.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monastery Advent

In his Rule Benedict says that the entire life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. He never mentions Advent, but I suspect that the same principle applies.

In Advent we wait for a new birth of God in our lives. Sounds simple, but you may think about it and ask, “isn’t God already in our lives?” Perhaps that is the question of Advent. Is God truly in our lives? Is God a compelling presence in our lives or is God like a piece of our spiritual furniture that we take so for granted that we barely see it any more?

The God of Advent is not a comfortable God, not a God of complacency and easy reassurance. In Advent we are told that everything is about to change. The fortunes of the oppressed will be reversed, God will restore Jerusalem, a savior will be born.

In the monastery we prepare for this coming in silence, waiting and anticipation. We ritualize this sense of preparation as we enter deeply into the profound listening that characterizes Advent.

At the beginning of Advent we went to our woods to cut the boughs for the Advent wreath. In the cold and snow evergreen branches are a sign of continuing life, green in the midst of a landscape that appears to be sleeping. Many volunteers then gather to form the boughs into a wreath. Advent is not a solitary event, it is a communal endeavor, God comes in the presence of many people, into the midst of our world. And so we work together, on behalf of the world to construct the wreath, the sign of our waiting and hope.

The Advent wreath is about three feet and diameter and is suspended on ropes from the ceiling. It hangs in the middle of chapel above the readers stand. Like the wreath we are suspended in time and space during Advent. It is a time of waiting, watching, being silent and open, neither here nor there as we await the new coming of God. The wreath is round, a circle that has no beginning or end. It is a symbol of eternity, our God who is beyond all human measurement of time and space but who will come and be born in humility and limitation into human reality.

The wreath is suspended above the Advent candles of the four weeks of Advent. When we gather for Evening Praise we begin in darkness. After the clock chimes we sing, still in the dark: “holy darkness, blessed light, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight, as we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” The leader lights the candle and prayer begins.

Darkness is very appropriate for Advent. We wait without seeing, without understanding exactly what will happen, we wait in hope and trepidation. What will happen will be the initiative of God. It is our job to be still, to be open and let God come in God’s own time. As we light the candles we manifest our hope and assurance that God has come, is present and will come again into the darkness of our lives and our world.

These are profound mysteries and so during this season of Advent we set aside time to cultivate this attitude of silence and waiting. In the afternoons there is a special time set aside for lectio, the Benedictine practice of prayerful reading. It is a time to let go of the frantic busyness that this season tends to evoke and to be still, listening in hope for the coming of our God who will make all things new.