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.