Friday, November 25, 2016

The Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Fr. James Otis Sargent Huntington– Friday, November 25 2016

James Otis Sargent Huntington was not the first Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross—that honor goes to Father Robert Stockton Dod who along with Father Huntington and Father James Cameron joined together in 1881 on the Lower East Side of New York to begin the community that came to be  The Order of the Holy Cross.  But with Father Cameron's departure from the novitiate in October 1883 and then Father Dod's departure due to health reasons in March 1884, Fr. Huntington was left holding the title and the responsibility for the nascent Order.  Others soon arrived, of course, but the job fell to Father Huntington. And as Br. Adam McCoy says in his formative history of our Order:  “It is in this sense that Fr. Huntington became Father Founder: not that he had the founding vision, but that he had the founding strength to remain faithful, and his faithfulness raised up a mighty work.”  (p. 38)

Fr. Huntington served as Superior from 1884 until the very first opportunity he had to relinquish the position with the Life Profession, in 1888, of the second member of the Order, Fr. Sturges Allen. But he went on to serve again as Superior from 1897 until 1907 and then again from 1915 to 1918, and finally once more from 1921 until 1930, a total of twenty-four years. 

When he was elected in 1921, Father Huntington was already 67 years old.  By that time he had been living the monastic life for over forty years and, as we might say today, he had many years of leadership experience under his belt.  He was a seasoned and highly respected figure.

So I was surprised to read an entry from his daily meditations dated August 3, 1922, one year into his final nine-year term.

Before I read it, let me explain that it was then part of the Rule and tradition for each monk to make a daily meditation. But far for being an exercise in non-verbal contemplation, making a meditation generally consisted of a rather set pattern. The night before, a topic or Scripture passage was chosen. The next day, one then elaborated on the passage with three “points” or mini-reflections. These were to be written out in a notebook or journal, and then the whole exercise concluded with a “resolution” or intention for the day.

Our archives is filled with such books of daily reflections and meditations.  They are not always literary or spiritual masterpieces...they were never meant to be.  They were the stuff of private prayer.  But many of our early members, such as Father Huntington, were articulate and literate to a degree that astounds me, and much of what they wrote bears reading, both for their theology and spirituality as well as for what is revealed of their personalities.

So let me read to you that entry from August 3, 1922, by Father Huntington.The announced theme is “A civil ruler takes his oath of office,” and it begins with a quote from the Gospels that was likely the passage on which he was meditating that day: “Blessed is that servant whom his master shall find so doing... whom his lord hath made rule over His household, to give them their portion of meat in due season.”
He goes on: 

“In starting afresh on my office as Superior I must realize that I ought to be ready to give an account at any moment.  As “The Son of Man cometh when ye think not.”  A steward must be ever on the tip-toe of expectation for the return of his master. “Give me an account of thy stewardship.”  The call may come at any moment. “Be ye ready also.”  Alas, if the call were to come today how far behind I should be!  Why is it?  Am I unsystematic and for that reason wasteful of time and energy?  Am I attempting more than I should?  Am I giving disproportionate attention to things outside the community? I was, perhaps, wrong in accepting the office in regard to my family, yet that hasn't taken many hours in the course of ten years. I do not spend time in recreation or in study. Is it that I work slowly?  Is it that I ought to use the services of others more than I do?” 
And his resolution?  “To watch patiently today to see where the leak is.”

I love this entry.  I can so identify with it, as I would imagine so many of us here today do. Here is a monk of forty plus years deeply accustomed to the rhythms of the life and the duties and responsibilities of  leadership asking the same questions we all ask from time to time if not constantly.  Why am I so apparently unproductive?  Am I responsible enough, or am I over-responsible?  Do I try to do too much or not enough?  Am I disorganized?  Am I just slow?  Do I delegate?  What have I sidelined?  Recreation? Leisure? Study? 

And we can all add to that list, can't we?  Healthy relationships, community, physical exercise, proper nutrition, adequate rest and sleep, cultural development, creative endeavors, the arts and culture. Where is the leak in your life? In mine?

And it's an interesting resolution our Father Founder makes, isn't it?  A resolution not to rush to instant change or to reach for the quick fix but to watch patiently to see exactly here the leak is, to see what's actually going on, to look perhaps for the root causes of the problem, and then to begin to act on that.  It's an invitation, really, to become skilled observers of our own lives, exercising loving curiosity so that we can see where and what has sidetracked us. And to go on from there.  In this as in so much else, Father Huntington comes across to me as very humble and honest and even forward thinking. It is what endeared him to so many and what, I imagine, also perhaps frustrated those who wanted more decisive action...I think, among others, of his contemporaries such as Fr. Sill and Fr. Hughson. 

But strangely enough the meditation for that date does not end with his resolution. Father Huntington goes on to say, and I quote at length:
“There is a hierarchy of duties. We must use the Gift of Counsel to decide what is the most important of and what is less so.  All strength, or all wisdom, comes from God...consequently we must be sure that not only anything that separates us from God...but also anything that hinders us from an even closer union with Him is a weakening of those powers by which alone any effective work can be done, any lasting good accomplished.  “Mass and merit never hinder work.”  This is a brief statement of this principle.  Whatever lessens our assimilation of necessary nourishment stops our power to do anything whatsoever.  We must eat to live and we must live to work. So it is in the physical order. But the same principle holds in the spiritual order.  The first necessity is to have spiritual vitality, and for that we must use what feeds and re-invigorates our spiritual life.  Prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, above all Mass and Holy Communion, these are our first necessity. These we must secure if the new start is to be effective.”
This passage, too, cuts to the heart of Fr. Huntington's spirit and to ours as well.  If we are to be effective workers in whatever department of life, we must needs make sure that we are being nourished spiritually.  Prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, the Eucharist....these are not luxuries but vital necessities.  And not only for Superiors or monks or clergy but for all Christians.   We know this.

What I find fascinating is that after more than forty years in the monastery, Fr. Huntington still needs to remind himself of this, still needs to be called back to this fundamental truth.  I have to admit that, after my thirty plus years, I found it a great relief to see that I wasn't alone in my struggle to live into this truth.  It is at the heart of any vocation and of all Christian living.
So what to do?  Well, we could do worse than to appropriate for today at least, Fr. Huntington's own resolution for August 3, 1922:  to watch patiently for where the leak is. And then, with God's help, to perhaps apply a patch. The image I'm left with is of a bicycle tire, a patch here, a patch there...sooner or later, it is all patchwork.  But the end of that process is, in a sense, whole new tire.  I wonder if God is doing that with us, helping us to recognize and patch the leaks one at a time until one day we become a whole new tire, all patched up and ready to roll.
From what I can tell, this seems to be what God did with James Otis Sargent Huntington. Why shouldn't God do it with us as well, one leak patched at a time until with James, the saints and all the ordinary men and women of God, we find ourselves reinvigorated and renewed, transformed ever so slowly yet more and more radically into the mind and heart of Christ?
Why not?

No comments: