A Letter for Lent Right now, as we sit in this church that is warmed by a finicky but functional heating plant we might take a moment to think of a group of men who have taken St. Paul’s admonition in today’s New Testament lesson to heart in their daily lives. Up in a secluded valley in Vermont lies a structure that is made of rough-hewn blocks of Vermont granite. The scars from the drills used to pry the stones from a mountainside not far away are clearly visible on each 10 by 5 foot block that lines the walls of the buildings. (from a sermon preached on Dec. 17, 2017) These blocks are held together by latherings of cement and industrial metal braces. In the bedrooms, the hard concrete and granite are made a bit more bearable by a covering of cheap yellow pine on the floors and walls. There is no art throughout any of the buildings just long stretches of grey stone and the men who live there say that it feels like being in a cave where they can hear their footsteps and breaths resonate because it is so absolutely silent. The only place where this austerity is relaxed is in the church where the stalls are made of oak and there is a lovely triptych adorning the chapel’s Eastern wall. The only heat in the buildings comes from small wood stoves in some of the rooms and a larger one in chapel. Otherwise it can and does get bitterly cold in the winter. Indeed, it can be just as cold inside the buildings as out. The water from the holy water fonts needs to be removed by the beginning of December because those who live there have discovered that the power from the expansion of frozen water is more than able to crack the concrete fonts. The men wear layer upon layer of wool to keep the Vermont cold somewhat at bay although reddened noses and sneezes seem as omnipresent as the snow outside the clear glass windows. The structure lies at the bottom of the valley of Mount Equinox surrounded by 50,000 acres of woodlands. It is so remote that even cellphones won’t work anywhere near the complex. Which is just fine because they don’t use them; nor television, nor the radio, nor the internet. Nor newspapers, come to think about it. There is a telephone, but it goes to an answering machine that says that the phone will not be answered, and voice mails will not be returned. There is a fax machine, but its number is a guarded secret and its single email address is used for business purposes only. One would think that such a place would be a prison and while it is surrounded by a high wall, and their private residences are indeed called cells, the doors, as they tell it, are locked from the inside not the outside, and are intended to keep people out, not the residents in. Everyone who lives there does so of his free will. They do so because, as they understand it, living there is in of itself a living ceaseless, prayer. The men who live there are a polyglot of ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic classes. One man, who is the community’s baker, is a 40 something year- old Harvard College graduate who joined the community soon after finishing at the University. A varsity athlete who graduated with honors, he would have been the heir to a Midwestern based company – I say, “would have been”, because he renounced all his worldly goods when he took his solemn vows. Thus, instead of running a multimillion-dollar multinational corporation, he spends his time doing mundane chores such as baking bread for himself and the other 17 men who occupy The Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, a Carthusian monastery outside Arlington, Vermont. Actually, I wasn’t as clear as I should have been in that last statement. I said his job is to be the monastery’s baker, and so it is, but his vocation is to pray every moment he is awake. Sometimes that prayer takes place in church or in his cell but it also happens as he bakes bread or goes into the woods to chop the trees to be burned for heat by the other monks. Everything-every moment-is an occasion for prayer. I have been very fortunate to meet Brother Mary Anthony* and a number of the other monks several times. I once asked him if he ever regretted deciding to forgo all of the various opportunities that his charmed life had laid out in front of him to spend his life anonymously in a small community and to be buried ultimately under a plain wooden cross without even his name and which when it succumbs to the Vermont weather would not be replaced. He is a fairly tall, athletically built man with a broad smile and a ready laugh-I guess chopping trees is enough exercise for him. My question prompted a smile and a chuckle as if he was speaking to a not too bright 8-year-old. “What do you mean?” he replied. “I get to spend my life in the lap of God.” He acknowledged that his Harvard classmates would probably vote him the most countercultural member of his class if he ever bothered to attend a reunion. “I doubt they even remember I exist but that is fine with me. God does.” *His name and a few of his biographical details have been altered in order to protect his anonymity. The quotes, as best as I can remember are his. While the Charterhouse does not permit visitors or retreatants, there is a visitor’s center on the top of Mt. Equinox that tells of the Order and the monastery. If you want more information about the Carthusians, the International Fellowship of Saint Bruno has a website, www.ifsb.com, that will provide what you want. Also, the movie “Into Great Silence” provides a rare look into the Carthusians. Please do not write the monastery. Brother, as do all Carthusians, lives a hidden life. Please respect his and their privacy. He lives a life praying without ceasing. Indeed, through self-mortification and dedication he has turned his entire life into a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as we pray to do in our Eucharistic prayer. His life would be senseless, indeed, impossible to live for a moment, if he did not have God as his centering principle. The late Pope John Paul II had as his motto- “Totus Tuus” which means “totally thine”. For most of us, John Paul’s motto is an aspirational goal, that we can make our lives totally at the disposal of God. However, for Brother Mary Anthony and his confreres it is the organizing standard to their lives both individually and collectively. In addition to the work they do to keep the monastery going (aside from the choir monks who rarely leave their rooms but spend nearly all their time alone) they spend their whole lives in formal prayer...awaking at midnight for 3 hours of collective chanting of psalms, Scripture readings and collects in the chapel and continuing throughout the day until they go to bed at 7.30. Monks will also stop their work for spontaneous prayer whenever they feel moved to do so. There is daily mass and the saying of the Angelus wherever they are at the time the bell rings. One of his colleagues uses the Jesus prayer that is part of every Orthodox Christian monk’s very existence. On every breath he inhales, he recites, almost silently: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy upon me” and on every exhalation “a sinner.” He says that thousands if not tens of thousands of times each day. The brothers, like Martha, and the choir fathers, like Mary, see every moment as prayer infused. It is a life that is in response to God’s call to live the Christian exhortation to pray without ceasing in a radical way. Brother Mary Anthony told me that the decision to become a Carthusian monk was not a sudden bolt from the Heavens. “Gradually, as I was a student in Cambridge, it came into my mind and it was the only thing that made sense to me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do other things, or I found them objectionable. I dated a lot; I had lots of friends. It was just that they seemed to pale in comparison to the idea of living a life completely hidden in God.” “In fact, when I first wrote the prior about a vocation he wanted me to hold off, saying that I had so much I could do in secular life. But by the time graduation arrived, I knew where I was called to be. I haven’t had but the usual occasional, what if, moments.” Remarkable...yes? On the contrary, he doesn’t think so at all. He was merely following the call of God, and in doing so, found peace. And fulfillment even if it is in a way that most of us might shake our heads to conceive. “People think we are super men or something. We aren’t. We are just ordinary men...ordinary Christians...who followed the call of the Lord.” That’s correct, he heard the call of God. Yet all of us hear the word of God. It is much the same call we heard from Paul today – perhaps not in the same way as Brother Mary Anthony. But how about us? How about you or me? If we heard such a call as Brother Mary Anthony’s, would we dismiss it out of hand? Would we consider it ludicrous and ignore it as a moment’s silliness or something we ate that didn’t agree with us? Would we tell our children or siblings who tell us that they had such a vocation that they were mistaken, and this feeling would pass in a few days or weeks? Indeed, would we be upset to get such a call for ourselves or those we love? Would we consider a life hidden from the world to engage in ceaseless prayer to be a life fulfilled or a life wasted? Be honest now. How would we respond? Chances are that such is not our vocation and so we will not have to face that question straight on. Yes, perhaps our calling isn’t to drop everything and move to a cloistered monastery or convent but today, as it often does throughout the Scriptures, God is calling each one of us in this nice warm beautiful church to the same sort of lives as that practiced by Brother Mary Anthony. Maybe not as radically, but as Christians, our calling is only a difference of degree, not kind. Let us not delude ourselves. We too are called, are commanded, to pray without ceasing even living in the so-called “real world.” Do we reject such a call? Or do we find a way to live our lives in such a way to do that while still fulfilling our obligations to our families and communities? There are so many ways to do it. One merely has to be intentional about dedicating all of our activities: from our work to eating to resting to God. Orthodox Jews have hundreds of blessings, “brachot” as they are called in Hebrew, that they say throughout each day to sanctify all of their activities. They say them whenever they wake, eat, see something new, begin or end a task or wash their hands. There are almost limitless occasions for reciting a blessing. Indeed, they even have a blessing about how blessed they are that they get to say blessings! How wonderful if we would emulate their practice! Alas, all too often we limit our idea of when it is appropriate to pray to our church time at Sunday Mass. Do we even say grace before our meals? For example, after Mass, when we are upstairs in the Parish Hall before we partake in the goodies provided for us, do we say a little prayer to thank God for them and to acknowledge that everything we have and do is from and dedicated to Him? If we come to the 8 am Mass, perhaps we can arrive a few minutes earlier and join the priests in Morning Prayer. Or say it at home. We might murmur under our breath “thank you, Lord” if our car starts when we think it won’t, but do we say the same thank you when it starts even when we have no reason why it would not? Do we thank God before we go to sleep to keep our souls and to thank him for the past day? Upon rising do we dedicate our day to His service? Do we stop during work to acknowledge him as ruler of our lives? Do we say our prayers before we sleep and, if we are parents, do we make sure our children kneel at their bedside and “say their prayers” before retiring or have these routines become quant pieces of arcana that we contemporary people have become “too sophisticated” to do any longer? Just to let you know, the Prayer Book and other Anglican texts are full of prayers for all sorts of occasions both big and mundane, but for all but a very few of us they remain unread and un-recited. What a pity. It isn’t as if we couldn’t pray if we had a desire to do so regardless of how busy our lives are. For instance, during our commute to work do we listen to sports radio, the news or the music stations or do we turn the radio off and use the time to be quiet and pray internally? Or if that is too much quiet time, perhaps we can listen to the Scriptures, sacred music or a religious program. You know you can find rosary podcasts that you can play over your cell phone... I’m just saying... When we say that we are too busy, or can’t squeeze in time for prayer, it means we haven’t tried and we are letting ourselves off the hook. We are practicing our excuses that we will recite to St. Peter when we reach the mythical Pearly Gates when he asks if we prayed without ceasing. But think about it. Those excuses seem lame now and they will seem just as lame then as well. So as we leave this comfortable church after Mass has concluded and return to the work-a-day world, think of Brother Mary Anthony and his brothers and sisters everywhere who live quiet, hidden lives of constant prayer. Here is an idea for our consideration. Instead of making heroes out of those who play on the baseball diamond or the football gridiron, let’s make our heroes from these examples of what our Christian lives should be and try our best to emulate them as best we can. We will certainly fall short but in aiming high we will go much further than we would have done otherwise. We would be able to say when asked after we finish our time on earth, that yes, we did live a life of prayer without ceasing. After all, that is what Heaven will be, so why not start here and start now?