Guitarists in the Monastery

“If there are artisans in the monastery, they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the permission of the abbot” (Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 57).

Last week, I spent an extraordinary week at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. This Benedictine community on the banks of the Hudson River was the location of a Classical Guitar Master Class with guitarist Jason Vieaux, of the Cleveland Institute of Music. I was one of eight guitarists and the juxtaposition of praying the daily offices, with periods of intentional silence as well as guitar pedagogy, created an experience I could not have imagined or hoped for. Had there been just the slightest bit more encouragement, I would have presented myself to the abbot for admission to the novitiate.  But I am a man of prior vows!

It’s difficult to describe my experience at the Monastery in any other words than, “life changing.”  I have long been steeped in the core values of the Rule of St. Benedict (e.g. community, prayer, silence,  hospitality, formation, mission), but there is no substitute for living the Benedictine rhythm in community with others.  Add to this, the opportunity to “practice one’s craft with all humility” as Benedict puts it, six or more hours per day with an inspiring musician like Jason Vieaux, and it becomes difficult not to believe that earth at times is overlapped with heaven.

During my time on sabbatical, I have been exploring how music and the creative arts can serve as a regular part of our spiritual practice, and the classical guitar has been a specific focus for me during this period of rest and renewal.  When I explained this exploration to one of the brothers, he smiled and said, “one can pray with their hands as well as their heart.”  Imagine that training the flexor and extensor muscles associated with the right and left hand to produce a clear and warm musical tone can be considered an act of prayer!

That has certainly been my experience recently, summed up in Benedict’s rule as “ora et labora” (pray and work), though I suppose for my purposes it might be adapted as “ora et excerceo” (pray and practice).  What creative gifts or artistic resources might serve as an act of prayer for you?

If you would like to explore more about Holy Cross or Jason Vieaux, here are a few helpful links:

Holy Cross Monastery

Anglican Benedictines

Jason Vieaux

Guitar Foundation of America



Sabbatical – Hydra, Greece

View from our Porch overlooking the Harbor

Yahsu! from the Saronic Gulf Island of Hydra.  I am currently on planned sabbatical leave from active parish ministry.  A return visit to the Greek island of Hydra, one of the easiest islands to get to from Athens, has been high on my list. My wife Debbie and I, along with our children, stayed hear eight years ago for a week’s vacation thanks to the hospitality of our friend, Frances Sullinger, who owns a small villa here.

We were unable to get a ferry from the main harbor of Piraeus during the political unrest and general strike constantly covered by the major cable news networks last week. Times are tough for the Greek people and frustration at their predicament has escalated to flashes of civil unrest in the streets.

I was astonished to learn that Greece has a sovereign debt pile of 340 billion euros ($480 billion), more than 30,000 euros for each of its 11.3 million people.  With its debt equivalent to 150 percent of annual output, Greece holds two unwanted world records: the lowest credit rating for a sovereign state, and the most expensive debt to insure. Its people have lost patience with an ever-deepening austerity drive that has slashed public sector wages by a fifth and pensions by a tenth.  Needless to say, we breathed a sigh of relief when we finally boarded the ferry to the glorious island of Hydra.

Refreshment at a harbor cafe

Hydra’s small port village is a breathtaking sight. It’s small harbor is ringed with cafes, restaurants and shops, and followed by a village of stone houses and villas, tiny squares that rise up the hills like an amphitheater.


Luggage is on its way

On Hydra there are no cars. Everything is moved by donkey, including groceries, building supplies, people and their luggage.  Our friend’s villa involves a significant hike up the mountain from the port, but offers a spectacular view of the harbor below.


I’ve had wonderful uninterrupted time to work on guitar repertoire and Debbie has been painting with pastel and watercolor to capture some of the pervasive beauty that surrounds us on every side.

Guitar as contemplative practice!

We’ve learned that Leonard Cohen has a home here and that Hydra has been a destination for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pink Floyd and many other famous and not so famous people.

What has been constant is the graciousness and generosity of the Greek people we have met here.  In spite of the economic hardships they continue to face, their spirit is strong and lively, and we are grateful to be among them.


Sabbatical Plans

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” –Plato

This Sunday will be my last “official” Sunday before my summer sabbatical. As many of you know, Debbie and I look forward to nurturing our love of the visual and musical arts and to reflect on how these relate to the rhythm of spiritual practice.

In a world obsessed with words it is easy to forget how the visual and musical arts deepen and increase our awareness of both the beauty and tragedy of our world. Without color and shape, sound and song, our human lives would be greatly diminished.

For many years, I used to wonder why it was that when I took up my guitar and worked on a composition, such as a Bach prelude, or any other well written piece of music, time would evaporate. Lost in the intricate movement of fingers and expression of harmonic sounds emanating from the soundboard, I would often feel the same sensation of heightened awareness that I do when I engage in contemplative prayer. Can listening to and practicing music be thought of as a legitimate spiritual practice? Should I feel guilty for letting my “prayer time” become “guitar time?” Like a proper Anglican, I’ll err on the side of grace, not quibbling guilt.

In Centering Prayer, for example, a sacred word or mantra is used to signal that our intent in the time of meditation is to be in God’s presence. In music practice, it is not a word that we use to call us back to our intent, but a note or series of notes. When we are engaged in the practice of music and find our minds wanting to impose their endless cacophony of thoughts on us, we simply return to the notes that are written on the page or in our memory like the whisper of a gentle and irresistible wind. We’re not trying to listen to the music in order to feel it as a stimulus. Instead, we are letting the notes be the means for leading us deeper into that place where we can be still and know that God is God.

I know this may sound a bit esoteric, but I do believe that there are other languages that can lead us into the presence of God beside the spoken or written word. Art and music are among them, and there is no reason to think that such alternative languages cannot be included as a regular part of our spiritual practice. It’s those alternative languages of art and music that Debbie and I look forward to exploring in the weeks ahead. I plan to keep writing and reflecting in this space during my time away and will post photos and music here as time permits.

Needless to say, I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity. I ask your prayers for safe travel. I ask your faithfulness in worship during the summer and in your financial support of Holy Comforter’s mission and ministry. I ask your encouragement and support for Mthr. Libby and Fr. Jody in their various ministries over the summer, two of the best colleagues a Rector could ever ask for, as are all the members of our parish staff. They are gold. Let them know that.