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.