Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hypocrisy of the Pharisees

By Sister Cecelia

 IS 27: 12-13, 28:5-6, 16-17, EPH 2:13-22, LK 13:10-17

A minister was traveling and, having stopped at a diner, felt a little annoyed not being waited on after ten minutes. His only consolation was that the truck driver seated next to him was also not attended to. When the minister said with irritation to the truck driver, “Maybe this counter is off limits,” the truck driver responded, “Maybe they are short of help.” After several more minutes the minister commented, “Maybe they don’t want our business.” The truck driver answered, “Maybe they are taking care of those people at the tables.” More minutes went by, and the minister said to him, “Maybe they don’t like us,” to which the response was “I don’t mind waiting, since the air conditioning feels so good.” At that point, a harried waitress approached, apologized, and told them that the water had been cut off and the dishwasher was not working. Both men rose and left the diner.  As they left, the minister was even more annoyed with the truck driver when he realized that he, not the minister, had chosen to practice what the minister preached. The truck driver’s way was love for one’s neighbor, and the minister’s way was hypocrisy, along with a not very humble attitude, and anger with the truck driver for living out the gospel better than the minister.

I have often wondered if the Pharisees saw the hypocrisy in how they would treat their animals compared with how they would treat anyone ill or sick. I have often wondered, too, what my response would have been in like circumstances. Have you? What laws do we think are so sacrosanct that there might indeed be extenuating circumstances that would rightfully change our own attitude or behavior? Many laws we follow are man-made laws, and even those we assume are from God, have been interpreted by humans.

The Jewish law had to be abolished, for its commandments and ordinances would prevent the Gentiles and the Jews from realizing they are one body in Christ. Those who were far, the Gentiles, and those who were near, the Hebrews, have been made one humanity through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We are one with Christ, because Christ, being God, became human.
At times, it does not seem we are much further along in seeing and thus acting like we realize we are one body. There are many indications that more people are aware—at least intellectually—of the connection between all of humanity and all of creation. And there are many examples of those who have loved their neighbor truly and without hypocrisy throughout the centuries.  That is good, but we can’t sit back and bask in the light of someone else’s glory. The question to ask is this: How am I living the gospel message in the here and now? When I reflect on my own attitudes and behaviors, do I only see a loving response to others, or do I apply hypocritical double standards to my circumstances? 

We have to allot time each day to be able to listen to the Spirit speaking to us, letting us know where we are falling short of the mark. If we come to see that we have fallen short of the mark, then faith and hope are indeed necessary. We need faith that is deep enough to sustain us when we are weak, when we are sick, when our self-confidence is gone, when our self-respect is gone. Only the humble are able to have faith when everything else is taken away. How much more should our own faith and hope be for those of us who do not have to suffer everything being taken away. Let us be encouraged to spend time listening to God’s Spirit speaking within us and reflecting on the mysteries of the love that God gives us.

Our life is God’s gift to us. Our gift we give to God is what we do with it, how we live in the now, loving and allowing others to love us.

Christ is in our midst!

Friday, February 19, 2016


By Brother John
Often we say, “I can’t hear myself think!”
Noise seems to have taken over. The sounds of nature often go unrecognized, and when peace and quiet come, they are met with difficulty. In these moments, we struggle to fill the void the silence brings, and we feel a pull to busy ourselves with noise—be it chatter, television, or social media.
We resist the call to listen: to others, ourselves, even God. It is as though we don't know where to begin.
It shows in how we deal with others. Just look at the current political process as we seek the next president for 2017. The people running for office seem to act more like spoiled children bickering with one another than civil servants asking for our vote. Have we gone wrong? What can we do to change? We can start in our approach to one another. We can start to bring our lives into real prayer, meditation: just sitting in the presence of God.
Then we clear our heads of all junk and chaos, and in 2016, we find ourselves in the same situation as the desert mothers and fathers did in the fourth century. They entered the barren wilderness to leave all distractions, and in the seeming quiet, they lived and centered their thoughts on God. It's in our many brief, still moments that the “desert” is present for us, and we are reminded of our presence with the Divine.
This reminds me of our own beginning here at New Skete fifty years ago. We came here to live as brothers and sisters in work, prayer, and worship, and to find God for ourselves, with the hope of helping others do the same. When people come to visit, we simply invite them to participate in what we share with one another: our space, the quiet, the various ways in which we have sought God in our own lives. So when they depart, they leave with their spiritual lives stirred by good food and conversation, and with a home for their next retreat.
However, I continue to be saddened over these past fifty years in the decline of vocations. It seems that noise and busyness have prevailed. People see our life, they have a profound respect for the way we live, but they do not feel the same pull that brought us here in 1966, or perhaps the pull is being felt differently today. Being a nun or a monk is hard work, and it is rewarding to see people come, be themselves, leave happy and with God until the next visit. Seeing this effect on retreatants, and knowing that we have a part in their renewed lives, makes all these fifty years worth while.
This way of life has its difficulties, but if it is taken seriously, the result is growth: personal, spiritual, and in community as we all find God together.
My wish for the next fifty years is that New Skete will continue to be a place of refuge for all people, to aid them in finding rest and peace, to be reminded of God, and perhaps become interested in this way of life.
Please help us to make 2016 a year of grace in any way you can, as we seek to improve our aging physical structures and prepare for the next fifty years.

Who’s That New Person in Our Midst?

By Brother Luke

Lessons in humility come in many different packages.  Physical diminishment that comes with aging will impose itself on us, and we know that to accept this reality peacefully is a sign of humility as a willingness to be open to what God has placed before us. By responding this way, we recognize and acknowledge an essential element of our human nature. This is a far cry from the images of humility that spring from manufactured practices of self-abasement and abuse we humans dream up. They may be well intentioned, but they are not from God. But other areas of our life that challenge us can creep up on us without our being fully aware of what is happening. The good news is that humility is about growth. It’s about embracing new realities. It can open up possibilities for reaching for new horizons that we otherwise think might be unattainable or unimaginable. Humility engages us even when we do not realize it.

When New Skete was founded, back in the 1960s, the brothers were in their 20s and excited about the new life they had embarked on. No challenge was too great. They had no place to live, so they found temporary lodging in Pennsylvania while they looked for a permanent home. A first stop in Shushan, New York, gave them opportunities to learn about renovating an existing residence. Of course they got help and advice from neighbors, but they did the work themselves. When that location didn’t work out, they moved to a new property on Two Top Mountain in neighboring White Creek, New York. Then the issue was not renovation, but building from scratch. No problem. They got books about all aspects of construction, and they drafted their own architectural plans for residences, workshops, and a chapel. Again, they got help from neighbors, but they did the work themselves: carting all the tools and materials up the dirt road to the work site, making cement frames and then pouring the cement, hammering nails, dipping cedar shingles. You name it, they did it. They tried farming, also worked on neighbor’s farms, hired on as construction workers to build a local motel, built the first monastery for the Nuns of New Skete, created businesses in food production and dog breeding and training. They translated texts for religious services and wrote new music. No project was too formidable. And by doing all these things, they developed a sense of self-reliance. Of course they needed help, and many good people made donations to support the work of the monastery. But there was always that sense that New Skete took care of itself and helped others.

As time went on, the brothers discovered that they did not have time to do all the maintenance work, so outside contractors were hired for specific jobs. Even so, this was limited, and the brothers still did all the work in the businesses and shops, managed the financial books, mowed the lawns, and ran a growing mail order business. I entered this picture in 1995.

By the turn of the new century we began to realize that we really could not manage everything by ourselves, so we started to look for help that went beyond occasional contractors. Now we had to think about employees. This was new, and we needed to learn all about issues we had never dealt with before. Hiring an employee was not the same as hiring a contractor. Now we had salaries, taxes, benefits, supervising employees. And we couldn’t treat employees like brothers. We had long discussions in our house about hiring employees and how to interact with them. We needed help in learning how boundaries with employees were different from between brothers. Who is that new person in our midst who is not a monastic but is with us daily? How are we supposed to treat that person? When we were self-sufficient, none of these issues even came up. Now we could no longer avoid them.

Not every new person was an employee; we still hired lawyers and accountants as needed. Roofing work was on contract. So was snow plowing and road maintenance. Even the first employees were treated like independent contractors. We started with a house cleaner, a cook, and a clerk for our gift shop.  But we soon realized we needed help managing our books. Then we realized we needed more than occasional help with our computer system. We also hired on contract a person to help with development. Things just kept growing. We hired a consulting firm to help us steer through the growing issue of managing our businesses and staff.  The consultants made a valiant effort to structure a new approach to our work, especially with dogs. Through their efforts we learned how to advertise and then interview for new hires, and we welcomed into our community new full-time employees for marketing and communications, advancement and stewardship, and a financial officer with bookkeeping and accounting skills. We also had to hire a full-time maintenance man. We had full-time staff in dog training and at the puppy kennel. In the end we finally reached a plateau where staff costs exceeded income, and we knew we had to cut back.  Hiring is one challenge, but letting people go was an even greater challenge: one that is never easy, and shouldn’t be. The life the brothers had chosen back in the 1960s had moved from simplicity to complexity.

So the lesson in humility that we received from venturing into the world of employees and management structures was all about embracing the help we needed and letting go of the initial ideal of self-reliance. But maybe this is exactly where God has been leading us all along. Self-reliance can be a disguise for denying or avoiding the reality that we need to rely on God. If what we are striving for in our monastic life is worthy of God and others, we need to recognize and accept that God and others as the arms of God are all necessary parts of this monastic life. It is humbling to face that reality, but liberating to embrace it.

Many Symbols, Many Meanings

By Sister Cecelia

During our regular retreat times, some of the common works are put aside so that we have a bit more time for reading, reflecting, and meditating.  This morning as I was reflecting on the pictures and wall hangings here, I realized they each have a special significance to me. The different images symbolize something to me that would not mean the same to anyone else. Others would not see what I see in them.

One is a handmade paper, slightly raised in various areas, that is in different shades of blue with little green and gold flecks. I doubt the artist intended what I see, which is a rowboat or canoe in the Everglades, or some area like the Everglades. I see an overhanging tree at an angle toward the boat, with accompanying overgrowth. The scene is symbolic to me of God looking over my journey into the unknown of everyday life. It isn’t clear where I am going, but God is near and with me. While life can be frightening at times, this depiction is peaceful and serene.

 Another painting was done by my father. When it hung in his home with about twenty others of his paintings, it showed a windblown river descending in a terrific storm during the night, with possible lightning in the distance. After my father died and the painting was given to me and hung up with another painting of his, I was amazed to find that the river was going upstream, not down! From the darkened bottom the windblown river was going toward the light, not lightning.  How symbolic it seems of life. No matter how difficult the storms of life, the river of our journey will take us toward the light if we let it—or even in spite of our efforts to the contrary.

The other painting by my father is of the same Maumee River, which is wide enough in places to appear as small lakes. This one does, but it still flows upstream around similar bends of land. After the storm of the first painting, this one is calm and serene.

My musings have made me wonder what symbolism others see in places or activities, or rituals that mean something only to them. In studying icons, we see so many symbolic colors, stances, and styles whose meanings have for the most part remained the same. Many symbols were originally understood without any need for explanations, but now they are not so obvious. A little knowledge of scripture is a big help in understanding some of the symbolism of icons.

Preparing for Great Lent

By Brother Christopher

            During our winter retreat I had the opportunity to spend several days at St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. It is a community with which we have had a long friendship, and they have always been gracious in letting us spend a few days of retreat whenever one of us feels the need. As it happened, this year I was present for their celebration of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Western Lent. Seeing everyone walk around that day with the cross of ash marked on their foreheads reminded me of the timeless truth that is spoken during the ceremony: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” It is a vivid sign of what Lent is all about.

            One might think that because Great Lent starts for us so late this year (almost five weeks after Western Christians begin Lent), I would have felt something of a liturgical disconnect in witnessing that ceremony. However, I didn’t find it so at all. Not only was the ceremony dignified in its simplicity and beauty, but it was like a sonorous gong echoing deep within me, making me vividly aware that Great Lent is indeed approaching and that I have the opportunity to transition into its atmosphere gradually, something akin to getting into a hot bath. Going in slowly gives the body time to adjust instead of experiencing it as a sudden shock to the system.

            Actually, I believe that this is the intent of the Church in giving us several Sundays in advance of Great Lent to prepare for the seriousness of the season. In celebrating the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, Judgement Sunday, and Forgiveness Sunday, we have the opportunity to transition gradually into the theme of repentance, of changing our minds and the associated shadow sides of our behavior. Repentance is never simply a one-time event. It needs to be renewed throughout our lives. Each of these Sundays presents us with a somewhat counter-intuitive Gospel lesson that turns the tables on what we might at first glance expect to occur. It is the publican whom Jesus puts forth as the proper example of one at prayer, not the Pharisee; it is the prodigal son whose expectation of punishment is swallowed by the compassion and forgiveness of his father, and the elder son who unfortunately doesn’t get the significance of his father’s gesture; it is what we do to our neighbors that Jesus emphasizes as being the true sign of our dedication to God, not disconnected devotions; finally, it is our forgiving others that is the condition of God forgiving us. Should we meditate on these Gospel stories in an honest manner, we will no doubt see how we fall short of the ideal each one expresses. This, in turn, will help us to appreciate the challenge that Great Lent as a season offers us: the opportunity to grow ever more closely into the image we are called to reflect.

            As we enter into the atmosphere of repentance, transitioning from the season of the Incarnation and looking forward to Great Lent, might we reflect on the Kondakion of the Prodigal Son, which we sing here at New Skete during the Sunday matins service:

Like fools, we left behind our father’s glory,
and by our sins we squandered all he gave us.
So now, filled with shame, we beg him like the prodigal:
We have sinned against you, father, and all we have is our sorrow.
In your tenderness, do not turn us away;take us back at least as hired hands.