Some Notes from Retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, September 2019
I’ve arrived at the Abbey of the Genesee. Including rest stops the journey was about 7 hours 45 minutes from Arlington MA. It was a beautiful ride through Western Massachusetts and on into northern New York.
On arrival, true to form, I couldn’t find the retreat House. I drove by it, then almost into the monastic enclosure, then found the Abbey Store where the helpful person there directed me back to Bethlehem House. You even check in in silence. My room is on the secund floor at the front of the house. I’ve just stretched out on the bed to rest for half an hour. Then I’ll walk up to the Abbey.
It’s bedtime now. If I make Vigils up at the Abbey, they begin at 3:30 am. So yes, it really is bedtime.
This afternoon I sat in the chapel here at Bethlehem Retreat House in quiet for about 45 minutes. Looking at the crucifix behind the altar, these words just popped into my mind and heart:
‘He went to death and through death. He died on the cross. But death did not hold him. He lives and never will know death again. We will go through death as well. But we will go with him and so death will not hold us. We too will live and never know death again.’
A short time later I walked up to the Abbey for Vespers. To my astonishment, out of all the possible words from the Word, the reading was from the 8th chapter of Romans. Look at it, read it, and look again at my apparently spontaneous thought in the chapel here.
Romans 8:1-11 (NRSV)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit[g] is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
What a beginning!
The day began with thunder. I was just getting up to begin preparing for Lauds at the Abbey when I heard thunder approaching. By the time I was heading to the car (no walking to the Abbey in the dark and the storm!) I was running through repeated flashes of lightning and roars of thunder, while the waters poured down. As last evening, so today, the Word speaks its living nature. The first psalm we prayed was 46. It speaks of the waters flowing and the roars of nature.
Watching the monks enter the church for morning prayer is a beautiful thing. I am re-reading, after decades, Henri Nouwen’s ‘Genesee Diary’ from his seven months here in 1974. I was thinking this morning, as they entered the church, that a number of these old men were young men when Nouwen, gone to God for decades now, was visiting here that year. Now they enter, some of them on rolling walkers and one in a wheelchair. And on the walkers, some move with apparent ease still, while others move slowly and with great care. I think that I have recognized one of those using a walker as John Eudes Bamberger, who was abbot here when Nouwen visited. In his 90’s now, he is an amazing man and figures much in Nouwen’s account of his time.
While Henri was here they were preparing to build, and then building, the new church. This church! He and John Eudes and others were daily in the creek finding stones appropriate to form parts of the wall of the new building. It is moving to sit now at prayer within that same space, within the walls constructed of those very stones. The church opened the year I graduated from high school. And to sit there in prayer with, among the others, John Eudes Bamberger. Astounding.
“Simplicity is a will wholly turned to God.”
~ William of St. Thierry
I love the words they use here for the doxology at prayer:
Praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever;
The God who is, who was, and is to come
At the end of the ages.
At a retreat conference this morning I was told which of the monks in chapel is in fact John Eudes, the last abbot. I had been wrong in my guess. So much for me! John Eudes is the one man in a wheelchair.
Tonight at Vespers I was looking at John Eudes, then across from him at the youngest guy there. He has to be in the first half of his twenties. He is trying out the life. His ‘habit’ is like a gray hoodie and he wears jeans and sandals.
I was thinking about the passage of time and the relation of the generations. If that young man stays and becomes a monk, he could be sitting in that church praying the psalms daily seventy years from now, in 2089. He would be that year the age that Abbot John Eudes is now. In the year 2089.
And I went on to personalize that thought (as humans have been doing since the moment after the first sin in Eden): if that young man is here praying then (as the old man he will be in 2089), he will be living and praying in the year that will mark 132 years since I was born. I will be long long since dead, and my body lying somewhere under the earth, I know not where.
But there’s much more. This connection from generation to generation, from hand to hand, from heart to heart, from person to person, from community to community: this is the way God builds the Kingdom. One life at a time. One life in relationship to other lives. And then another and another and another. It is such a rich and beautiful thing that I cannot take it in. I can only believe it. And it brings tears to my eyes. We all have the joy of being part of it, each in our own way and in our own time. Pass the prayer, pass the Psalms, pass the life-breath, pass the Kingdom. After you! Alleluia.