Monday, December 21, 2015

Holidays: Get ready, you won't recognize anything!

Reflections by Brother Luke

            Celebrating Christmas in America is so familiar to all of us that we can easily be swept up by all the fanfare. With Christmas carols on the radio and TV specials filled with warm and romantic images of holiday cheer, we are hard-wired to respond to all these influences without even thinking about it. Even in church, that 19th-century British creation of “Lessons and Carols” has become a standard for Christmas liturgy in many churches and a staple of radio broadcasting.

When I first came to New Skete in 1995, Brother James used to joke with newcomers that our celebration of Christmas would not have any of the familiar carols, so, “Get ready, you won’t recognize anything!”  For me that wasn’t totally true, since I had been going to the Orthodox Church for my entire adult life, and I was familiar with many of the traditional Christmas hymns used in the Orthodox Church. But for some, this time that is filled with memories of childhood expectations and family gatherings may leave one with a feeling of being at sea with the unfamiliar.

In the face of this somewhat disorienting reality, New Skete has a long tradition of bringing our entire monastic community together for a festive Christmas feast. In fact, we stretched out this festal meal concept to cover not just Christmas but Thanksgiving and the January 6th feast of Theophany. For many years all three of these meals were held at the monks’ monastery. However, at the turn of the new century we decided to revision these events and have each of our three communities host one of them. At first we rotated, so one year we might have Thanksgiving at the nuns, Christmas at the companions, and Theophany at the monks. The next year we might start at the monks with Thanksgiving, proceed to the nuns for Christmas, and go to the companions for Theophany. However, one year when we had scheduled the Christmas meal at the monks, we had a blizzard and the nuns could not get up our road in their vehicle for the meal, so the monks drove down to the nuns’ monastery and picked up the sisters and brought them up to the monks’ monastery.  After that experience we decided that the safest arrangement, considering the vagaries of the weather, was to always have Thanksgiving at the monks, Christmas at the nuns, and Theophany at the companions.

            As time passed the companions’ community was no longer able to manage a big community festal meal at their monastery, so we decided to schedule the Theophany meal as an occasion for the communities to go out to a restaurant. The last few times we did this, we went to the West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vermont.  It was a wonderful outing and the restaurant was still decked out in Christmas decorations even on January 6th. It was a great opportunity to enjoy a meal without having to also do the cooking and clean-up.

But it wasn’t home, and some of our members found it increasingly difficult to travel to restaurants on dark winter nights that could be snowy. So we decided to try something different. With Thanksgiving the meal the monks prepared and hosted, and Christmas the meal the nuns prepared and hosted, we thought we would share the responsibilities for the Theophany meal. So we divided up the menu between the monks and the nuns and decided to hold the meal at the nuns’ monastery.  This meant that neither house had to shoulder the entire burden of preparing and cleaning up after the meal. We did this until a few years ago when a friend of the community offered to donate that meal. She had eaten at a local restaurant and enjoyed her meal so much that she wanted us to have a similar experience. It was up to us decide when to take her up on her offer, and we decided to have that meal for our Theophany feast day.  As we had been doing for several years, this meal is hosted by the nuns, but the food is all from a local restaurant: Foggy Notions. And we are looking forward to doing this again in 2016.

So we have moved a long way from having all three of these fall and winter feasts at the monks’ monastery. We have found new ways to accommodate our new circumstances and to live out the Christmas message of new birth and renewed hope for the future. And we do recognize in this something that is truly part of the Christmas tradition: a celebration of new life and new possibilities. Although our hymns may not be well known across America, the theme is still the same. One of my favorite texts:

“What can we offer you, O Christ, for coming to earth as a man because of us? The creatures you fashioned offer you their grateful thanks: the angels bring their hymns of praise, while the heavens offer you a star; the magi present gifts and the shepherds, amazement; the earth offers a cave, and the wilderness, a manger, while we present you with your virgin mother. O God who are before the ages have mercy on us.”

The Challenge of Thanksgiving

 By Brother Christopher

“Always be joyful, pray always, give thanks to God for all things...” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

            Thanksgiving is a national holiday, one we collectively celebrate to give thanks for all of God’s blessings. But in thinking about the deeper significance of what we celebrate, I wonder if we often don’t keep the holiday on a superficial level: God gives us good things—blessings—and these are the things that we are grateful for. From a Christian perspective, however, the meaning of thanksgiving goes so much deeper, and it carries with it a profound challenge: we are to give thanks to God for all things. All things. How do we do that precisely? honestly? In a like manner, when Jesus tells us in the Gospel “do not worry,” how do we do that? Is it really possible? At face value, it can sound simplistic, pie-in-sky, naive. We know that we live in a dangerous world. All we have to do is think of the recent shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, the bombing of the Russian jet, the terrorism being fomented by ISIS. Or we could consider all the possible medical trials we could face: cancer, heart disease, the complications of diabetes. Then there is the economy and the economic pressures we face. Recently I was speaking with someone who said that his financial advisor had told him the alarming news that at the rate he was going, he would be broke in two years. Consequently he was facing serious decisions that would radically alter his living situation. Or what about the plight of the homeless? Have we ever considered what it would be like to be on the street... or even a refugee? Are they to be blamed for their plight? In the face of these and many other potential dangers, how do we not fall into anxiety and worry? Because Jesus’ instruction to us in the Gospel is in the imperative: Do not worry. It is a command. How can we do that?

            I believe the answer comes in realizing and owning the radical nature of our faith. Christianity is the most profoundly counter-cultural of religions. It stares down life in all its complexity: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the tragic, and it trusts that each moment of life can bring us into ever deeper knowledge and communion with God, who is ever present in all that we go through. That is what is most fundamental. We simply need to train ourselves to be mindful of this reality. This is the work of our spiritual practice, and it takes place throughout our life. 

            True faith is profoundly counter-cultural. It has no room for cynicism because it is planted in a continual act of trusting God, in trusting that God will be present with us in the vast expanse of life’s experiences, always leading us into deeper and deeper relationship. There is never an experience in life that is totally without meaning, for God is always present, always leading us forward. I think of a passage from Psalm 122: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help? My help comes only from the presence of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  The real question is not whether God is present to us, but whether we are present to God?

            The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia, from which we get our eucharist. What we do every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy is to thank God for all things, to express through its mystery our total trust in God’s provident care, and to allow God to bring us into an ever deepening communion, both with God and with each other. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Homily for Sister Brigid

“For I know that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

          Whenever someone we love dies, especially a parent, all sorts of images and memories flood into one’s consciousness: for me at least, happy memories of past Christmases, shared vacations, various family celebrations, and the graced moments of support, encouragement, and love. Then there are the sad memories, of the various arguments and misunderstandings, the inevitable trials of family life, the examples of human weakness. At a time such as this, there is the temptation is to get stuck in the swirl and turbulence of memory and all the while miss the forest through the trees, to not see the overriding reality that was present in the loved one’s life.

          I never asked my mother what she wanted me to preach about on her passing, but I feel really confident in knowing what she wouldn’t want me to dwell on: her. Instead, she’d want me to focus on what gave her life meaning amidst any sort of confusion, hope in the face of very real sadness, and joy that could withstand any of life’s challenges. For her, this was embodied in the person of Jesus, and it was the love that she experienced in that relationship that allowed her to believe in the enduring worth of the Gospel and its impact on our lives.

          I’d like to respect my mom’s wishes and not make this a eulogy. Fair enough. However, I hope she’ll forgive me if I use several concrete images from her life to illuminate the theme that we celebrate this morning: renewal and our faith in the resurrection. Because faith in this is more than simply a “head” experience of believing that Jesus rose. Rather, I believe we are able to feel that connection, to believe in renewal and resurrection because we witness its reality blossoming forth oh so ever close in our daily lives.

          The first image of renewal I’d like to use is my parents’ house in Salem. As I mentioned last night, my mother had been an interior decorator and it was her dream to restore an old house and bring it to renewal, to new life. For four years my parents did precisely that. My mom was the animating force behind the project and the end result was something quite lovely and beautiful. However, I think something deeper was going on in the work. I think my mom was giving witness to the renewal that had happened in her own life, the renewal that the Lord had engineered. See, my mom’s early life wasn’t easy -- it involved wrestling with some very serious issues, and the house was a sign of her faith that what was broken could be renewed, healed, and that the process happened from inside out, with loving care.

          Which is why she never could give up on the human possibility to change. She simply believed that was how God saw it: God never gives up on us. As the Gospel for today says, “this is the will of the one who sent me: that I should not lose anything that was was given to me.”  This expressed itself in the second image of resurrection I’d offer: of a young, learning disabled teenager that my parents basically adopted after my mother discovered him one morning at daily mass. His name was Vernon and he was a runaway. She brought him home that day, fed him, heard his story (one filled with abuse and mistreatment) and then spoke with my father about offering him a place to stay. As it turned out, they became his legal guardians and he stayed with them for five years. In that time he was able to get his GED and become able to live independently. While both my parents were involved in Vern’s transformation, it was particularly my mom’s faith in our ability to change and her maternal love that was crucial in making that happen for Vern. More importantly, it was a sign of how God brings about resurrection and renewal throughout the course of our lives: through human love and compassion.

          The last image of resurrection is more paradoxical, perhaps even eschatological. It is my mom’s experience of Alzheimer’s. During the five years that my mom struggled with this disease, she was gradually stripped of everything -- most strikingly her ability to communicate naturally. She handled that with uncommon grace and courage, so that by the end, she became so poor that I believe she was able to receive the fullness of the Kingdom at her death. The most powerful aspect of Christian dying is realizing that Jesus is completely intimate to it. Jesus died... and was raised... and because of that he understands all of what we go through in our human journey. What will it feel like for each of us when, upon our death, we look into the eyes of Jesus and know that we are completely known... and loved... and that he has been with us in all our moments of suffering? It’s in light of that, that the words from this morning’s first reading are so meaningful: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines... on this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples... he will destroy death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

          Brigid has passed into eternal life. And if I could imagine her saying anything to us this day it would be that every step of the way was worth it. May your memory be eternal dearest mother.

Ombra Does It Again: Seven Puppies

By Brother Gregory

Ombra was beginning to get really big, and time was getting very close to birthing her puppies. This would be Ombra’s second litter. She was bred to Kahn, and the two were a good match; Ombra took a liking to Kahn, and they got ties during the breeding. Her x-ray showed a possible seven puppies, but we were not quite sure about that seventh puppy. Going to bed that Saturday, I knew this was probably going to be a sleepless night, but off the lights went in my cell with Ombra and Lena, my other dog. Sure enough, Ombra would go in and out of her crate during the night, periodically scratching the crate, doing her nesting. Auntie Lena, as I called her, would come over to my bed to let me know what was going on, looking with her wet nose for my face or a foot or hand sticking out from the blankets. OK, Lena, I got the message! On the bedroom light would go, then off again, and this went on for most of the night. But at 2:30 Sunday morning I’d had enough. I got dressed and brought Ombra over to her whelping room in the puppy kennel. If I had to lose sleep, so was someone else, so I knocked on Br Luke’s door, and he went off to the kennel office, where there is a fluffy couch to sleep on. For me, it was a truly monastic experience, with a spiritual book and with Ombra doing nothing but just walking around the room and jumping into the whelping pen. At 10 Sunday morning, we examined Ombra and decided that she was not going to have the puppies any time soon, so it was suggested that I get some sleep and just leave her alone. At 12 noon, Br Marc knocked on my cell door and told me to get up and go help Br Luke—he had discovered that while no one was there, Ombra had had three puppies and was nursing. Dazed and amazed, I jumped out of bed, dressed, and hurried over to the kennel, hoping that Ombra and the puppies were OK. All was fine: Br Luke and Sr Pat Cassidy, a nurse, were tending to Ombra’s needs, and she was licking the three puppies she had birthed all alone: amazing! During the afternoon, Ombra had three more puppies, all big ones. So now we had six puppies—but what about the seventh? Nothing was happening. The x-rays had not been clear about a seventh puppy, so at 5 that afternoon we decided to leave Ombra and check on her later. She was getting tired, and she needed to rest. Well…Br Luke went over to the kennel around 9 that evening, and sure enough, Ombra had had the seventh puppy. There she was, appearing to be very happy with her litter, cleaning and licking her seven babies. Before going to bed that Sunday night, I wrote on the community board, “Ombra, six puppies.” When I awoke that Monday morning and passed by the community board, the word “six” had been changed to “seven.” Later that morning, I visited the new mother, and there was Ombra looking very much in control and very happy with her new babies, just enjoying motherhood. What a trouper!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What’s Cooking? … or Rather Who’s Cooking?

Reflections by Brother Luke

When I entered the Monks of New Skete back in 1995, all the monastery cooking was done by monks. Even the abbot pitched in from time to time, since he also loved food and loved to cook. After all, the monastery table was a central part of our life and the core of the tradition of monastic community and hospitality, so it was unthinkable that someone other than monks would prepare the food. After we turned the corner into the new century, monks were still the cooks. Brothers Elias, John, James, and Peter took turns at the stove. And the Italian roots of Father Laurence and Brother Elias were still very much in evidence on our monastic table.  However, as we moved further into the 21st century and witnessed the change in our house demographics, we realized that we were going to have to make some changes in the way we managed our community meals.

With our abbot retired and Brother James moving on to become a parish priest in Georgia, we were down two cooks. Brothers David and Marc stepped into the breach and joined the cooking crew. We also pressed the so-called “non-cooks” into service: these were the brothers who set tables and washed dishes. Now they rotated in on Saturday nights as cooks. I was one of those “non-cooks.” Saturday meals brought together all three communities and their guests at the monks’ monastery for dinner, so the menus tended to be fairly simple. This arrangement held for several years.

At about this time we hired a woman to help with housecleaning chores, and she had a friend (later to become her husband) who was a professional cook. He was looking for part-time work, and she suggested that he inquire about cooking for us. When he first talked with us, we were not ready to hire anyone to prepare meals for us. However, the health of some of the cooks was limiting the amount of time they could devote to cooking, and we finally crossed the Rubicon of denial about our need for help and turned to the professional cook. So Bill Smith became our cook. But he needed only part-time work so we devised a strategy whereby he would prepare meals for three days and the monks would cover the other days. We also experimented with some other employees to serve as cooks to fill in the gaps. It was definitely a makeshift arrangement, but it worked for many years.

Bill was an accomplished chef, and I was always in awe watching him prepare meals. He could work with whatever was available and make a meal out of it. And he was fast!  I kept my hands in my pockets watching him cut up fresh vegetables. His knife moved so fast that the process was all a blur. He had worked for institutions that required special diets, so he had no problem accommodating to some changes in our diet. This was useful when we decided bring in a heart doctor to talk to us about healthy eating habits, and this led to changes in our menus. But nothing lasts forever, and a few years ago Bill and Nancy, his wife, decided to move to Maine, so we needed to find another cook.

Bill had suggested a person he had heard about, so we took his advice and interviewed Scott Sztorc. He was mainly self-trained as a cook, but he had held some cooking jobs in the area. We engaged him on a trial basis, and the brothers were impressed with his creativity. So we hired him. His meals were always superb, and the variety of dishes was remarkable. While Bill had wanted only a limited part-time job, with Scott we agreed to different terms and more hours. Bill had prepared dishes in advance, and the brothers did the final preparation and served the meals. With Scott we wanted him to prepare and serve the meals. We had finally moved totally away from the idea that meal preparation must be done by monks. Now the only monk left preparing meals was Brother John on Scott’s days off.

When Scott was brought in to cook, we also had entered into a new era of sponsoring more retreats and seminars, which included some meals. So cooking demands increased. To manage this we needed help from volunteers and other employees. On the days of these special events, the kitchen became a beehive of activity, with the numbers of outside help dwarfing the monastic component. What a sea change from the earliest days of the Monks of New Skete, when it was not unusual for one monk to cook all meals for extended periods: months and even years.

What goes around comes around, and we have now entered a new era in which the cooking arrangement has changed yet again. After reviewing our budget we realized that we really couldn’t afford to have a full-time cook, which was essentially what the position had evolved into. So we had to let Scott go, and we turned to Brother Marc to take on the full-time cooking responsibilities with the help of one part-time cook, Joshua Elliott. So now Brother Marc supervises all cooking and meal planning and is the cook for Saturday and Sunday meals. And he has delved back into our files of recipes and recovered some of Brother Elias’s favorite recipes for use again.  For those who may be interested in knowing what some of these recipes are like, they are included in the New Skete Chapel Community Cookbook, which is available from the monastery gift shop or directly from the Chapel Community. So what’s cooking is good healthy food, and who’s cooking is once again a monk with some help from very able and cheerful employees. And we welcome you to our table whenever you can come as guests. 


By Brother David

Silence is the language of God.
All else is poor translation.   (Rumi)

We recently (October 17, 2015) had an excellent retreat about silence.  We talked a lot about silence.  A lot.  Then we heard a piano concert with Mr. Haskell Small, who performed his piece A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours as well as Bach’s B minor Partita, with an encore of “For Aline” by Arvo Pärt.  (Terrific concert!)  So we said a lot about silence—in PowerPoint and Symphony (for the Mac users) no less!  And heard music about silence.  So, where was the silence in all this talk and presentations and concertizing?

At this point I had considered presenting you, dear reader, with two and a half pages of single-spaced blank with a final statement: “There! There’s silence!”  I decided against that for three reasons:

1: It wouldn’t be silence; it would be only blank space.
2: It would be intellectually lazy.
3: Anna, who does our editing, and Ida, who puts the newsletter together, would both have given me a pretty emphatic “Not cool, Br David, not cool” or words to that effect.

So, what about silence?

First of all, I’d like to make a distinction between silence and quiet.  For our purpose here, quiet is the absence or relative absence of sound.  Two of my favorite experiences of quiet:

1: Standing outside in winter when the temperature is about −20, the sky so utterly blue that it looks as if it might shatter at any moment, with the only sound being the movement of air coming through my nostrils.

2: Standing outside, also in winter, in the midst of a heavy, windless snowfall, the soft hush of millions of snowflakes falling from thousands of feet up impacting on billions of snowflakes on the earth and barely drowning out the sound of my calm breathing.

Other great experiences of quiet are the dying sound of the bells before vespers and the moments immediately after a chainsaw has stopped—especially if the chainsaw is in the distance.  See, there’s never absolute quiet.  There are always sounds like our breathing or the beating of our hearts and the whoosh of blood in our bodies, the rustling of leaves or the soft fall of mist, or even the subsonic thrum of the very earth itself. 

But quiet can also be very disconcerting.  When I was in college, back in the Pleistocene, the dorm building had the constant sound of air running though vents in every room.  It wasn’t an obtrusive sound in any way.  Nobody noticed it until, one day, it just stopped.  Students went to the infirmary with headaches and had trouble sleeping and studying.  The expected sound wasn’t there, and the quiet was painful.

Which brings us to silence.  Whereas quiet is a natural state—just as any state of sound is essentially a natural state—silence is a matter of intentionality.  We establish ourselves in silence.  We silence our thoughts, our tongue, our mind.  We drag ourselves away from preoccupation with our internal dialog.  We sometimes even raise the level of sound and noise around us to drown out what is going on in our heads, thereby attaining to a sort of ersatz silence.  In our dorm building, when the air circulation stopped, those of us who were affected had nothing to concentrate against: our own thoughts were too loud and insistent because we did not know how to be silent.
But silence is really more of a state than an action.  We don’t make silence or work on doing silence.  Silence is not acquired or achieved.  It is not the prize at the end of a spiritual contest.  Even so, silence can be and is to be cultivated.  And the cultivation of silence is the cultivation of mindfulness itself.

Uncritical.  Receptive.  Still.

Silence is uncritical.  When I look at a glass in silence, I do not create a backstory.  The glass is simply there.  Perhaps a story will unfold, but it will be a story that is revealed in the glass, not something that I have imposed.  The same is true in human relationships.  The relationship or circumstance exists.  Events occur.  There is no judgement, no chatter about right and wrong, about how I am hero or victim, about blame or reward.  There is simply the event.  Responses grow out the event: sadness, joy, sorrow, hope.

Silence is receptive.  Silence neither grasps nor holds the glass, makes it neither welcome nor unwelcome, neither mine nor not mine: the glass is simply there.  Silence is open to its possibilities but makes no movement to impose meaning.  Silence allows the word to be opaque, the motive unfathomable, the relationship ineffable: silence merely receives.

Silence is still.  Silence neither pushes nor pulls the glass.  Silence remains at rest in apprehending the glass.  Silence sits with the tension in the relationship and circumstance, seeking neither to resolve nor exacerbate, neither to approach nor to avoid.
In silence all of our projected attributes, categories, and paradigms fall away and we are left with the naked reality, which can unfold itself and become present to us because, in silence, we are present to it.  Because of this, it is only to the extent that we are in silence that we apprehend truth, and in our apprehension of truth it is only out of silence that we can pray or, for that matter, even speak meaningfully.

As was noted above, while we cannot do or make silence, we can cultivate conditions conducive to silence much as a gardener cultivates conditions wherein seeds can sprout and plants grow.  For example, we practice good posture and good health and hygiene habits: an unhealthy, badly aligned body is a very noisy body.

We practice being quiet, refraining from entertainment and diversions—all, also, very noise inducing.  An aspect of this might be some kind of imagery (I use the image of tuning down the volume on a radio).  By the way, driving with the radio off is an excellent cultivation of mental quiet which can lead to silence wherein we simply apprehend and respond to traffic.

There is also the practice of simple regard, wherein we merely look at an object: e.g., a glass, a flame, a piece of burning incense.  As we behold the object we are aware of the thoughts that arise, and we respond to each and all of them with “Not that, not that.”  We slowly come to recognize that any thoughts we have are most likely impositions from our own mind and brain.  This includes our emotional reactions.  As we encounter and recognize these phenomena we release them with the awareness that these are merely our ideas about what is before us, not the thing itself.

It’s important here to note that those among us who have to deal with ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, OCD, Asperger’s syndrome, or any other of the host of psychological, neurological/neurochemical, and developmental issues (or combinations of the aforesaid) are going to have a tougher time with silence than our more neurotypical brothers and sisters.  Those of us with conditions like chronic pain or tinnitus are in the same boat.  The process, however, is the same for all of us.  When the mood swing or the compulsion arises, we note that this is simply our brain chemistry doing its thing.  It is merely an involuntary neurological or neurochemical reaction of the brain.  In point of fact, this is really the case for all of us: these emotions, moods, and thoughts are all the product of our mind based in the brain.  In the practice of interior quieting, they are merely distractions.  It may be that they are like huge waves on the ocean or fierce storms, but even in those, it is we who are uncritical, we who are receptive, we who are still.  It may be that the waves and storm never abate—no matter.  As Shakespeare put it so well:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts
Singe my white head!  And thou, all-shaking thunder
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!  (Lear III, 2)

Even so, where the “I” resides, we can be uncritical, receptive, and still: we can be quiet.  Not easy does not mean impossible.

It is important to realize—and perhaps it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway—the practices of silence, meditation, mindfulness, or any other of the interior practices are not substitutes for prescribed medications.  Rather, those medications are adjuncts to our practice: they help us create the neurochemical conditions wherein we cultivate quiet so that silence can unfold. 

In the end, all falls away.  No thing is left.  In silence is the apperception of the emptiness of the self—the emptiness of God in whose image and likeness we are made.  Slowly and with practice in establishing the conditions for silence, we find this state to be our natural home, however fleetingly.  As this happens we find that this moment is all of time and eternity, this place is the whole universe, this person is a manifestation of God.

A Zen parable:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out. The first monk said, "Oh, no! The candle is out." The second monk said, "Aren't we not supposed to talk?" The third monk said, "Why must you two break the silence?" The fourth monk laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak.”

The first monk breaks silence by imposing his expectations on the candle.
The second monk breaks silence by valuing rules over meditation.
The third monk breaks silence through his anger at the first two monks.
The fourth monks breaks silence through his egoism.

Silence would write the story:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Understanding Their Spiritual Message

by Steven A. Fisdel

Book Review by Sister Cecelia

I took this book, published in 1998, to my room at least five years ago, but this August I was determined to read it. I was very interested in what the scrolls contained, and this book looked like one that would explain what had been translated by the experts.

For several reasons I found it interesting in the extreme. The author, a rabbi, used the first few chapters to put the writings into the context of the theological views of the Hebrews at the time the scrolls came into being. Because Jesus came into a people with these religious views, many of his sayings in our scriptures are a reflection of these same views. He also contradicted some other views and tried to point out a better way of understanding what God the Father and Creator was pleased with. The leaders of the people were generally appalled, as what he said went against their understanding of what the Torah indicated was the will of God. Their texts also contained warnings that people should not be deceived by using their own reason and heart, but rather that they should trust only the teachings of the high priests, kings, and prophets.

Early in life I had heard that Christianity came through the Jews. I had not realized how many attitudes are direct lines to what had been accepted for centuries, like the strong emphasis on men, in the persons of the priests, as the only safe interpreters of the Law, the only ones who could know God’s will for any of us. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. The temples were constructed to show the “worthiness” of the worshipers. First was the high priest, then the other priests, then the men. Then last, without their own section, the women were put with the foreigners—the aliens.

Human beings were expected to honor their fundamental relationship to the Creator through the exercise of moral behavior and the continual pursuit of justice. Moral development and spiritual evolution, rather than physical survival and material attachments, were the central focus of existence for the Hebrews of the time. The law, the interpretation of the law, was of the highest importance. The laws were so difficult to keep that a yearly atonement must always be made.

It is understandable that St. Paul was so adamant that Jesus’ teaching would bring salvation, rather than obedience to the law. For instance, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth.

The last chapters are thought-provoking in their explanation of the struggle we humans have with good and evil.  Since Eden and the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge we each have within ourselves good and evil, and we have this struggle. It is up to us with help from God’s Spirit to choose the good and ultimately be saved (enjoy God’s presence) or to chose evil and be damned (nonexistence, no God). When the End of Days comes, it will not be the termination of humankind but the end of evil winning over good. Evil will no longer be. The Kingdom of God will be what is.         

The fervor of both the author and of the peoples the author describes, as well as the perseverance in pursuing God’s will, I found truly inspiring and certainly worth reading. 

The Magyar Response

By Brother Stavros

Few on our technologically linked planet are unaware of the plight of the masses of refugees from Africa and Asia, but most poignantly from the Middle East. And very few people I know were not appalled by the treatment these refugees received at the Hungarian border.  The German and Austrian reaction was perhaps softened by visions from World War II of stuffed cattle cars and endless miles of refugees. Even Serbia, also mindful of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, expressed dismay at the Hungarian impasse.

I found it a sad and disturbing irony that the political rationale expressed by the Budapest government cited their fear of diluting their Christian identity.

What kind of identity ignores one of the most vivid teachings of Christ, portrayed in Matthew’s account of the Last Judgement? (Matthew 25:31-46) Hungarian Ministers of State as well as ordinary Christian folk must hear this question regularly from every pulpit: “Uram, mikor láttuk, hogy éheztél, vagy szomjas vagy hogy jövevény, vagy Igénylő ruhát, vagy beteg, vagy fogoly voltál, és nem segít?” “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

Might this reflect the conundrum of Christianity today? The term “Christian” is like a mantle, easily thrown on and off as the occasion suits.

I have no pretense at knowing a solution. The European Union cannot arrive at a common policy. I look forward to the wisdom and Gospel fidelity in Pope Francis’ words that will probably make us all uncomfortable.

I do not want to appear to disparage Hungarians. Home-grown examples loom in the massive deportation of Mexicans in 1908, estimated at 500,000 to 2 million, a good number of whom were United States citizens. They were loaded onto trains by state and local officials, without federal authorization, and exiled below the border. The State of California issued a formal apology for this outrage only ten years ago.

The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”) used to be in our schoolbooks. Many satirists are now offering a rewording of this inscription to reflect current political currents.

Pachomius of Egypt, who served as an occupying Roman soldier in the third century, was so impressed by the hospitality of Christians who had every right to detest him that he sought out baptism and became a leading monastic light of his era.

The popular Hungarian Saint Elizabeth, a 13-century Magyar queen and early Third Order Franciscan, in her zeal to follow Saint Francis’ evangelical path gave away most of her wealth to feed the poor and assist travelers and the homeless.

Let us not use the term “Christian” lightly or appear to manipulate it when it serves our political or social purposes. If we want to safeguard our Christian heritage, let these saints and countless others set an example. We cannot be comfortable Christians in the face of a major humanitarian upheaval. The wars that visit our homes today on TV or iPad, from Syria and Afghanistan and Central Africa, and tomorrow as climate change accelerates new waves of refugees, may be triggered by drought and famine or flooding. It’s time we get it right and make the lesson of the Good Samaritan a reality.


Reflections by Brother Luke

            Our sisters, the Nuns of New Skete, have a long tradition of working on picture puzzles during their recreation time. The most recent one was 5,000 pieces, and it was so large they had to find creative ways to expand their table to accommodate the puzzle as they put it together. They thought they could finish it in a month or so. Surprise! It took almost 6 months. As it turned out, a few of the brothers helped out at the end of the process and put in some of the last pieces. It was a spectacular painting of a museum scene of paintings. The box didn’t reveal the artist or identify the scene (this was a used puzzle, after all), but we guessed it might have been the Louvre or the Vatican.

            Back in the early 2000s, one of the tasks I inherited was to do the shopping for the monks’ monastery. It was a large task, and right from the beginning I needed to learn how to do it efficiently all in one day each week. I always worked with a shopping list. To get everything on the list I had to make stops at a wide variety of stores. If I had personal errands to run or a doctor’s appointment, for example, I would combine the two activities to save time. I had to plot my trip to avoid backtracking, since the shopping involved trips to Saratoga or Albany.

In those days we had a Chevrolet Suburban, which was my usual vehicle for the task. We also had Ford Aerostar vans. So either way I had a good amount of space to carry home all of the items on the list. As I gained experience I began to take note of prices and to compare stores on the basis of their prices. I took lists of our usual items and noted the prices of the same items at the different stores. With this information I was able to manage costs and to cut down on the number of stops during each trip. Well, sometimes, anyway. Organizing the job was like putting together a puzzle.

However, as we had to replace vehicles, the new ones were not as large as the old ones. Vehicles came and went, but the task was still there. Now the puzzle had a new wrinkle. Could I fit everything into the car? In many cases it was possible without much trouble. But when we had a large number of guests or a special event, such as the new dog seminars, then the challenge to fit in everything grew. Sometimes the amount of items purchased forced me to put some of them in the front seat. On some occasions I had help in the shopping expedition, but that would rule out using the front seat for groceries; I didn’t want to make a guest walk home! Recently one guest who kindly agreed to accompany me on the shopping trip took photos of the task of loading the car at the end of the shopping trip. His before-and-after views were an amusing documentation of the three-dimensional puzzle I had to put together that week. He took the pictures because he was convinced that I would not be able to get everything in the car. Actually, I wasn’t so sure myself that I would fit everything in. But we made it. The outcome was not as esthetically beautiful as the puzzles at the nuns, but the situation presented a challenge, perseverance yielded a result, and a level of satisfaction was achieved.

Many monastic tasks, or should I say life tasks, can be approached in a similar way. No matter what the task is, we can see in it an opportunity to give it our best effort and to trust that the outcome will be what it should be. What more would God expect of us?

Brother Luke mastering the groceries into the van puzzle.

Embracing Your Inner Weird

By Brother David

I’m weird. 

I get told that by people I know. It used to bother me. I used to think, “How can I unweird myself?” 

I like science fiction. I also like horror stories and films—the bloodier the better. The “Hell Raiser” series is awesome. I cry at chick flicks and tear up at some commercials. There is no such thing as “reality TV” (and that includes the news). 

Serial killers fascinate me. I have a collection of stuffed animals and toys. 

I rescue slugs and worms from the middle of our road.

I believe that Sun Moon Star, by Kurt Vonnegut and Ivan Chermayeff, is one of the best Christmas books ever written. I love “Paradise Lost” and have read it—voluntarily—several times. Goodnight Moon is brilliant. I love history (13th century and earlier) and intensely dislike historical fiction. Pride and Prejudice is a terrific novel; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is even more terrificker. I love studying grammar and syntax and am something of a stickler for correct grammar and syntax.

I can’t stand lamb or duck or goose or pork. I like cold cuts and pâté. Turkey actually makes me sick. Game meat, such as venison, is awful. Chicken? Breast meat only; slightly dry, thank you very much. Beef? I can deal with ground beef and actually like meatloaf. Steak is out. Roast beef only if it is very thinly sliced and very well done—any pink and I’m outta there. If we were meant to eat red (or pink) bloody meat, God wouldn’t have made fire. I look at “properly cooked” prime rib and think, “All that sucker needs is a bunch of band-aids and a defibrillator and it could walk out of here.” 

Yet, as one person I know and love, regularly points out, I love sushi. And while I love sushi, I cannot abide undercooked fish. I really like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.

I disapprove of the existence of raisins in particular and dried fruit in general. 

Kozy Shack chocolate pudding proves the existence of God. So do dill pickles.

I dislike watermelon. While I like apples in tarts and pies, I don’t like baked apples, and raw apples are even worse. I have been known to pick watermelon and apples out of fruit salad.

All-natural peanut butter, strawberry jam, American or cheddar cheese, and iceberg lettuce on whole wheat bread is a great sandwich. So is Hershey’s chocolate syrup and Jif peanut butter on Wonder Bread smashed flat. Mayonnaise on anything is dreadful at worst and barely tolerable at best, although I like egg salad made with Hellman’s™ Real mayonnaise. But the eggs have to be very coarsely chopped.

Except for up and down, and backwards and forwards, I have absolutely no sense of direction, which often includes right and left, and my fear of getting lost borders on the phobic. One of my (ironic) nicknames is GPS. I love to drive roads that I don’t know, especially at night.

I like Fox News and regularly vote Democrat.

     Do I contradict myself?
     Very well, then, I contradict myself;
    (I am large—I contain multitudes.) (Walt Whitman: “Song of Myself” 51) 

Jesus was weird, too. 

Jesus was an observant Jew who ate with tax collectors and sinners. He consorted with women. He healed a servant for a Roman officer. He touched lepers. He cursed a fig tree because it didn’t have fruit—out of season. People just didn’t do things like that. That’s not what normal people did. 

Even in his teaching he was weird. In the story of the publican and the Pharisee, it’s the company man, the Pharisee, the man who did everything according to the rules, the conformist whom Jesus condemns. Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.

He angered and annoyed the authorities. He broke the rules—all the rules that said how a prophet and man of God were supposed to be. He healed people on the Sabbath. He called God his father. He kept stepping over the line. He kept being himself. Unapologetically. The Japanese have a saying: “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” And that’s what happened to Jesus. He stuck up too much and so he was hammered down by being nailed to a cross. 

Isn’t that what we do? We preach diversity and tolerance and urge individuality. Don’t we say, with Mao Tse Dong, “[Let] a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend”? And then, like him, don’t we execute many of those who put forth ideas and behaviors different from our own? Because, after all, we know what constitutes normal, acceptable behavior and thought: us. (Actually: me.) And we know who has to be hammered down: them. (And frequently: you.)

But sometimes it happens, in the cold light of aloneness when certain awarenesses hover about on the edge of consciousness like a hangover just waiting to happen, that we recognize that all of our claims to normalcy, to unweirdness, are all just a little, well—weird? We see the inconsistencies in our lives. We note how our values and behaviors don’t synch up. And suddenly it can rush in that it’s not that everyone is out of step with me but that I’m out of step with everyone else. And we find ourselves disconcerted, abashed. We may even have to admit that, somehow, we are weird.

It’s worth looking at 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (ESV version) here. Paul says:

     I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Ok, weird. Before you get all weird on me about calling this weird, consider this: if you had never read this before or didn’t know that it was from Saint Paul, and your co-worker or the person behind the checkout counter started in on this, what would you think? Yeah.

Paul knows that what he is saying is outlandish. He knows that people are going to look at him as either extraordinary (weird) or simply whacked out (also weird). So he talks about that infamous thorn: something in him that keeps him grounded. Was it physical? Psychological? Moral? We’ll probably never find out—at least on this side of the grave. But it was something that was significant to him, something that was, in its own way, disconcerting. “Therefore I will boast more gladly of my weaknesses” is an embracing of all of it: all of the neat, cool stuff as well as the gnarly, uncomfortable stuff, along with the stuff that just doesn’t make a lot of sense as well as the stuff that we really don’t want even God to see. He embraces it all and says, “This is me! No matter what you say or what you do or how you praise or insult—this is me!” 

So, taking Paul as an example, we don’t unweird ourselves. We can’t. Rather, we stand before God and say, “This is me. This is the sum total of everything that has conspired to bring me to where I am today. I offer me to you.” And all of that awesomeness, inconsistency, strangeness, and, yes, even sin is received by God, who is so weird as to create quarks, leptons, and Higgs bosons, who receives us and divinizes the whole shebang. We have no clue what that means—which makes us all the weirder for wanting it.

Walt Whitman wrote:

     I believe in you, my Soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you;
     And you must not be abased to the other. (“Song of Myself” 5)

We look upon each other with profound respect and regard when we understand this, not because we say to ourselves, “Well, I’m (possibly) just as messed up, too, and people in glass houses…,” but rather because we realize that each and every person can say:

     It was you who created my inmost being, who fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
     I praise you for all these mysteries, for the wonder of myself and all your works. 
    You know me through and through, from having watched me take shape, as I was being formed in secret, being knit together in the        depths of the earth.
     Your eyes have followed all the stages of my life; they are all recorded in your book.
     All my days were listed and determined before one of them came to be.
     How weighty your thoughts seem to me, O God, how deep their meaning! (Psalm 139:13-17)


Anniversary and Reunions

Brother Stavros celebrated fifty years in monastic life, Holy Wisdom Church.


The summer after graduation from high school in 1961, Harry Winner (the future Br. Stavros) and one of his best friends, Tim Nau, traveled to the upper reaches of the Saint Lawrence River to Quebec City to attend a special immersion course in French for foreigners at Laval University. The walled and fortified city, the oldest on the continent north of Mexico, and the university, the oldest after Harvard, earned a place in his heart and imagination. This summer, he met up with his friend at his home in Toronto, and they took the train up to Québec to revisit their old haunts. The city has not lost its European flavor; in fact, they observed that it is even more beautiful. Back then as students they ate on the cheap. This visit provided an opportunity to appreciate the superb cuisine of the region. A particular joy, Br. Stavros recalled, was “approaching the basilica at the time of Sunday Mass and hearing, as well as feeling, the massive bell peal repeating the thrill it brought me half a century ago.”

Just before this northern excursion, Br. Stavros enjoyed another reunion, at Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary just off campus. They had also been together at St. Basil’s Seminary in Stamford, Conneticut. Br. Marc (then Dennis Labish) had been at St. Basil’s a year ahead of them, and our late Br. Elias (Jim Ippolito) preceded them by two years at both St. Basil’s and Catholic University. Josephat’s Niagara Falls, Ontario, this time with four priests who were in his graduating class in 1965 at Catholic University in Washington, DC. Although they earned their degrees from Catholic University, they belonged to St.

On September 13, the Sunday of the Vigil of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Br. Stavros celebrated fifty years in monastic life with a brief rite that concluded the Divine Liturgy, during which he was presented with a candle and a hand cross. A reception was held afterward, generously provided by the many friends and parish members who attended. His niece Susan, her husband, Jack, and their second son, Aidan, traveled from northeastern Pennsylvania to mark the occasion. All joined in the salute: God grant you many years!

Smoking at New Skete is OK (under certain circumstances!)

By Brother Luke

     In today’s marketplace, one of the most ubiquitous signs is the one that says: NO SMOKING. What a dramatic change from 50 years ago, when smoking was chic and basically part of the landscape of society. Here at New Skete, no smoking applies, too, except for one building where smoking is definitely OK. That building is our new smoke house, where we continue to smoke cheese for several clients.

     Our new Dog Training facility has replaced the oldest building in our monastic complex, a building that served as home for a variety of activities over the years. Originally it was a barn for our farm animals and workshops for our liturgical arts and crafts; then dog training, our guest house, and gift shop plus our New Skete Farms, which included processing our various food products and running our mail order business. Now the monks’ gift shop has been relocated to our residence, the guesthouse is down in Emmaus House, and dog training, of course, is in its shining new facility. New Skete Farms as such has disappeared, but one element remains: smoking cheese. We have several small clients for whom we smoke cheese, but by far the most significant client is Shelburne Farms in upstate Vermont. We have smoked their cheddar cheese for some 30 years, and we are honored that they continue to value our work. Over the years they have entered their smoked cheese in competitions and won prizes. They did this again a couple of months ago. Rory Stamp of Shelburne Farms describes the competition and the outcome.

Hi Brother Luke,

My name is Rory Stamp and I took over for Ellen Fox as the Cheese Sales Manager here at Shelburne Farms. I wanted to thank you for doing such a fantastic job with our cheese and to provide you with some additional information on the competition and award.

This year the annual American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Championship was held in Providence, Rhode Island, from July 29th to August 1st. In addition to participating in seminars and forums with fellow cheese makers, retailers, and other cheese professionals, we entered several of our cheddars in competition. This year, there were over 1,779 cheeses entered from 267 producers from North and South America, spanning over one hundred categories. Our Farmhouse Smoked Cheddar was entered in the "Smoked Cheddar - All Milks" category, which contains not only traditionally smoked cheddars but also cheeses flavored with smoke extracts. This year, we selected a particularly delicious batch of our 6 month cheddar to send to you, which had a supple, elastic texture and a finish redolent of caramelized onions and browned butter. This base provided an excellent vehicle for your expert smoking and earned us a third place ribbon for the category.

Thank you for all of your help and we are excited to start smoking again with you in the fall. I'm not certain how long we have been working together, but Shelburne Farms has been making cheddar since 1980. I look forward to working with you and hope that I can schedule a visit sometime in the fall.


Rory Stamp

If you are interested in learning more about Shelburne Farms or trying some of their cheeses, visit their web site at:

Friday, August 14, 2015

New Skete Pilgrimage 2015

By Brother Stavros

This year’s Pilgrimage, on the Saturday after the Feast of Transfiguration, was blessed by beautiful summer weather. The day began with Matins, then all the faithful gathered outside on the terrace next to the frog pond and waterfall. After the bell peal, the clergy assembled to begin Divine Liturgy. Priest-monk Marc and archdeacon Peter of New Skete were joined by Capitol District pastors Father Peter from St. Basil’s in Watervliet and Father Terrance from St. Nicholas in Cohoes, and Father Don and Presbytera Jan Augusta from St. Basil’s Greek Orthodox Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The festal antiphons were sung in stages as the procession moved up and then into Holy Wisdom. A church tour followed the Liturgy, and the food truck began offering great Lebanese and Greek lunches.

The principal talk was given by Dr. Anton Vrame, Director of the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He is Adjunct Associate Professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Massachusetts, and is well known as a writer and speaker on Orthodox Christianity, especially its life in the United States. He is active with inter-Christian dialogue, serving as a member of Faith and Order for the National Council of Churches. He holds degrees from DePaul University, the University of Chicago, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and Boston College. He has been a friend of the New Skete Communities since the late 1980s. His talk is available to hear, click here.

We also had, as has become a tradition, volunteers from the Boston area, mostly from St. Mary’s Antiochean Orthodox Church in Cambridge (“the other Cambridge”). Together with the staff and parishioners from our Holy Wisdom community, they made the activities of the day go smoothly. And, when not fighting fires, Ranger Mike Bodnar once again led a group on the trails in our woods, giving a full commentary on the flora and fauna and geology of our Taconic Mountains.

Next year’s Pilgrimage will be on the Feast of Transfiguration itself, August 6, and will mark the high point of our 50th-anniversary celebrations. His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, will preside. We extend our heartfelt welcome to this and every event on the calendar for New Skete Monasteries.
Blessed by beautiful summer weather, the day began outside on the terrace next tot he frog pond and waterfall.

Archdeacon Peter and Priest-monk Marc were joined by the regions pastors.

Guest Speaker, Dr. Tony Vrame in the Holy Wisdom Church.

DEC Officer, Mike Bodnar, lead a hike along the New Skete trails.

Brother Luke conducting a puppy socializing demonstration.