Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Wonder and Mystery of birth

by Brother Luke

Recently my iPod seemed to die, and I thought, Oh no, I (well, actually Ida) won’t be able to put my dog videos and photos on Facebook anymore!  But it turned out that the iPod battery was dead and it was possible to revive it. So, we were back in business. And it was a very busy time when the iPod went down. Bora had a litter of seven puppies, and then my Jaci was due to have a litter, which came one week later. I always try to capture with the iPod some of the scenes from the whelping. The primary reason for that is to keep our vet and breeding staff abreast of what is going on in case an emergency arises. But it also opens to our friends a little window into the wonder of the moment of birth for the new puppies and for me! Still, a lot goes on that is not captured by the photos. So, this is a little journey into the day, or rather the night, my Jaci gave birth to her puppies. It was Tuesday, December 13, 2016.

We usually have the expectant mother x-rayed on or close to the 58th day after the first breeding, which in this case was December 8th. The x-ray helps us to know how many puppies she is carrying so at the whelping we will know when all the puppies are out. Reading the x-ray is not as straightforward as one might think. Sometimes a shadow will look like a puppy when in fact no puppy is there. Sometimes there are so many puppies you might miss one or two tucked in behind another one. But in any case, we have found this to be helpful to us during the whelping. In Jaci’s case, we counted nine puppies in the x-ray.

We usually breed three times. So, the 58th day for the x-ray is calculated from the first breeding date. We then monitor how the expectant mother is doing with a view to her having her puppies by or before the 65th day. But we calculate that 65th day from the last breeding. So, the window during which the puppies can be born naturally is seven days, but we may add three or four days to that to cover for the third breeding. The signs that the whelping may happen soon include these: Mother stops eating, her temperature drops from the normal range of 100-101 down to 98-96 degrees, her eyes become glassy, she begins to nest and is restless, and her water breaks. As you might expect, all of this is very imprecise. Some mothers will continue to eat normally right up to the time of giving birth. Sometimes the temperature will drop and then go back up and then drop again and go back up again before dropping the final time. Some mothers nest for days before giving birth; others nest only a few hours before giving birth. It is not unusual to wait 12 hours for the first pup to appear after mom’s water has broken; it can also happen just as the first puppy is born.

For Jaci I did have some advance warning from these signs. A day before she gave birth, she stopped eating her normal amount of food. She did no nesting until just a few hours before she gave birth. Her eyes had turned glassy during the day she gave birth. I did not take her temperature, since I did not think we would have any problems with the whelp, so I let nature take its course. Tuesday evening, when these few signs were apparent and I suspected this was going to be the night, I took Jaci to my room but left Shems and Kahn in their crates down in the hallway we call the “mud room.” I did not want to have to deal with them should Jaci need to head over to the kennel during the night. I went to bed.

A couple of hours later, at 11:50 pm, I was awakened by the sound of a puppy crying. It had begun! The first pup had already been born in my room. Jaci was frantic, running around my room, heading back to the dog bed next to my bed where she had given birth. She christened that dog bed, which would not survive the night. The pup screamed as mom picked him up with her teeth and moved him around. I got up and tried to calm her down while I got dressed. I had a towel handy to carry the puppy over to the kennel. Brother Marc, who is in the room next to mine, poked his head into my room and asked if I needed help. Of course I needed help, but at that moment all I could say was “I’m trying to get my clothes on so I can get over to the kennel.” So he withdrew.

Leaving the bloody mess of my room behind, Jaci and I headed down the hallway to the stairs. Jaci was everywhere but not going in a straight line. She went down the wrong hallways, but finally headed down the stairs turning down the next hallway, only to go toward the refectory rather than the mud room. Once she got into the mud room, she ran up the stairs to the offices above, rather than toward the exit. I yelled at her and down she came. I put the puppy on top of a dog crate as I quickly put on a coat. Then I scooped him up in the towel and rushed out the mud room door and down the outside stairs but had to negotiate a traffic jam of construction vehicles parked in the snow on the road around our Transfiguration Temple, which is being renovated. I tried to warm the puppy with a rather meager towel in the below-freezing outdoors while Jaci ran over to the dumpster rather than toward the kennel. I started to trot, hoping I wouldn’t fall with my precious cargo. Jaci finally got the homing device in her head reoriented, and she sped off ahead of me over to the kennel and began pacing back and forth in front of the door. Once we were inside, all the other dogs in the kennel started barking, including Bora, who was nursing her nine puppies in the pen next to Jaci. Well, there was no time to worry about that.

We keep records of all the puppy births, but I had not yet put the cart with the scale and other supplies in the room. So, I put Jaci in with the pup in the whelping pool (we use children’s wading pools with newspapers on the bottom for whelping) and left the room to get the cart and extra towels and newspapers.  The cart has the scale, a box with ric-rac in different colors to identify the pups, syringes, Calsorb, Oxytocin, scissors and sterilizing solution, and a small suction ball used on occasion to withdraw fluid from the pup’s mouth if necessary. A chart hangs on the wall outside the room, but it comes into the room during the whelping. On the lower shelf of the cart we store a plastic lug about 3 feet long, 15 inches wide, and 10 inches high with a warming pad covered with a towel. We put the puppies in there when needed during the whelping process. So, with all this now in place, I had to weigh the pup, who was only .95 pounds, then sterilize the severed umbilical cord, put a ric-rac collar on the pup (orange in this case), and then try to get Jaci to calm down enough to begin to take care of this first pup. Instead of calming down she decided that the lug under the cart was the best place to have the next puppy, so in she went. I got her out only to have her take her first-born with her back into the lug. The puppy was screaming, the dogs were barking, Jaci was nesting, it was pandemonium. In other words, it was a normal whelping!

Now I was trying to calm down Bora next door and also watch Jaci for the next puppy, which came forth within the hour. Jaci was still frantic, but more of her attention was on the two pups, which she was licking furiously and knocking around as she attempted to warm them, stimulate them, and get them to defecate and nurse. After the third puppy was born, Brother Marc arrived to lend a welcome hand. Jaci kept looking into the lug as if searching for other puppies. Several times during the whelping she dove back into the lug, and we had to get her to come out and get back into the pool. In most cases pups arrived within an hour of each other. In a couple of cases they followed each other within minutes. Brother Marc stayed and helped with the whelping until morning. By that time eight pups had come into this world, all healthy and busy searching for nipples to nurse, doing their investigations without the advantage of sight or hearing, which would come many days later.

As it turned out, the reading of the x-ray was off by one pup. In reality, Jaci was only carrying eight puppies, so we were finished before 7 am. She delivered four boys and four girls. And at this writing, they are all well and growing, and Jaci is being the perfect, calm mom, nursing and being very attentive to her pups. I am always in awe of the process and how the mother is able to manage all she has to do. Of course, problems can arise, but this can never overshadow the wonder of nature and the beauty of emerging new life. And, oh yes, I did use the iPod to take photos and videos during the whelping, some of which have been posted on our Facebook page. You might want to check them out!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Monastic Hospitality

by Brother Gregory

In the monastic tradition, hospitality is a very important part of a community’s practice. At New Skete, our Rule addresses this: “Monastic tradition has always emphasized the importance of welcoming others as Christ. In a world rife with religious division and misunderstanding, we endeavor to foster unity and understanding within the Body of Christ, and without discrimination, tolerance and respect towards all.”  We do all we can to welcome others into our community as if we were welcoming Christ himself. With a nonjudgmental attitude, an open ear, and a welcoming heart, guests have often said that they feel welcomed. This time away from their daily routines helps them refresh and renew their souls and connect once again with Jesus and the Church in their lives.  

Often when guests depart, they comment to us that they have received so much and that they felt blessed in our home. New relationships develop or are renewed, quiet and prayerful space is provided, and fellowship is often exchanged during the meals prepared by Brother Marc. During the services, guests participate with all their senses as together we call to God with the ancient chants from Gregorian to Kievan.  Our guests see the German Shepherd dogs on the road with Brothers Christopher and Thomas, or at dinner time, even a puppy or two being raised by Brother Luke. At Saturday dinners when the monks and nuns gather for the evening dinner prepared by Brother Marc, guests get to taste the various flavored cheesecakes baked by the nuns. Visitors and guests often see volunteers working with the puppies in the kennel area, or enjoy the nuns’ blueberry pies at dinner. The dinner conversations about German Shepherd dogs, cheesecakes, liturgical music, smoking cheese with Brother Ambrose, talking with Brothers John and Peter about the history of the foundation of New Skete, and much more help to cement a relationship between the monastics and the visiting guests; and then they come back for more visits again and again. But the gift of giving is both ways: the monastics often comment on how we are enriched by the shared thoughts, insights, and life experiences of our guests after they have departed.

Hospitality is also expressed in the daily routines and schedules of the monastics out in the local community: singing in the Battenkill Chorale, going to the Post Office and meeting a neighbor, food shopping at a local grocery store, participating in the local food pantry with Brother Stavros, and many other activities where we bring the monastic life with us outside the monastery and into the lives of others—just being who we are as monastics.

With so much sadness in the world, which we often see on the evening news, just a simple smile to one another can be so refreshing and healing; when we give a smile, we often get a smile back.

Friday, October 28, 2016

An Ode to Cyrus Butler

Despite the sooty name, Black Mountain,
the climb to its top was anything but, it being swathed in
orange and yellow and several shades of red.
It looms above the central stretch of Lake George,
imperiously lodged on the eastern shore, the backbone dividing
Saint-Sacrament from Lake Champlain. The former
flows into the latter and thence to the St. Lawrence and out to sea.

From the more populous western shore
it may seem a raven-hued silhouette
before the sun clears its peak.
In the latter half of the 1800s this “Queen of Lakes” was all the rage,
the steep forests that gird the waters we plundered,
giving up their hardwoods for the charcoal forges
to springboard America’s industrial age

One Cyrus Butler bought the steamboat Minne Ha Ha
and erected the Ur-Adirondack Lodge,
at Black Mountain point, a choice destination.
With ready money from his iron works just miles north at
Ticonderoga, where the two lakes copulate,
he cowed the mighty mangy mountain,

logged down to pine and hemlock and some
straggly birch and poplar, to afford his more rugged
clientele access to the peak by mule or horse.
There, twenty-three hundred feet above the lake,
they might take in the astonishing view up and down its 32-mile length,
west across the expanse of the Adirondack massif—and east
the Green Mountains and Champlain plain.

Our band of hikers, two monks, a preacher,
a lawyer, and a singer set out on a cool Monday
in late October. We approached from the East
off Route 22, the same highway that cleaves little Cambridge.
The trail was carpeted in leaves, lovely to behold but
chancy of footing; it’s a rocky trail, a tectonic attribute.
Cyrus’ bridle path was well laid out, coping the ascent
by frequent switch-backs, with built-up corners of available stone,
unmoved after a century and then some.
The woods have rebounded to dense forest.
One must bend the mind to imagine industry abounded.

An hour into the climb we began to hear the strangest sound.
It had a Twilight Zone effect, getting sometimes louder and varying in pitch.
Deep woods have voices: from the purr of a breeze to roaring wind;
squeaks and squeals of broken trees, wedged in their falling
and pinched in their perch. But this was utterly alien.
It was above us, but nothing in the line of sight betrayed its source.
Descending hikers resolved our curiosity:
a wind turbine roosted on the summit.

The last half-mile revealed snow on ground greenery.
Gaps in the trees at rock ledges admitted teasing vistas. Logically the
steepest part of the trail provokes the “are-we-there-yet” temper.
By and by the tower came into view, and the turbine,
shining in the sunlight like a silver Jurassic pterosaur,
eight-foot blades and a rudder to head it into the wind.
In strong gusts it sounded menacing, as if at any higher speed
it would come unmoored and fly to pieces.

Lunch. Then the descent via the South face.
—So many views, including three large ponds
cupped in saddles lower down, it took effort
to eye the trail. I have fractured some ribs
learning this lesson: watch the track, use the poles.

We completed our loop and signed out
at the trail-head an hour before sunset,
with wobbly legs
but spirits buoyed by unbounded beauty.

The topside tower, no longer needed to
spot fires, satellites rendering them obsolete,
now serves as a Search and Rescue transmitter.
The fence enclosing the modest installation
bore a warning not to trespass or interfere:
Search and rescue is a service
to save could be yours.
A sermon subject lies cached therein.

Br Stavros, October 24, 2016

Two Aids to Prayer

By Brother John
     First, I will slowly and painfully learn how to pray, but it won't come overnight—maybe not until I am almost dead! I must stop worrying that I cannot sustain prayer for any length of time. I must do my best, or am I more interested in pleasing myself rather than God? The God of prayer is far more important the prayer of God, just as he is far more interested in me who prays than in the prayers I recite. I must be patient—Rome wasn't built in a day. My business is to manifest my good will by being ready for prayer, somewhat like a dog who is content to sit at the master's feet. If the master decides to play with him, attend to him, fine. If he doesn't, the pup remains in that place. If God is going to help me, he must be free to do as he sees fit, not as I see fit. I will try to pray, but if I can do no more, then I sit there and simply attend to God as well I can at that time of day or mood.
     St. Therese once remarked that a child may fall asleep in its father's arms (in a literal sense, or as a distraction), but this does not mean I cease loving the parent. I can think of myself as the father, or child (or as God being the father, or child). Contrary to all my fears, I am not displeasing to God if my best doesn't meet with my approval.
     Second, any worthwhile prayer is deeply personal. All I can do is ask God for light and try to understand and be aware of the principles taught by those who did pray. So, when I pray, first of all I must put myself in God's presence by realizing that he is everywhere, beyond my most daring appraisal of him. Then I must ask the Holy Spirit to help me, leaving the “how” up to him.
     I can pick up the New Testament, and slowly read until a thought comes, if at all. I don't need to read the Scriptures cover to cover, pausing over every word, but simply a section: perhaps as it is marked for the day, for a Sunday or a feast day. Or try doing the same thing with the Old Testament. If l find I am incapable of making any prayer at all, then I can just sit there, content to be with God, content to tell him that I love him, content to be at his disposal. He just may want me to be with him in silence. I have to be patient and relaxed. God is not to be found in anxiety, in the whirlwind of life’s crosses and worries. God is peace, and comes with his peace if I prepare by trying to be calm


A Burst of Sunshine Through a Cloud of Sorrow

by Brother Luke

For those of you who check out the New Skete Facebook page, you will see from time to time videos of my dogs playing, as well as our newly born puppies entering their new world during their first eight weeks of life. After the first eight weeks they migrate outside the reach of our video radar! We bid them farewell as they head off with their new families to grow up and bond with them. Sometimes, however, we have the opportunity to cast that video radar on a puppy that is being raised here. Right now that is what is happening. A puppy has joined me and my other canine charges. And this little bundle of joy is named Shems, the Arabic word for sun. Maybe I should say this little burst of sunshine! My boy Kahn is her grandfather, so I have an extra emotional tug invested in this little pup. When this process begins, namely, raising a puppy which we hope will make it into our breeding program, we have no guarantees of the outcome. At one year of age she will be x-rayed to see if she has hips and elbows of the quality needed to be suitable for breeding. Will she still be my dog a year from now? I do not know. So we do all we can to raise her and train her and enjoy her presence as long as is possible.
Sadly, as it turns out, just as Shems entered my life, I had to bid farewell to one of my dogs that we retired from the program. Unfortunately, while we were in the process of looking for a family to adopt Quena we learned that she had spondylosis, which had advanced in just six months to such a degree that it was already causing her great pain and would only get worse, possibly very quickly. My hope that she would be going to a new home was dashed by this devastating news. To see her pain and to know that soon she could lose the use of her hind legs, that her remaining life would be only a shadow of what it was, led us to make that painful decision to put her to sleep. The family that was on the verge of adopting her sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to us in her memory. The flowers remained in our church for two weeks. There is no way that this happens and you don’t cry. Grieving a loss such as this is necessary. She was a special dog and required a lot of tender love and attention to get her over her fears when she arrived here from Germany carrying six puppies. But once that Rubicon was crossed, she blossomed into a very affectionate companion and became a favorite of many of our staff. On our walks in the woods, or even down our road, she was the great explorer, ever alert to check out any rustle in the leaves or movements around the trees and shrubs. But no matter how far she strayed, I whistled and back she would come. She was totally reliable in my room and never destroyed anything, unlike Kahn, who eats toys, blankets, and socks—and then off to the vet we go to get them removed—or Jaci, who will rip apart dog beds if left alone in my room for any length of time. Not Quena. She was never a problem there. In a dog crate or in the kennel, now that was another story. She could sound ferocious; but out in the open she would sidle up to you and wag her tail, lean against you and expect to be petted. Many reading this story will recognize some of these traits in their dogs. Memories are bittersweet; they bring a smile and a tear. 


Kahn and Quena

Quena and Rita

Quena napping on a dog cot in a staff member's office.

Jaci and Quena

Quena in the sun.

And then the puppy comes in and breaks that spell. Shems insists on play and usually will get it out of even the most recalcitrant dog or human. You might have to fend off her teething on your arm or pant leg, but soon she will be on her back, inveigling a tummy-rub out of you. She knows no fear, even though she would be better off if she recognized at least a little bit of the danger she can bring on herself. She reminds me a bit of my dog Goldi. She goes for roadkill, which around here usually means frogs or mice. I could never get them away from Goldi; she was too quick. I’ve had a little better luck with Shems, but wait until she grows up!
Shems in a staff member's office

Shems shows signs of being a very intelligent dog. She quickly learned to negotiate our dog run. She makes it through the night without accidents in my room. At night she is free in my room and is no trouble. She knows “sit,” but “stay” is another matter. “Come” still works, although it works even better if I have help from another dog! She’s pretty good at “fetch” and actually returns the ball. I think “chuck-it” is definitely in her future. She is now old enough (four+ months) that Kahn is willing to play with her. But he still lets her know when play is done!


Shems is not a replacement for Quena. Each dog (animal/pet) is irreplaceable. They all have their own unique personalities and character. But the pup can help us see beyond the loss. They remind us of the ever-renewing nature of life, even as we deal with the immutability of death. They help us look beyond the grief and pain. They insist on building a new relationship even as we struggle to let go of the old. They remind us that the gift of life is fleeting, yet precious, and we need to embrace each moment of it fully while we can. After all, that is what Quena did and Shems now is doing. A lesson worth learning. While I am raising a puppy, the puppy is raising my consciousness and awareness of the gift of life. It is a partnership I am lucky to experience. 


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Formula for Determining Monastic Age

By Ida Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

To figure out the age of your dog, you multiply his or her age by seven.  My dog is 14 years old and this would make him 98 in human years.  His energy, attitude, and loyalty would make anyone question this mathematical equation. 

Over the past six years, I have found myself trying to figure out the formula needed to determine the monastic age of the monks and nuns of New Skete.  I know the year each was born, but what is their true age?  
Their energy, attitude, and loyalty* belie their birth certificates.
Sister Patricia’s chronological age is 84, but what is her biological age?  She gets up early for prayers and worship, heads to the bakery to make cheesecakes, orders the ingredients for the bakery and prepares the bakery schedule, makes cheesecake deliveries, works in the gardens maintaining the flowers and fruit-bearing bushes and trees, keeps the plants in the nuns’ greenhouse healthy and growing, participates in choir practice, attends business meetings as scheduled, and back to church for Vespers.  Then after dinner, she is involved in the nuns’ house meetings and back to individual prayer.   Given her energy, attitude, and loyalty, I would divide her chronological age by two and say she is 42.
Brother Luke’s chronological age is 67; what is his biological age?  He is the first one to respond to my emails at 5 am.  Personal prayer, early chores, then off to church singing bass in the choir.  He grabs breakfast on the run, then to the puppy kennel to care for the dogs or a meeting with a new puppy owner.   Many mornings there is a hike or walk with his dogs, then more kennel chores.  On Tuesdays, it is grocery shopping for the monks and guests.  In the afternoon he is either in his office working on a homily, a newsletter article, a presentation for a seminar or retreat, or he is working in the library, scheduling the next concert, or coordinating the production of a new CD.  If he is not found there he can be found upstairs in the business offices handling his duties as the treasurer.  At certain times of the year, he is in the smoke house, helping Brother Ambrose smoke and package cheese for local farms.  Vespers, then after supper, back outside with the dogs playing and exercising them. He is the last to respond to my emails at 10 pm.   Given his energy, attitude, and loyalty, I would say he is 34.
All the brothers and sisters have busy schedules filled with various activities and duties.  Each member of New Skete has multiple roles to fulfill.   Whether it is training and/or caring for dogs, maintaining the guest house, writing homilies, singing in the choir, working in the bakery, cooking for the house and guests, giving a tour or a presentation to a group, clearing overgrowth from trails, painting icons,… and being true to their monastic mission and vision.
Is monastic life at New Skete the fountain of youth? 

Probably not, but I think we can all take a lesson from them on how to stay youthful.
Just try keeping up with Brother Stavros on a hike.

*Loyalty to the mission of New Skete

New Skete is a monastic community of men and women rooted in the tradition of the Eastern Church.  Through prayer, worship, and the work of our hands, we seek to respond to the mystery of God and the Gospel’s power to transform human living.  Welcoming all, we seek to bridge the old with the new and to witness to the sacredness of all creation.

Liturgy Mirroring Life

By Brother Christopher

I have been a monk at New Skete for thirty-five years, and during that time I’ve observed a noteworthy transition in our culture’s attitudes to formal religious practice and affiliation. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard guests and visitors to our monastery say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious. I just don’t find any meaning or value in going to church.” These are the “Nones,” those who answer Gallup polls saying, “Yes, I believe in God” but “No, I don’t attend any church.” They profess a vague, undefined set of beliefs that don’t demand any practical expression save trying to be a good person. Nones certainly don’t perceive any relationship between committed church membership and being good, so they often think, “Why bother? I can be just as good a person without the hassle of an hour and a half of boredom in church.”

At a time when church attendance seems to be declining in all the “higher” Christian churches, what is glaringly obvious is an increasing estrangement from organized religion, most particularly from the actual experience of worship, from liturgy. The general perception of many young people is that church is stuffy, overly preoccupied with rituals and bad singing, a sterile fulfilling of a legal obligation. Many of our contemporaries seem to have lost any sense of a need to worship and so instead fill their free time with distractions and amusements. Part of the reason for this, I am convinced, is that worship is often devoid of the beauty and personal connection that gives meaning to the ritual—it lacks the radiance that touches the soul and communicates a felt sense of transcendence. This is what the human soul longs for. Whenever we experience this, no amount of distractions will be ever able to fill our intrinsic desire to worship, to adore the Creator of the universe in solidarity and communion with those who share the same convictions. To experience the power of such moments, whenever they might occur, makes us aware that we become fully alive when we are part of a worshiping body, a group that renders true praise to God in spirit and in truth. This is precisely what good liturgy does.

As Orthodox believers, we face many challenges trying to pass on our faith to our children as well as to those who, for whatever reason, may come to our liturgical gatherings. Particularly if the services are not in English, or are conducted with opaque translations that are difficult to understand, those who have no grounding in basic Christian doctrine and tradition are apt to find the experience mystifying, something whose relevance to their life and happiness isn’t immediately apparent. Unless, that is, they experience a deep beauty and grace that is able to penetrate their initial lack of understanding; unless, further, they happen to hear a sermon that truly breaks open the scriptures for them, that speaks to their heart’s deepest longing and causes them to think, “What if...?” Unless, even further, they experience the warmth and friendship of a welcoming community after the liturgy, who communicate Christ’s presence in their open attitude of acceptance. Then such people might be interested in learning more about what they vaguely intuited in the liturgy, and begin to recognize and understand the signs and symbols that make liturgy something living and deeply meaningful. Perhaps they might even come to recognize liturgy as that spiritual locus that gathers and offers all the fragments of our life to God, and thereby come to appreciate the cosmic nature of our faith.

Liturgy comes alive when we experience it as a grateful offering to God of all the elements of our life. Then liturgy becomes transformative, and through its ritual we become aware of just how close God has come to us in the ordinary events of daily life. Why? Because we see presented before us signs and symbols that, far from creating a mystifying separation between ritual and life, instead seamlessly connect them together in a robust theophany. When the Church gathers as a community of faith, it offers the full range of its gifts back to God as a sign of all that is being transformed. Life is being transformed.

A grace I experience here at New Skete is that our liturgical life is precisely this. Many of the elements that are part of our worship are the products of our life together. We worship in a beautiful church we built with our own labor, that both incarnates and symbolizes our spiritual home. We wear liturgical vestments made skillfully and artistically by one of our nuns; we behold the elegant iconography produced by members of the community; we sing music arranged by community members and pray liturgical texts translated or composed by them. Even the flowers that adorn the Church are grown in our gardens. All this makes the experience of liturgy intensely intimate and personal, connected with the broader parameters of our life. Liturgy symbolically gives expression to the truth that all the elements of our life are the means through which we go to God. For example, I think of our work training dogs. Who would have thought that training dogs can be a spiritual activity? Yet, I’ve discovered that working with them is a mutually enriching process; as the dog is trained, so am I trained. Working with the dog, helping to shape its behavior and allowing it to flower as a companion that is going to have a positive impact on someone's life, is deeply satisfying to me. It is a spiritual activity that I’m reminded of each day at prayer, simply one more element of my life that reveals God’s presence to me.

Liturgy is far from “escapist,” promoting a spirituality of separation that flees the world. Instead, true liturgy fosters a spirituality of integration, in which all the component pieces of life play their proper role in offering the whole of it to God. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist; we offer God back the whole of what we have received.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Will you do it? Can you do it?

By Sister Cecelia

In 2015 the monastics had many discussions about how we would celebrate our 50th New Skete anniversary. One idea that emerged was to have a commemorative icon painted that would symbolize who we are.

The monks and nuns spent much prayer and reflection on what we would like to see in the icon, and we agreed on a plan. We articulated our ideas and sent them to several iconographers with a request for an agreement as to time needed to complete and how much the commission would cost. The question came back: Why not do it yourself? You have iconographers there. So I was asked, Will you do it? Can you do it in time for the anniversary? There was no way I could complete the icon in time for the beginning of the anniversary year, 2016, but we agreed it would be sufficient if I could have it completed by the day of the Pilgrimage.

So began the process of preparing the board and the drawing. Many questions needed input: which Transfiguration model to use, what size the small temple was to be, which two saints to depict and their size, and which animals of the Creation to depict. Only a few changes from the next draft were

made: the church needed to be a little smaller and from a different viewpoint so that the large middle bonja would be more centered and with the cross on it pointing to Christ. The two saints would also be a little smaller, and the creatures would be only those we might see around here, both wild and domesticated. The suggested list of animals kept getting longer. While not everyone was thoroughly satisfied with all the decisions, approval was given and the painting began.

Painting for others and painting for one’s own community whose tastes are so varied can be stressful. Trusting in the Spirit to guide me, I began work on June 13, 2015. Any and all were invited to come and see the progress, and I welcomed critiques, which were varied: “The horses look more like donkeys.” “The Scottish Highlander’s legs are too long.” “Where is a cat?”

To me the faces are the most important part of icons. What do the faces express when anyone gazes upon them? Until St. Maria Skobtsova and St. John Cassian, in the upper third of the icon, were completed to the point where I was happy with their faces, I felt nervous. Once their faces looked acceptable, the whole project became quite joyful. As the icon neared completion I asked Brother Stavros to write an explanation of the meaning of the icon, which he graciously did. By the beginning of June 2016 the icon was completed, brought up to the church, and after several deliberations hung where its placement was originally planned. On the Feast of Transfiguration, August 6, Metropolitan Tikhon said a special prayer of blessing during the Divine Liturgy.

I rejoiced that I had met the July deadline I had set for myself and that now I could tackle the many little jobs I had set aside to be able to work on this icon.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Choir As the Icon of the Community

Brother Christopher

Recently I watched a PBS episode of the American Experience telling the story of “the Boys in the Boat,” the Olympic 9-man rowing team from the University of Washington that won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was a gripping tale that described how the various members of the crew had struggled with adversity both in and beyond the sport to ultimately arrive victorious at the medal podium. Their courage and perseverance were deeply inspiring, and it was a thoroughly uplifting program. But the aspect of the story that struck me most unexpectedly was its description of what needed to take place among the crew members in order for them to succeed. The 9-man event demands that the crew work as one, harmoniously developing a rhythm with the oars that manifests a sleek elegance, gliding through the water with seemingly effortless precision. Only the crew members know the maximum amount of effort and concentration that go into winning the race at that high level. The documentary included several shots taken from above the boats, and the words that came to mind immediately were beauty and grace. To observe such a crew working as one was lovely to behold.

            Now while I love sports, the connection I made with the program had less to do with rowing, a sport I never really had an interest in, and more to do with seeing a group of individuals working together as one for a worthy goal. Together they became something more, something ennobling that perhaps wouldn’t have been available to them in the same way as individuals. That is something I experience deeply in my life as a monk: together we become something more than we could ever be simply as individuals. As this is our 50th anniversary, what astonishes me as I reflect over the history of the community is how this group of very human people (along with others who helped along the way) have been able to build not simply a monastery, but a way of life that reflects that corporate ideal. It is a living expression of the truth St Paul speaks about in 1 Cor 12:12:

For as with the human body which is a unity although it has many parts—all the parts of the body, though many, still making up one single body—so it is with Christ.  13 We were baptised into one body in a single Spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men, and we were all given the same Spirit to drink.  14 And indeed the body consists not of one member but of many.  15 If the foot were to say, ‘I am not a hand and so I do not belong to the body,’ it does not belong to the body any the less for that.  16 Or if the ear were to say, ‘I am not an eye, and so I do not belong to the body,’ that would not stop its belonging to the body.  17 If the whole body were just an eye, how would there be any hearing? If the whole body were hearing, how would there be any smelling? 18 As it is, God has put all the separate parts into the body as he chose.  19 If they were all the same part, how could it be a body?  20 As it is, the parts are many but the body is one.  21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and nor can the head say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’

            In today’s culture, people sometimes wonder why anyone would choose the monastic vocation as a life path. They imagine it to be so disciplined, so austere. Then, to top it off, there’s the issue of being celibate! My response is always the same: it’s the fulfillment I experience in being part of something that we strive for and achieve together that we could never accomplish by ourselves, that manifests our deepest ideals and beliefs. It is feeling fully alive, having the opportunity to become my best self in union with these other brothers and sisters. In this fragmented and compartmentalized world we live in, our monastic life witnesses to the joy of living in God together in a manner that doesn’t squash individuality but allows it to serve the most noble of causes: the reign of God.

            At New Skete we have a saying that “the choir is the icon of the community.” This refers to the basic work we engage in as monastics: common worship. When we get together each day for the daily liturgical services, we sing in harmony, doing our best to blend together with each particular piece without the benefit of musical accompaniment. Since we are not professional musicians, it is something we have to work at regularly, and we formally practice at least once a week. But when we experience during the services the fruit of the work, the blending of our voices and the realization of a smooth harmony, it symbolizes the wider confluence and communion that takes place in our lives together. The sensation literally takes us out of ourselves in a transcendent way, moving us together toward the mystery that has held prime of place in each of our lives. And just as the group of eight oarsmen and a coxswain from Washington became one in the 1936 Olympics, so, too, do we become one body, witnessing in song what is continuously taking place in the various activities of the community. And that makes all the difference!


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Frustration and the Gift of Fortitude

By Brother Luke

Every morning at Matins, the opening psalmody is followed by a reading and then a brief meditation time. Usually something in the readings will strike a chord in me and stay with me for the rest of the day. Sometimes it comes back to mind during my meditation time later in the day. A recent meditation reading about the gift of fortitude from a collection of readings by Thomas Keating hit home that day.  When Fr Thomas listed the various ways fortitude can make a difference, the reference to frustration stuck in my mind. As I pondered the connection between fortitude and frustration, another image came to mind: the Pauline description of love always being patient.

In today’s world, it is not hard to feel frustration over much that we see in the news. Violence and hostility, fueled by fear, anger, and exasperation over many inequities and injustices, abound. As we notice ourselves getting pulled into that vortex, fortitude and patience may be the antidote. However, we may not want to go there.  Every fiber in our being is screaming: outrage. How can love conquer all this evil? How can patience and fortitude be of any help? Maybe looking at frustrations closer to home can offer a clue. And this is where my thoughts and prayers turned that day. How do I respond to personal slights, insults, failures, disappointments, and hostility directed at me?

If my innermost emotions are telling me to strike back, then here is where fortitude and patience come in. Here is where the love that St Paul is writing about can make the difference. And the difference is striving to make the situation better. Often that process can begin if I attempt to understand the situation from the other’s point of view. It does not mean that I have to accept or agree with the other’s point of view; it means I have to at least look at it. In looking outside myself I can move away from the emotions fueling my frustration.

This is not an exercise in denial; the reality is there. Rather, it is an exercise in facing reality with a view to making a difference that brings peace to the situation. This will include peace within me and peace between me and the other. It may very well involve taking action, but that action is constructive, not destructive. If I need to speak with a brother about some incident that occurred between us, then that conversation needs to take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect born of love and not antagonism born of rancor. And this is hard to do—hence the place for the gift of fortitude. 

Hostess in a Holy House: Coordinating Dog Seminars

By Ida Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

Inviting people into the home of your employer can be daunting, to say the least, but the eighth New Skete dog owner/trainer seminar ended this past Sunday, and with a sigh of relief I can say it went as well as the first one held in 2013.

My background is in hospitality marketing and management. Coordinating events is in my skill set, but never did I imagine that I would be running events in the home of the Monks of New Skete. Years of management in hotels and resorts, a western-themed amusement park with a banquet facility, and participating in the promotion and planning of our county fair may have provided the base for event coordination, but New Skete dog seminars have been a new encounter that I thoroughly relish.

Event planners know that defining your goals and objectives prior to planning the particulars of the event is key. Once the goals have been established, the rest falls in place. The objectives of hosting New Skete dog owner/trainer seminars are these:

  • To share the New Skete philosophy of living intentionally with your dog, providing a base for a deeper human-canine bond.
  • To share dog training knowledge and expertise so fewer dogs are surrendered to shelters.
  • To validate the spiritual connection of humankind with creation through conversations and experience sharing.
  • To introduce people to New Skete Monasteries through a mutual interest in dogs.
  • To make life-long friends.

Achieving these objectives at a monastery:

  • The Program - The brothers have the knowledge and experience needed to provide a one-of-a-kind seminar that is available nowhere else. Pulling from personal experience and education, each monk shares his knowledge of living with and training dogs. Conversations go beyond the classroom to one-on-one discussions. The brothers’ monastic tradition of hospitality is evident in all sessions, church services, and social gatherings.
Quotes from attendees:
“Some women go on spa vacations... I'm going on a 3-day dog seminar vacation and can't wait.”
“It is so fun to watch the faces of people when you tell them you are going to a monastery for a dog seminar!”

  • The Food - I am a big believer in “the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach.” We have become very proficient at meeting any dietary restrictions. Vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten free—no problem. Meals are shared with the brothers and are further opportunities to learn from and share with the monks. Good food lends to great conversations. 
Quotes from attendees:
“A BIG thank you for catering to my vegan needs. You helped to make the workshop not only informative, but a most enjoyable experience as well.”   
“I have attended many workshops and seminars during my years as a dog trainer; never have I eaten so well.”
  • The Staff - New Skete staff is small in numbers but big on talent and loyalty. Each staff member steps outside of their assigned roles to help. Anastacia Tonjes, Purchasing Manager and Gift Shop Coordinator, helps in food prep and is an expert pineapple cutter. Carrie Murphy, Director of Finance, helps with food prep. Josh Elliot, Maintenance Manager and Cook, works tirelessly preparing meals and making certain that the facilities are in working order. (By the way, Josh and his wife had their first child just a few days before the July 2016 seminar.) Karen Gladstone, Director of Advancement and Stewardship, makes certain that the tent, tables, and chairs are here; coordinates volunteers; helps with set-up and food prep; and attends to the guests. I have often said that one of my favorite parts about working for New Skete is that I am never bored. Not a typical 9 to 5 job.
  • The Volunteers - The heart of a non-profit event is its volunteers. Dave, a long-time friend of New Skete, drives up from Pennsylvania just to help during these events. Carl, Anna P., Anna C., John, Dale, Isaac, Cindy, Irene, Bob, Autumn, Nina, Chuck… from food prep to washing dishes, from directing traffic to running errands—these people are more than volunteers; they are part of New Skete’s circle of friends.
  • The Guests - If the brothers are the brains, the staff the hands, and the volunteers the heart, then the guests are the soul. Each attendee comes for their interest in dogs. What they leave with and what they leave behind is much more. The demographics have changed in the past four years. The first year, attendees were 80% dog trainers, 20% dog enthusiasts. This year attendees were 80% dog enthusiasts, 20% dog trainers. We also had our oldest and youngest (9 years old) attendees this year. Attendees leave with a new understanding of the connection with their canine companion and a larger picture of how we all fit into creation. What they leave behind is a renewed view on how New Skete touches lives and a yearning by the brothers, staff, and volunteers to see their new friends again.
Quote from attendee:
“It was so refreshing to be renewed in body, soul and spirit this past weekend. After 40+ years of dog training it can and does remain fresh when you view your work as an act of praise and worship to the creator. Prayer without ceasing!”

Many thanks to all who presented and participated in this time of renewal.