Thursday, April 27, 2017

John Benson

 Brother Stavros

John Benson and Jeanette Warner first came to New Skete from reading In the Spirit of Happiness in 2000.  After their first visit with the Companions at Emmaus House, they started going to St. Nicholas Parish (OCA) soon afterward, where they were pleased to learn of Fr. George Gray's connection with New Skete. Fr. George was ordained in our Transfiguration church here at New
Skete some thirty years ago. He came to know the monastery through his wife, Daria, whose school chum was a daughter of one of New Skete’s earliest families.

John and Jeanette were core members of the New Skete Synaxis at St. Nicholas. They considered becoming Companions in residence at New Skete, and although moving from the Pacific Northwest did not prove realistic, they did make frequent visits and became especially close to Sr. Melanie and Br. Stephen, the last resident members of Emmaus House. John had a professional landscape business in Portland and helped Sr. Melanie with the gardens at Emmaus House. The results were stunning. As one might expect for a man of that profession, John loved the outdoors and his visits often afforded the chance to hike in the Green Mountains or the Adirondacks, which bookend Cambridge. It was my great pleasure to develop a close friendship with him on those occasions. Hiking afforded us time to discuss theology, liturgy, books, photography, and poetry, and to groan at John’s cleverly outrageous and relentless puns.

On my first visit to Portland, John took me snowshoeing on Mt. Hood. It was February, and I had never experienced something so gigantic as that 11,000-foot volcano, a short drive from the city. When we were done we had a great lunch at a roadhouse redolent with northwestern ambience. Then he drove around the mountain counterclockwise to show me the Columbia River Gorge and the Multnomah Falls (a color poster now adorns my armoire door).

I led a special retreat for the Synaxis at Jeanette’s oceanside cabin on Cape Meares. It was my first sight of the Pacific. The dramatic coastline and the mountains got me thoroughly hooked, enthralled; and in the decade since I have managed a few more visits to the region, always including some time with John and Jeanette.

This February was my first opportunity after hearing about John’s surgery to remove a brain tumor to see how he was doing. On an unbelievably clear and sunny day, John and Jeanette took me for lunch at “Salty’s” on the Columbia, then on a scenic drive upriver with Mt. Hood blanketed in luminous snow in afternoon golden light ahead of us to the East.
We then headed back to their home off Hawthorne Avenue, and given how sunny it was, we stopped for a walk around the pond in Laurelhurst Park. I felt a shadow of melancholy, for while John’s sense of humor was engaged, when I asked him the name of some trees he said he had lost all his horticulture vocabulary. “Gees, I used to know all these names, but now it’s just gone.”

On the phone and in person he was at ease talking about his condition, without bitterness or anger; rather he seemed at peace about the inevitable. This manifested his deep trust in God and firm attachment to Christ. John’s perception was that suffering crashes the gates of most people’s lives, and if we are wise, we let God in through those gates.

It was difficult to say goodbye. The three of us were aware that it most likely was a last farewell.
Thank you, John, for your joie de vivre, for your courage and faith, for your sense of fun. Your life has touched me deeply and leaves me humbled and inspired. You have had the last laugh.

Memory eternal!       Stavros

John Benson (left) with Brother Stavros.
Mount Hood is in the background.

Tuesday Morning Dog Training Meetings

 Ida Williams, Director of Marketing and Communication

On Tuesday mornings I meet with the brothers who run the training program for our weekly dog training meeting.  At these meetings, we review the week’s schedule: dogs being dropped off, picked up, any calls to be made.  The brothers review applications, answer questions from training clients, and direct me on any correspondences that need to go out.

Dog training meetings are held after Matins.  Brother Christopher typically grabs a quick breakfast of toast with almond butter, and Brother Thomas has a cup of coffee.  Bora (Brother Thomas’s dog) joins us.  Brother Christopher sits on my right at the head of the table, and Brother Thomas across from me.  The meetings are so familiar that if the brothers switched chairs, I would feel that I must have shown up to the wrong meeting.  Each meeting starts with a prayer.

“…let us be mindful of your presence... Amen.”

I am going to make a jump here so you know where I am going with this story.  Recently at my church, we experienced a terrible loss.  Our associate pastor’s 32-day-old son died of SIDS.  When I relayed to my senior pastor that the monks and nuns were including the family in their prayers, his response was “those are some good praying guys up there.”
They are professional dog trainers, cheesecake bakers, writers, but when it comes to praying no one can hold a candle to the monks and nuns of New Skete.

What if I took a cue from these “good praying guys” and started different parts of my day with that prayer?  

A few days later, as I got into my car, I prayed “God, let me be mindful of your presence as I drive to work.”  I got behind a car doing 40 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone.   My impatience started to grow, and I was set to berate the driver who was going to make me late for my meeting; then I remembered that God was present.  I didn’t want God to hear me fly off the handle, especially after the prayer I had just prayed.   So instead I said, “God, I don’t know where this guy is going so slowly, but I hope he makes it there safe, and if by chance he turns off at the next intersection that would be great.”  I smiled and felt better about the drive.  He did not turn at the next intersection.  I was not late.

Last month, a blizzard had me a little behind on preparations for the Lenten Retreat.  When I arrived to work two days before the retreat, I prayed that I would be mindful of God’s presence throughout the day.  As soon as I walked in the door, all those little things that have a tendency to pop up when you are already stressed did just that. Pop, pop, pop.  There was a phone message from a training customer that needed to change their drop-off date, another message about attending the retreat, a check on my desk with a note that said “I found this in the cash drawer but it was not put through point of sale,” the computer and phone were not working at the training center so the clients who dropped off their dogs needed to be contacted, there were questions that needed to be answered before a new website for the cheesecakes could go live, a missed and extended deadline for a newspaper ad, and the classroom still had packing materials that were supposed to have been moved out by Monday.   I grumbled, wanted to scream, felt like crying.  Where was God’s presence?  Karen cut the bookmarks/agendas for the retreat, Brother Gregory alphabetized the nametags and assembled the journals and pens, and Josh moved tables and set up chairs.  Ah, God’s presence.

I am not sure this is what the brothers and sisters mean when they pray “Let us be mindful of your presence,” but it works for me.

This morning as Brother Christopher, Brother Thomas, Bora, and I gathered for our Tuesday morning dog training meeting, Brother Christopher prayed “…let us be mindful of your presence... Amen.”  I giggled.  Not because of the prayer, but because even though Brother Thomas was sitting across from me with his cup of coffee, and Brother Christopher was sitting on my right at the head of the table, he had switched his breakfast.  He had two pieces of toast, one with almond butter, and two small oranges.  Was I at the right meeting?

Book Review: Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness

 by Brother Christopher

            Cancer is a word that immediately scares us. While all of us understand intellectually that many people have to deal with various types of cancer and their treatment, few of us sit around thinking of the time when our number will be called. Instead, we go on with our lives, try our best to live as healthfully as possible, and don’t stress over whatever frightening possibilities may occur down the road. Some may deem this a subtle form of denial, but it is how most of us cope with life while still being able to celebrate the joyful, beautiful, and humorous moments of each day. And it is entirely understandable.

            However, all of this changes when the “C” word is spoken to us personally, in the form of a diagnosis perhaps, or the news of a close friend or family member having to suddenly face such an illness. Cancer is then brought to an intensely personal level, and one’s life can easily be swallowed by fear and uncertainty. Where does one turn for the support that is so essential if the experience is to be something more than simply a terrifying chapter of “will I live or will I die?”

            Cricket Cooper is an Episcopal priest and a Companion of New Skete who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2012. She has written an intensely personal account of the process she went through in her medical treatment, while at the same time using her illness as the basis for a spiritual pilgrimage that re-frames the process into a spiritual journey filled with danger, hope, renewal, and surprise. Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness, is an utterly unique look into how Cricket deals with her illness while using it as a means for spiritual growth and enlightenment.

            Cricket is a very accessible and amiable writer, and the reader of this book will soon be enchanted with her unique and uncanny way of looking at reality. She moves gracefully through moments of utter vulnerability and fear, to laugh-out-loud moments that shine the light on the weirdness of the human condition. Throughout the whole of the book she doesn’t take herself too seriously, even in the face of circumstances we all know to be utterly serious. 

            One of the distinctive aspects of this book is how she alternates chapters between honest descriptions of her cycle of treatments and accounts of pilgrimages she makes to various monasteries, both Christian and non-Christian, in between. Full disclosure: one of the places she spent on retreat was New Skete, and Cricket has since become a close friend of the community. But her descriptions of the monastic pilgrimages are interesting and revealing, and provide effective means of balancing the more medical chapters that describe her chemotherapy. Throughout all of it she writes with a sure hand that is unsentimental and insightful.

            This is a book that is more than just a “cancer book.” While giving the reader an intimate picture of one person’s dealing with illness, it also shows how the process can become the means to deeper spiritual wisdom and personal transformation. It will be relevant to those dealing with cancer, to those who may know someone with cancer, and to those who seek to understand how to deal constructively with adversity of any kind. It is an inspiring book that I recommend to anyone looking for a deeper perspective on the mysterious character of life.  

Brother Luke

If There Is Life I Want to Live It. Nikolaos, Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki. Montreal: Alexander Press, 2015. 120 pages. Series: Orthodoxy in Dialogue with the Modern World, Volume 11.

It is sometimes easy to imagine that people in the “Old Country,” in this case Greece, are somehow born into their national religion. To speak of Greece is to imagine not only the Parthenon and ancient times, but also Mount Athos, and all the beautiful Orthodox churches and chapels scattered all over the mainland and the Greek Islands. One might assume that Orthodoxy is somehow in the peoples’ blood; an unquestioned reality that all accept. But this is the 21st century, and many people in Greece, as in all of Europe, are imbued with the secular spirit and see the church as an antique, a cultural relic, but hardly something that offers anything of value to help people negotiate the unstable reality of this century. And yet they often see something missing in their lives and want to find a deeper meaning to life.

            Into this environment steps an Orthodox bishop with a personal story that attracts the attention of even the most skeptical. Metropolitan Nikolaos (Hatzinikolaou) has degrees in physics, astrophysics, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and applied mathematics, theological studies, and theology. He earned a PhD in Theology from the University of Thessaloniki on Orthodox Christian Ethics and Bioethics. He has worked as a researcher and scientific partner in hospitals and as a scientific advisor in Space Medical Technology in the United States. He returned to Greece in 1989 and was tonsured a monk on Mount Athos. Now he is a bishop. He founded the first hospice in Greece under church auspices and has authored many theological and scientific articles. The present book is the product of many conversations with a variety of people who have crossed his path. He has assembled some of these dialogues here to answer a series of 100 questions about faith and the search for God. His approach is to connect the stories of others to his own journey of faith. He is not trying to convince anyone or increase the followers of the Orthodox faith. As he says in the introduction:

I welcomed them with my whole heart, and my only concern was to embrace their whole being, to share the pain of their search for faith, to recognize the uniqueness of their inner world, to together lift the burden of our human nature. … I never let myself think that I had arrived and they were only just setting out. I always felt that I was with them, a fellow traveller on the wonderful path of the search for God. (p. 5)

To give you a taste of the dialogue, here is part of the exchange concerning the bishop’s choice to become a religious rather than remain engaged directly in scientific research. Did he make the right choice?

If science and research are delight, a life of complete dedication to the Church is enchantment and ecstasy, it is life. … If God exists – and of course He does – then what is greater? Communion with his person, or the study of his works?” … if science is based on the discovery of the truth of the created world, and healthy and true religion is based on the revelation of the truths of God, then wherein lies the problem? Problems emerge when science is dominated by arrogance, and religious thought by narrowness. (p. 13) 

Metropolitan Nikolaos argues that we all believe in gods, little gods that we make into big gods. We often accept what we hear others say without questioning. We may assume that what we hear is true because we believe the source to be reputable. However, we have not done the scientific research ourselves, so we have faith in what others have done. So, he asks, is it possibly time to change our gods? (p. 43)

The conversations also raise questions about the integrity of the Church and its leaders, and even its believers. Metropolitan Nikolaos meets this head-on, asking his interlocutors what they want to see in the Church. Here is one response:

I would like the Church to give me hope, not to constantly be critical and judge… I would like it to contribute to progress and development, to embrace the suffering, those dealt injustice, and young people. I would like it to be more modern and rejuvenative, and not full of words and excuses – nor for it to speak only of God, but to speak of man also. (p. 48)

Bishop Nikolaos agrees but questions the remark about not speaking of God too much. He says:

But that is the Church. In speaking of God it speaks of man. … The Church puts forward the person of God and the road to Him. It cannot happen without boldness, freedom, integrity and constant renewal. There is no message more bold, rejuvenative, pure and free than the word and way of life of the Church. … [and] in the lives of some of her true and faithful members, of her saints. … Hypocrisy, and riches, ossification, fanaticism and narrowness of heart – of course these are not the Church. They are the non-Church. … As for the bad image presented by the clergy, … if you suffered from a lung complaint and your doctor smoked, would you condemn pulmonology and refuse treatment? (pp. 48-9)

His call is not to turn away from the church but to come to understand what it is in essence and to see it as the true path to the freedom to which God is calling us. Although some of the Church’s teachings about Christ’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit are hard for some of his questioners to accept, even so, they are attracted to Christ’s “wonderful teachings.” So, starting from that place, Metropolitan Nikolaos suggests: “Why not first live out his teachings and then see if one is led to faith.” (p. 54) His is a refreshing voice in the sometimes-heavy world of Orthodox theology. I think many will find his approach worth reading and pondering.

            This book is part of the series Orthodoxy in Dialogue with the Modern World, published by Alexander Press of Montreal. Metropolitan Nikolaos has two other books in that series: Investing in the Kingdom of God (Vol. 5) and When God Is Not There (Vol. 8).