Saturday, May 30, 2015

A New Garden from Italy

Reflections by Brother Luke

Visitors to New Skete today who enter our Holy Wisdom Temple walk through a garden, either along a level path from a parking area behind the east end of the church or up a gentle ramp that rises from the road around our original Transfiguration Temple. This garden space is adorned with flowers, shrubs, and trees that are native to our region. Stones and boulders of varying sizes that were moved into this place from other parts of our property form the walls and terraces. The east end of the garden features two ponds with fish and frogs. In early spring the trees burst forth in bloom, and the ponds’ inhabitants serenade us with the songs of the croakers.
It was not always thus!

When the Holy Wisdom Temple was built in the early 1980s, access to the main entrance was via a bank of over 30 steps.
Shoveling the snow off of those steps was a major chore in the winter;
especially after high netting was added in an attempt to keep deer away from the plants. It was also more than a little intimidating for many to mount those stairs, and it was impossible for anyone with physical disabilities. Indeed, with safety in mind, our insurance company told us they wanted us to put a handrail up the middle of the steps, even though it already had handrails on both sides of the steps.

So, in the summer of 2005 we began to toss around the idea of restructuring the entrance to our main worship space. First, at Brother Elias’ suggestion, we looked into building a driveway that would pass right in front of the main entrance, where people could be let off from cars. Unfortunately, the area was too confined to accommodate such a road, so a pedestrian ramp became our next option. We weren’t sure if that would be possible, either, so we decided to engage a landscape architect. Who?

Our local village of Cambridge was beginning the process of establishing a sister city arrangement with the town of Scontrone, Italy. At one of the planning sessions Brother Stavros attended as our representative, he met a man whom we ultimately decided to hire to draw up a plan for our new entrance with a ramp and garden. Hence the Italian connection! 
It featured very large stones to be used as walls. We had also engaged an architect to create a set of baseline architectural drawings of our monastery, which we could use as a reference for future renovations of our existing buildings. We wanted him to help us with the ramp and railings. Jerome, the contractor from Vermont who maintained our road, was tapped to build this new entrance and garden. We also had a part-time employee who was helping us learn about development and stewardship; her task was to create a capital campaign to fund this project. As Brother Ambrose likes to say, “We’ll jump off that bridge when we get there.” So we jumped off the bridge into a major project.

Of course we ran into the usual bumps in the road, including rising costs and differing perspectives between architect and contractor on placement of the wall stones.
However, we also saw steady progress toward a new Welcome Garden and access walkway to our church,
which now provides a quiet space for meditation, an opening gathering space for the entrance antiphons for Sunday and Feast Day Divine Liturgies, and the focal point for our Fall Animal Blessing prayer service.
After all the dust settled and the construction work was done, we had a new entrance, gained through the generous support of many friends and the hard work of all those involved in planning and constructing the new entrance.

After a particularly hard winter a few years after the project was completed, a couple of the large stones were dislodged from their location. Jerome and his crew returned and reset the stones, slightly revising the arrangement, and we have had no further problems with the walls. While they were dealing with the stones, they also made an adjustment in the ponds to solve a leak that had sprung up between the two ponds. Accomplishing projects such as this one is never simple, but each one teaches us new lessons, sometimes about management, but also about how to persevere in the face of trials. For us, that always brings us back to our faith and our commitment to our common life. Engaging in this project was a community decision, and it is now an integral part of our life.

A Reflection on the Ascension of Christ

By Brother David

With the Ascension, the heart of Jesus now beats in the heart of the Trinity, and in him, we too make that journey into the heart of God.  Our journey through the Passion, from its beginning in Lent, through Paschaltide, and up to now in the feast of the Ascension, is a journey to enlightenment in ourselves and in the world.  This process of enlightenment, this coming to awareness towards which we strive in our lives, is not a time of consolation or good feeling; rather, it is a time of destruction.  This is a time when all those lies which we have accepted, which we have perpetrated on ourselves, which we have been given by our families, our society, and, yes, sometimes even our church must be stripped away.  It is through these lies in which we have actively, passively, or merely tacitly participated that we are separated from ourselves, from each other, and from the One who made us.  This stripping and integration is the purpose of our Christian life: Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

The aim of our life is to fulfill the call from Genesis, to come to know and to realize (make real) that we are made in the image and likeness of the God of Jesus.  This is not about being good.  This is not about being better.  This is rather about becoming Godlike which goes beyond anything we can conceive of as “good.”  In this feast, we celebrate the union of God with the union of all people so that we come to be where we were made to be with our hearts beating within the heart of God. 

So how do we bring ourselves to this?  And what is the heart that we present?  How do we open ourselves more deeply to the truth to which God calls us? How do we allow ourselves to be purified in the crucible of God?—a crucible in which our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)  We come to this through love: love not of a sentimental nature, love not in some way feeling good about ourselves or even feeling good about each other.  Rather love in coming to see the truth of ourselves, the truth of the other, and the truth of God.  And through this we are destroyed because no one can see the face of God and live—and certainly not to live as we have lived.  (Exodus 33:20) 

We have no idea what is beyond this destruction.  We cannot imagine it; it cannot be spoken.  St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians, “I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows.  Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2)  Will it be great and glorious?  We can imagine that.  Will it be life without pain or age?  We can imagine that.  It will be beyond anything we can imagine.  This is what we are called to and called to be.

And if we are called to be this in the heart of God, how much more are we called to be this in the hearts of each other and in the heart of the world, where we are called to bear witness to this love of God—to this truth of God—where we are called to crucifixion and persecution which we embrace, not out of some misguided masochistic yearning for death, but out of an awareness that only this can transform the world.  This is what the apostles were called to.  That this is what the Holy Spirit gives us the power to do—this spirit which is sent from the heart of God. 

This is a feast of joy, this is a feast of enlightenment, this is not a feast of consolation.  It is a call to deeper life in God.  It is a call to greater purity of heart as we are refined and purified—as we are brought to the place where our response is a response from the deepest part of who we are, from the divine spark with which we were imbued from the beginning, not a response from the lie which we were given by our society and our families and which we have constructed within ourselves. 

Let us, like the apostles, then, bear witness to the Crucified One, the one who was raised to life with God and life in God.  And let us realize that this is also our calling: not to be good, not merely to life eternal, but rather to be Godlike coming ever closer through all eternity to becoming God in Godself.