Sunday, June 26, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part 2 (Worship)

If you come to The Abbey of the Genesee seeking to worship God you have come to the right place. There are services around the clock starting with Vigils at 2:25am. Lauds is at 6am, Sext at 11:15am, Vespers at 4:30pm, and Compline at 6:40pm. Surely if you want to worship God then one of these times will fit your busy schedule. These are the services that are open to the public at this monastery in Piffard, New York, and Father Jerome told me that the monks have a couple of other worship times as well.
And if you like your services to be short, you have also come to the right place. Most are less than a half hour except for those which are combined with a Mass (with Holy Communion).
And if you are tired of that so-called contemporary praise music with those electric guitars and much too happy singers, you’ll find none of that at the Abbey.
And those long and boring sermons (or even worse – those in which the preacher tells you all those personal stories) won’t be found at the Abbey of the Genesee.
But if you long for predictability and order and formality and simplicity, you should be thrilled. And if walking into a quiet church in which no one speaks to each other or whispers in the pews and people stand when they are supposed to and bow when they are supposed to and don’t leave until they are supposed to and pray the Lord’s Prayer every single time, then you need to come here. God is respected and revered here.
The major portion of each worship experience is the chanting (substitute the word “singing” if “chanting” scares you) of the Psalms – usually three per service. You can chant along with the monks – the words are contained in a large hymnbook (a beautiful book all by itself) that lays in front of the choir stalls you can sit in. No notes, just the words, you’ll get the hang of it. Just don’t be in a hurry. I believe that the monks chant every psalm every week. And the order is set – no last minute bulletin changes for these guys. Worship bulletin – who needs them? No announcements either. The monks also sing a song; we all sing praises to the Trinity a few times and bow as we do it; and a passage of scripture is always read. Bells toll to begin worship and to end it, and there are plenty of moments for silence.
You wouldn’t use the words “praise” or “contemporary” or “traditional” to describe these round-the-clock 24/7/365 services. They are not part of a category that most of us are familiar with. They are not the latest thing to come to a local church near you. You might even find them a bit strange.
But the robe-wearing monks have been worshipping God this way for a long time. The basic outline for what they do is contained in “The Rule of St. Benedict” written about 1500 years ago. Talk about that “Old Time Religion.”
As a local church pastor who has to come up with something new (at least sermon wise) every week, the simplicity and predictability and order of it all speaks to be on a deep level. I feel relieved just walking in the door. And our music director might feel the same way. Every when I am not at a monastery, I will often think about monks chanting the psalms – there must be some monks somewhere in the world lifting up those psalms every minute of every day, every day of the week, every week of the year. Even if I am not in the room with them, I know they are there. Even if the language they speak is not English, I can hear them. And I am grateful for their constant and abiding and faithful witness.
This type of worship is not for everybody, and I need other worship styles as well. I enjoy a high energy worship experience. But I also need these simple monastic services – these low tech, counter cultural, slow moving opportunities in which it is clear that we are not trying to impress God or anyone else with our performances or with our fervor. We are content, instead, to sing simply the words from the ancient songbook of our faith (the Psalms). We enter the worship space quietly and leave it in the same way. It may look like we haven’t been touched or changed by it all, but we have.
I am hungry for God, starving for God, and my soul is fed through monastic worship. It isn’t the only meal I need, but I require it as part of my spiritual diet. Are you starving for God? Do you go from church to church or experience to experience just hoping for a scrap of spiritual bread? Something that will sustain you? Where and how is your soul fed?


Friday, June 24, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part One (The Silent Treatment)

You always notice it at mealtime. There are no casual conversations. No jokes. No comments about the weather or the latest sports scores. There are no angry words spoken either. No passionate theological debates though I am sure that there are significant differences among us. No word comes from anyone’s mouth except for a few announcements made before the meal by our host Kathe followed by a prayer. There is just silence from the dozen or so of us. Silence except for the clinking of silverware against the plates and bowls. Silence except for some quiet background music that comes from a small CD player.
This is not the silence that sometimes accompanies a couple who have been fighting with one another before they enter a restaurant; a bitterness, a resentment, an “I better not say anything because I can’t trust myself” silence as they sit across from one another and act out the ritual of a loving couple out on a date. Or the silence of a grieving family who are eating because they must but whose thoughts, minds, and hearts are somewhere else.
No, this silence is not filled with negative emotions. This is not the silence that leads someone to want to shout: “What’s happening here?” This silence is different. This is a quiet silence not a noisy silence. This is a silence that has not been imposed on us but freely chosen by us.
You see we are all housemates at least for a few days at the Bethlehem Retreat House which is located on the grounds of the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist Monastery in Piffard, New York. A sign in the wall says, “Silence and Solitude,” and that is what all of us have come seeking. I don’t know anything about those others who share mealtime with me. I don’t know why they have come, what they are seeking, what they are experiencing, I don’t even know if they speak my language. One young man left after only one day – maybe that had been his plan all along – but the size of his suitcase suggested a longer visit had been planned. Now and again, I would like to ask those around me who they are and why they have come, but I know that their story is none of my business. It is between them and God. I hope they find what they seek.
I have been here for about a day and a half. It is the fourth time that I have come to a monastery for a silent retreat. Genesee is new to me, but the silence is not. The first time I went on a weeklong silent retreat, I almost left after a few days. I started making up excuses to myself for why I had to go home. I seemed to be losing myself without my spoken words, and I was afraid of what would be left of me when all the words were gone. Is that what a stroke victim feels like whose words will not come back to them?
I know that my loss of words is only temporary and self-imposed. They will return to me as a gift when I leave at the end of the week. One thing of which I am sure – the world is missing nothing when my mouth is shut. Many of the words I speak are inane rather than profound, sarcastic rather than soothing, banal rather than extraordinary. I have often regretted something that I have said; I have rarely regretted keeping quiet.
One of the reasons that I am keeping silence this week is that I have heard enough of my own words; I have had my fill of my own brand of wisdom. I am seeking something rarer and deeper than the voice of Jim Bane; I am seeking the voice of God. I yearn to hear God’s perspective. By being quiet, I hope to remove some barriers and give God a larger space in my life to move around and talk with me.
People expect me to be witty and always have something clever to say. And I usually give them what they want. But even in those times, I know that the value of my verbal contributions are limited. Most of what I say is forgotten almost before it leaves my mouth. And it should be.
My temporary housemates have no clue how clever and witty I really am. They expect nothing of me at mealtimes except to keep my mouth shut. I am giving them what they want. It is a great relief for all of us. I am freed of the burden to speak and they are freed of the burden of listening to me. It is an arrangement that benefits everyone. As our information sheet says, “If you are breaking the silence, you are taking it away from others.” I don’t want to take away anything from anyone while I am here.
St. Benedict (who 1500 years ago wrote the guidelines for monks to follow) said that “so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive is their talk.” I often wonder if I am a mature believer (I doubt it) so I will keep silence this week. I will not speak so I can be in a better position to listen.
I have always liked the passage from James that says: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” I have always liked it, yet so rarely followed it. What a great formula for building community.
What about you? You probably have a number of folks in mind who you wish would choose silence and be unable to speak to you for a few days. But is it time for you to give your mouth a rest, to lay down the burden of speaking, and to free others of the load of listening to you? Is it time for you to take a silent retreat?

Jim Bane