Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Feast of the Dedication - Oct 4, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Feast of the Dedication of St Augustine Church – Sunday, October 4, 2015

Genesis 28:10-17
1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10
Matthew 21:12-16
The flower arrangement for the feast of the Dedication
When I entered the order as a postulant in January of 2012, my first seat in the monastic choir was over there, where Br. Joseph now sits, facing the entrance to the church. I enjoyed watching guests as they entered and picked up a breviary and a schedule, blessed themselves with holy water, reverenced the tabernacle, then minded the little bump in the floor as they rounded the corner into the guest court and took their seats. I would wonder how they had found their way to the monastery and this church, and I would wonder what stories and burdens they were bringing with them and how they might be changed before they would leave. I also enjoyed my view of those graceful arches in the wall, and of a small sliver of the great old white oak tree in the small cloister, which I could see through that window up there at the far east end. And yet another thing that drew my attention was a small splash of brilliant, colored light on the south wall there, created by the sun shining through the Mary Queen of Heaven window, just above the statue of Our Lady in that corner. This glowing little rainbow would slowly slide across the white wall, as the sun moved. I found it to be a very mesmerizing and prayerful point of focus, one of many displays of God’s beauty in this church.

A while later, my seat moved down to the west, closer to the guest court, and from that spot, if the door was open, I could see directly into the small cloister. The brick columns were lined up perfectly, one slightly offset and behind the next, creating a beautiful, geometric pattern. My eye was drawn along this sequence of columns to a vanishing point on the far wall of the cloister, right to the spot where Jesus hangs on a small, wooden cross. Like the rainbow of light, this was a very prayerful image - a form of visio divina, if you will - that contributed much to my worship experience. Also at this seat - and this is a little bit of an aside - sitting on my left was Brother Andrew, from whom I felt a strong, comforting, and reverent presence, and who also occasionally let slip some witty, under-the-breath remark, that I think no one else could hear, and that had me biting my lip sometimes not to start laughing right out loud during the office. I miss him.

Now, I sit on the opposite side of the choir. At first, I was disappointed to be losing those perspectives that had become so familiar to me. I couldn’t watch guests enter anymore, or see the graceful arches, or follow the rainbow of light, or see Jesus in the cloister; instead, I looked at a big, plain, flat, white wall. Yet, once I got over my possessive annoyance at what I had lost, I realized that I had gained a great view of the Oberammergau Crucifix, up there. It is a strong and striking image of Christ, dark and heavy, but with the lightness of pain that has been relieved, a burden that has been lifted, a body that has been left behind. I had gazed at it at various times from different places: from a guest seat on the far wall; from directly beneath it, as John and Mary were at the crucifixion; and even while standing in the entry area over there, where it is framed by an arch, with the icon stand and candle sitting low in the foreground. Now, this great crucifix welcomes and accompanies me through every office.

This church is a powerful place. There is something simple yet compelling about it, I find. No matter where you sit, or what mood you are in, or what of your daily life is distracting you, God is here, calling to you, in light, in an archway, in a crucifix, in rain falling on the roof, in the music of chant and the words of a Psalm, or in the person sitting right next to you. This church draws you into prayer, into relationship with God. Today is the 94th anniversary of the dedication of this church, which we celebrate as a First Class Feast. But we are not celebrating grand architecture or spectacular stained glass or amazing tilework or anything that, physically, is particularly awesome. Rather, I think primarily we are celebrating what happens within this space: the marvelous work that God does in each of us and has done in so many brothers and guests over the past 94 years. 

Certainly, this church is not fancy. In fact, The Rule of James Otis Sargent Huntington, our founder, and his successors suggests that the physical space should not detract from the worship it supports. The rule states, “The adornment of altars and chapels of the Order is to be dignified and rather severe than florid. Chasubles are ordinarily to be of Gothic pattern; there is to be no lace on surplices or albs. No new decorations are to be introduced without the approval of the Superior or of the Father-in-charge.” And one of the architects, the famous Dr. Ralph Adams Cram, wrote in the October, 1921 issue of The Holy Cross Magazine that “the new Chapel...in a sense...has no architecture, that is to say, it does not adhere very closely to any historical style, while the monastic simplicity demanded by its function left...little opportunity for architectural embellishment.”

I am struck by a parallel between the simplicity of our church and the simplicity - extreme simplicity - of the place where Jacob dreamt of the ladder carrying angels between heaven and earth. His experience of God took place outside, with no walls or roof and with a stone for a pillow (a bit perhaps like our choir stalls, many of which, as you might notice, have been outfitted with cushions). Nevertheless, God’s action in that place was so wonderful that it led Jacob to declare, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Just like this place. It was what happened and not the grandeur of the place that made it holy. Also, like many of us, Jacob encountered God in the course of his ordinary life, in this case while on a journey on which his father, Isaac, sent him to find a new wife from among his own people in the land of his grandfather, Abraham. I don’t imagine Jacob was expecting anything special to happen, and the place where he laid down certainly wasn’t special, but it became so by God’s action. An encounter between Jacob and God gave the place its significance, and it is the same for us here in this church.

You and I, of course, are not Jacob. We are not the patriarchs or matriarchs of a great nation, nor are we prominent figures in the Bible. But we are perhaps Jacob in that, like him, we can be open to God’s presence, listen for God’s Word, discern God’s will for us, embrace our place in the family tree of Abraham, and respond to God’s love for us in reverence and worship. Part of that takes place when we gather in community in a space like this, in a physical building called a church. But an equal or greater part of our worship, our relationship with God, takes place outside these walls. On the road somewhere. Asleep in a dream. Wrestling with an angel. In communion with the beauty of creation. In other words, in our lives as members of the other church, that great set of people who make up the living body of Christ.

So, on this Feast of the Dedication of St. Augustine’s Chapel, let us celebrate that event on October 4, 1921 when this church, this focal point of our monastic life, was dedicated, but, even more, let us re-dedicate ourselves to being faithful members of the body of Christ, the living church, to being alert to God’s presence in the beauty of creation that surrounds us, and to being in relationship with God in any and every unexpected place. I invite you to close your eyes and listen to the words God spoke to Jacob in a dream, but now, somewhat modified, addressed to you: “And the Lord stands beside you and says, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; eternal life in Christ I will give to you and to to those who come after you; and they shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in those who come after you. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to me in the end; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” Amen.

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