The Grail and the Phoenix and the Winter Adventure
February 14, 2011
There’re no simple answers when it comes to Grail, not even to the simple question, “How did the Grail come into your life?” So I’m going to approach it from a few angles.
The first beginning of the story features dwarves, elves, vampires, elven vampires, gnomes and knights. It starts, in other words, with a game of Dungeons and Dragons. I had the good fortune to be invited into a group of gamers who’d been playing together for over ten years. They had a few constitutive rituals, one of which was a gathering in February at a rented house to devote an entire weekend to table-top gaming, what they called their “Winter Adventure.” I had been to a few winter adventures with the Brazen Warriors (as we called ourselves). Their previous preferred location was getting a little run-down and had lost some of its mojo for the group, and they were open to trying out a new location. One of the members of the group encouraged us to try this beautiful house up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, which was called the Phoenix.
The Phoenix belongs to this organization called The Grail. I call it an ‘organization’ but that’s a rather colorless word in comparison to what the Grail really is, and has been. At one time, there were 10 Grail centers across the U.S., each of which was a kind of node of a larger community. It’s sort of a religious order or sisterhood, sort of a political movement, at times it strongly resembles an arts or farming collective. A little like a church, it’s both a vision that gives rise to communities and itself a community on a pilgrimage towards a vision that is still evolving.
Now how did we come to be at that particular house, rolling 20-sided die and battling monsters?
The second beginning of the story is located, as are many more momentous beginnings and endings, for good and ill, in the fall of 2001. When the whole world was shaken by terror, and many huge things were set into motion, there was this one tiny pebble that was also shaken loose, namely my own spiritual growth. I had stalled, stopped short of taking my next obvious step, which was to add actual interaction with real live Christians to the rudimentary Christian belief and practices I already engaged in. With the encouragement of my wife, Marlene, who did not share those beliefs but did believe in the integrity of my path, I found a small group in our Brooklyn neighborhood. It was a fellowship group (or, if you like, a cell group, or a growth group, or a community group as our church now calls it) associated with the church I had been attending, as anonymously as possible, for many months. The group was hosted by a highly aimiable and hilarious individual named Ross. I felt instantly at home in this group, and Ross and I became friends. He was an original Brazen Warrior from the days of the first adventures, when many of the members were students together. It was he who invited me to join them at my first Winter Adventure.
In 2009, when Ross recommended to the group that we try holding our next Winter Adventure at the Phoenix, he based his recommendation on a somewhat cool experience we had had at the same house when that same small group went on a retreat there.
The third beginning of the story revolves around a woman named Jane O’Donnell.
She was a member of the Grail, and one who was instrumental in sustaining the vitality of that particular Grail center.
The Grail in New York had a few sites at that time. The site in Cornwall-on-Hudson had been used in a variety of ways; during the 1970s it functioned somewhat like a commune, with a small number of women living there and worshipping and working in concert. This particular house at that site almost burned down in 1978. Right around the same time, Jane O’Donnell died of cancer. In honor of some of her passions, the remaining Grail members refurbished the house and used it as a center for leadership training, anti-racism education and ecumenical spiritual formation for women. It’s still used for similar programs, but also serves as a source of income for the Grail there (in Cornwall) by being rented out to outside groups. Beauty from ashes: hence, the Phoenix.
The fourth beginning of the story features Susan, a young woman working with children in the Bronx sometime in the 1990s. She learned about the Grail through a Catholic volunteer service guide while she was working at Fordham Bedford Children’s Services. “I thought it sounded great,” as she remembers it, “with a focus on women’s development around the world, social justice, the environment, the arts – it melded many of my interests and has shaped my life.”
Susan had a good friend named Valerie. About how they met, Valerie wrote,
In 1993 I moved to the Bronx as a volunteer for the Ursuline Companions in Mission. I taught music at a school and ran an afterschool program for a homeless shelter. For this work, I was given a $100/month stipend and housing which was in a convent. That was an experience. You may or may not be aware that all the different Catholic orders have these lay programs. The Ursuline one was rather small – only 8 volunteers across the country and I was the only one in NYC. Susan was a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps which had something like 25 volunteers in NYC alone. She and I worked our service at the same homeless shelter. I am so grateful to have met her because I ended up making friends with the other Jesuit volunteers and finding a community in NYC. We were all making a $100/month stipend so we learned how to party in NYC on a tight budget…
By the late 1990s, Valerie was living in the ground floor of the same building Marlene and I happened to move into when we first started living together. We had some really cool neighbors in that building. (One of them, Gerald Menke, reappeared in our lives a few years ago when he started playing pedal steel guitar for the worship band at our church.) Valerie was awesome in her own particular ways. She had the vibe of someone profoundly at ease with her self, comfortable in her body, not alienated from her own spirituality and creativity, matched with a very open orientation toward the world, game to contribute in any way she could. When I am trying to really make vivid to myself the theological concept of every human being being created in the image of God, and that there is incalculable beauty and power in humanity, entirely apart from my particular religious tradition, one of the people I think about is Valerie.
At some point Susan had lived at the Grail, managing their organic garden for them. Valerie learned about the Grail from Susan, and in turn did some work on their website for them.
So, when I was leading a small group for my church and wanted to find a good spot for us to have a retreat, Valerie turned me on to the Grail. So my group and I stayed at the Phoenix for our one and only spring retreat, and for all the ups and downs of that weekend, one thing we can definitely say is that Ross loved the site. He had been looking for an opportunity to go back when the Brazen Warriors began to cast about for a new home for the Winter Adventure.
So, from the Grail to Jane and back to the Grail, from Susan to Valerie, from Valerie to me, from me to Ross to the Brazen Warriors and so back to me. That will have to do as a beginning to the story, to set some context as to why I care about this place.