Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Arena Culture

Someone sent me a copy of New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ recent commentary on All Things Shining, a book co-authored by contemporary philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. It resonated with my own musings around the widespread interest in spirituality disassociated from institutional religion, and our culture’s intense devotion to sports. Could there be a connection between the two? These philosophers believe there is.

They characterize the past hundred years as a “secular age” strikingly unlike former times when people experienced “themselves as determined or created by God.” While many are still religious, “a unitary totalistic explanation for the universe” no longer prevails and there are no universally shared values. The only certain truth is scientific truth. Consequently, individuals are thrown back on themselves to create their own meaning and fashion their own spirituality—tasks so formidable that the result is “a pervasive sadness” and anxiety.

Fortunately, individuals are social beings who look outside themselves and find meaning in “whooshing up” experiences, namely, “transcendent moments” in which one is caught up in something larger than the self even if only for awhile. While these “whooshing” moments can be solitary: awe-filled encounters with nature, aesthetic responses to music or art, satisfaction from some personally fulfilling activity, they are often social or “arena” experiences associated with sports, political rallies, large public concerts and communal religious events.

Given the current situation, the advice offered us is:
1) be strong enough to live without a unitary and comprehensive explanation for the universe;
2) live open and receptive to transcendent ”whooshing” experiences, and
3) nourish a spirit of gratitude for all the good things the world offers.

None of this is bad advice. However, like Brooks, I’m not sure it’s adequate. I appreciate the critique of excessive individualism and the recognition that a completely “autonomous life is impossible.” Nonetheless, a nagging question persists: “Is their advice sufficient and satisfactory?” If there is no Truth and no certain values, isn’t it all a matter of opinion and personal preference? While I’ve had a fair share of “whooshing” moments and am an avid sports fan, their counsel leaves me hungry for something more substantial.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Walking in My Sisters' Footprints

The first time I became aware of my Sisters’ footprints was while walking to Morning Prayer on a snowy morning. I found myself fascinated with the variety of prints and the variety of pathways. Sometimes the path was made by a lone walker, sometimes the footprints merged with others, sometimes it was an intricate back and forth pattern.

One day in particular the path of prints was almost surreal. The maintenance crew had swept through the moisture laden snow, and cleared the sidewalk. But the frozen prints remained, making the footprints stark white against the walk. I thought it might be angels who had walked there, but no, it was the footprints of my Sisters.

On another quiet morning, I was the first one to walk in the snow. The purity and brilliance of thousands of diamonds dancing on the surface took my breath away. I was making the first path, and it seemed such an honor that my prints would lead others to Morning Prayer.

One afternoon, on my way to Noon Prayer, the footprints were shadowy and mysterious, almost eerie. In various spots, the prints suddenly disappeared, as if the walkers had suddenly ascended into another realm.

Are our lives merely as ephemeral as the footprints in the snow? I don’t think so. These footprints remind me that I am walking the path trod by over a thousand women who have gone before me, walking the same walk, making the same journey. I see them in the beauty of the monastic buildings, the care of the earth, the vestments worn for celebrations, the memorials of their lives we make at each Evening Prayer, and the stories told over and over. I know that each footprint of my Sisters is unique, each carries a specific DNA, certain burdens, hopes, joys and fears. I am buoyed up by the sure and certain hope that all over the world, there are Sisters and brothers who are leaving their footprints in snow, sand, mud, dirt, grass, fields, forests, fire, homes, hospitals and schools.

I believe that we are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, of our religious leaders, of all ambassadors of justice and peace, of love and forgiveness, of harmony and unity.

Walk with me!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Faces of Peace

Most of us readily recognize the feeling of peace when it slips into our lives. This is often true because it arrives some time after chaos, rage, sadness or fear has been our palpable companion. This weekend I spent some time with a high school friend, Kathy, and we were chatting about everyday things. At one point she told me about watching her 11 year old grandson, Mike, play hockey. She had just arrived and was standing near the rink board and Plexiglas protective divider. Immediately in front of her was her grandson Mike with the puck near him. A much larger player came from behind and jolted Mike at his shoulders with his hockey stick, causing him to fly head first into the boards and drop to the ice unconscious (an illegal check-move resulting in immediate removal of the offender from the game). As she watched them check Mike’s eyes and ears before carrying him off the rink on a stretcher, terror and rage rose inside her. Even though she saw Mike emerge later and sit on the bench in his street clothes, appearing OK, her rage continued.

As she was exiting the arena next to Mike a woman approached her, looked her in the eyes and said, “Mother to mother, I want you to know how sorry I am for what happened to your son. It was my son who pushed him.” Kathy said she could immediately feel her rage soften. As they were speaking, this woman’s son arrived, looked Kathy in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry for what I did.” And then he looked at Mike and repeated, “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” By that time peace had replaced rage in Kathy and she immediately said to the boy, “I give you so much credit for coming up to us and saying you are sorry. That took lots of courage because you had no idea how we would react.”

I was again shocked at the power of forgiveness to heal the person offended and allow the face of rage to transform into the face of peace. Only forgiveness given and received can yield such an amazing transformation in both.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Extravagant Love of God

Every year I take 9-12 college students from the college of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University on a dog sledding eco-spirituality retreat in Ely, Minn., at Wintergreen Lodge. Wintergreen is owned and operated by SJU alumnus Paul Schurke. In support of the colleges and the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, Paul gives us a deep discount.

This is my fifth year taking students dog sledding. Every year I come away in awe of the retreat and full of wonder at how each group forms community and becomes as bonded as the previous groups. Today, I was wondering what contributes to the quick bonding on this particular retreat. My conclusion: extravagant relationships and extravagant generosity are the key ingredients.

Bonding takes place immediately with the dogs. How could you not respond to a creature that unconditionally howls when you arrive, looks you directly in the eyes and wags its tail, drawing up next to you waiting to be petted.

These dogs all want to go sledding; every day they howl “Take me! Take me!” Part of the Benedictine eco-spirituality retreat is getting up early in the morning to feed the dogs and clean up frozen poop from their pens. Believe it or not, the students relish being greeted by the crisp winter air, watching the beauty of a colorful sunrise and caring for the dogs. They come bounding back to the Lodge, sharing how they love this or that dog, hungry and ready to be fed breakfast. They have a sense of accomplishment from work and are anticipating dog sledding.

It’s a magical piece of the retreat that isn’t contrived: it happens again and again. So is the extravagant love that God has for us. We are all chosen by God. He loves spending time with us, nourishing us and caring for us. It’s fabulous when we encounter the tangible love of God and pure joy when we can extend the tangible love of God to one another. The good zeal discussed in the Rule of St. Benedict calls us to love one another extravagantly. Be of good zeal and tangibly share your love.

To view a video of dog sledding, click here to go to our home page.
photo: 2011 dog sledding group, including Paul Schurke (back row, third from right); Sister Janelle Sietsema (front row far left), Sister Lisa Rose (front row, far right) and Sister Trish Dick (back row, center, left of Paul).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stones into Schools

Given the recent tragedy in Arizona, I am trying to think of ways to remember that more human beings mean to do good for the world than the few who act out their aggressions and disagreements through violent acts.

I have been reading the book I will be using in my class beginning on Monday. If you have not read Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson, I highly recommend it as a rich tonic for thinking about how good humans are. I pray daily that when I look upon another face, I see the face of Christ, and I want to believe and know that with my whole heart.

Three Cups of Tea was Mortenson's first book about his work in Pakistan. But you do not need to have read his first book to thoroughly love this book about building schools for girls in Afghanistan. An ordinary guy, Greg Mortenson lives with his family in Livingston, Montana, when he is not in Afghanistan or on the road fundraising for CAI (Central Asia Institute) which has helped him promote more than 145 schools for girls in these remote regions.

I especially like what Admiral Mike Mullen has said about Mortenson, "What Greg understands better than most--and what he practices more than anyone else I know--is the simple truth that all of us are better off when all of us have the opportunity to learn, especially our children. By helping them learn and grow, he's shaping the very future of a region and giving hope to an entire generation."

Once again the power of story has raised my spirits and given me new hope because of one person's passionate determination to do good.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ongoing Epiphanies

January 6 has traditionally been the Feast of the Epiphany, although this year it was celebrated on January 2 in the Roman Catholic Church. The story of the three Magi coming to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child is a beloved one and carries with it much color and drama. The first visitors to the baby Jesus were lowly shepherds while the last visitors we hear about were “kings.” In between, I suspect, there were other visitors---probably small shopkeepers, assorted housewives and curious children. Babies are crowd pleasers.

On January 6, 1946, Pope Pius XII published his encyclical -- Quemadmodum --
which was a plea for the care of the world’s destitute children. He pointed out the millions of innocent children (post-WWII) without the basic necessities of life: home, food, clothing, etc.
How fitting that this encyclical came out on the feast of the Epiphany, featuring gift-bearers bringing a child precious offerings, not least being gold…which surely Mary and Joseph would have used to care for Jesus and to establish their family home.

Hard times can bring out the worst and the best in people. Thankfully, the generous-hearted are always with us and we in the monastery have certainly benefited and continue to benefit from their gifts.