Just like your families, monasteries have traditions. One such tradition here at Saint Benedict's is that December 31 is a day of recollection. We spend the day in silence. We can choose to give ourselves an extended time for Lectio or to reflect on the "conference" that our Prioress, Sister Michaela gives us after Morning Prayer. It also happens that on this day we listen to the last chapter of the Rule of Benedict read to us just before Morning Prayer. Tomorrow, January 1, we will begin the reading of the Rule from the beginning.
This morning as we listened to Chapter 73, it struck me, probably because it is the last day of the year, that Benedict is telling us that just because we have arrived at the end of his Rule that we are accomplised monastics and there is nothing left to strive for. In fact, he tells us quite the opposite. There is much we can do beyond reading "this little rule for beginners"; Benedict gives us a reading list that we can use as a tool to guide us on our way to Christ. By the way, and in case you are wondering, the Rule of Benedict is not only for monastics who live in monasteries, but the beauty of the Rule is that it can be adapted to anyone's life.
As we begin 2013 tomorrow, today may be the end of one year but it is only a pause as we refresh ourselves and prepare to continue on our sacred journey with each other.
We wish you and your loved ones a very blessed new year and we assure you of our prayers, especially for those who have a special need at this time. (The photo was taken by Nancy Bauer, OSB on Christmas Eve 2012 as the schola stood around the altar singing "Hodie Christus Natus Est - Today Christ is born for us".)
As Christmas Day falls on Tuesday this year, the Tuesday blog will be published later this week.
The following week, January 1 falls on Tuesday when we will be celebrating the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, so again, the blog will appear later in the week.
In winter we are reminded again that within darkness there is light. We remember how the gray winter clouds appear as a quilt of shadowy darkness, hiding the sun. Yet, eventually they release their moisture and reveal the gift of sunlit snow. Until that happens, we are left with wondering when and where the sun will again appear. In this waiting time we spontaneously gravitate towards those who seem to carry light to others by their quiet presence or wholehearted stories.
The cloud of the massacre in Connecticut is certainly in our hearts and minds these days. All the bearers of light that we have seen surface among people of every age, religion and occupation have provided incredible beacons of light amid darkness. What a powerful daily invitation to willingly create a quiet space or compassionate word as a simple life-giving light during ordinary waiting times. As President Obama said at the recent memorial service for those who died, “Only with our willingness to love one another, take supportive actions and remember we are all one family will we possess the life-giving light we need to walk forward together.”
May we all receive the daily gift of noticing small spaces of darkness around us and walk into them with quiet compassion. May our respectful loving presence help to diffuse these spaces with rays of communal hope. And may the gift of wisdom give us a willingness to wait for divine-timing to reveal again that all will be well on our journey together.
Silence. . . the silence of nature, especially in winter when growth continues, though in restfulness, under packs of leaves or protective covers. The silence of two who love one another deeply, comfortably, and in quiet presence. The early morning silence before any schedules whip us into so much doing. The silence before noon prayer when we sit and await the gong that calls us to prayer. The silence following upon much research and scholarship - before words come from a teacher’s mouth, or flow from a writer’s pen. There is the Great Silence that St. Benedict bids us cherish: “After Compline no one will be permitted to speak further” RB, 42.
And now upon us, the silence of Advent, of a mother growing a child within, a family readying itself for the Incarnation!
Can we believe in the fruitfulness of rest, of womb-silence, of awaiting the joy of Christmas? Can we actually and conscientiously practice silence?
A slight re-working of the familiar Serenity Prayer might be ours this 2nd week of Advent:
God, grant me the SERENITY to know
what I need to know, to buy, to say;
the COURAGE to ignore
what I don’t need to know, to say, to buy;
and the WISDOM to know the difference.
If you've read our obituary section, you'll know that Sister Mary David Olheiser died on November 27 and her funeral was held this past Saturday. From the obituary, you'll realize that S. Mary David was a very intelligent, very gifted woman. She used those gifts to serve her community and the Church, and she is a fine example of a woman who had a successful career, and even succeeded in a man's world, as a canon lawyer in the Roman Catholic Church. In succeeding, she also provided a model for any woman who believes in the capacity of women to contribute at the highest levels without becoming bitter or resentful towards men. She was someone who could keep her eyes on the goal and concentrate on moving forward, while maintaining the greatness of soul that allowed her to love and respect all people, whether men or women.
As some of you will know, I entered the community in 2007, so I only knew S. Mary David in the last years of her life. In those years, we established a real friendship and I'm grieving her death, even though I know she was very ready for the next stage in her being. And the reason I'm grieving is not because she was so successful or a good role model for women, but because she was a kind and thoughtful person. She paid attention to a person as an individual. For instance, when I was going on my first visit home to England, she took me all over the monastery taking pictures, so that I could show my family and friends where I was: "It'll help them adjust to be able to imagine you in your new home", she said. S. Mary David also shared her thoughts with me about living the monastic life. We discussed the difficulties, challlenges and blessings, and she introduced me to authors whom she admired and who had helped her along her path to God. I'm grateful for the insights she gave me.
For all these reasons, and many more, I'm saddened by her death, but I'm glad to be grieving. To grieve for someone means that you loved them and that they loved you, and you made a difference in one another's lives. It's a kind of sadness that I wouldn't want to miss. So, "thank you", S. Mary David, for giving me cause to grieve.
As S. Colleen recounts in this final blog her and S. Olivia’s trip to Japan, we are blessed to learn how deep is the mutual respect and love that grew up and endured between our American Sisters and the Japanese people with whom they worked and formed lasting bonds.
The greatest JOY that Sister Olivia had was viewing the mountains of Hokkaido! Daily she marveled at these views. Muroran is surrounded by/nestled in the mountain range. Daily walks involve going up and down all the hills. Good exercise is had by all - including the two Americans!
The Japanese demeanor is part of S. Olivia’s life. She is Japanese in stature: their humble posture of bowing is integral to WHO she is--her persona. Thus she finds it difficult to acknowledge that she is loved by so many and revered in every corner of Japan, but especially on the island of Hokkaido. She also maintains connections with the monks of St. John's Abbey, located at Trinity Monastery in Fujimi, Honshu, Japan (north of Tokyo) who connected with her and Sister Jane Weber, while they served in Japan.
This being November, the month when we remember especially those who have died, it seems appropriate to close by recognizing our foremothers who have gone before us and who laid the groundwork for the very special relationship our monastery has with the people of Japan: Sisters Francetta Vetter, Regia Zens, Ursuline Venne, Benedice Schulte, Euphrasia Ruhland, Mary Gertrude Maus, and also S. Glenore Riedner (who served in Taiwan).
There are others who are still in our midst: Sisters Olivia Forster, Jane Weber, Shaun O’Meara, Hilda Keller, Annette Brophy and former Sisters: Renee Genereux and Mary Feeley and, of course, Sister Renata Mori of the Japan community.
For all our Sisters who served in Japan and for the continuing blessings of our relationship with the people of Japan, we are are truly grateful.
Adapted from 'Observations and Notes' collected by Colleen Haggerty, OSB
This is not about roses . . . well, maybe just a little. This picture of roses was taken in mid-November in front of our residence at CTU in Chicago. One could believe that roses are not a very hardy flower and need a great deal of pampering but these wild roses demonstrate that they are more resilient than one would believe. In my program at CTU (Catholic International Union) in Chicago there are several international students from countries such as Korea, China, Indonesia, Zambia, and Namibia. The Asian students especially have a challenging time because they are still unfamiliar with the English language, the culture such as food, and customs. From the moment I began classes with them in August I admired their determination to fit in, learn the language and follow our classes in the best way they can. But Sunday evening I experienced something that brought home to me in a very real and poignant way what they can be up against. Since no meals were being served in our cafeteria until Monday morning, several of us went out for supper including our Korean student. When it was time to order he was able to tell the waitress what he wanted but then she asked him, "soup or salad?" He did not understand what she meant. We explained it to him so he told her he would have soup. The next question was, "what kind: French Onion, cream of brocoli or Chicken noodle?" By then he was totally confused. So we explained again. He chose the French Onion not knowing at all what he was ordering. Again the question came: "French fries, mashed or sweet potatoe fries? What about a vegetable: corn, beans or carrots?" As the questions kept coming at him it became very evident to us that despite our help and encouragement he was struggling to keep his composure.
It had never occurred to me that for our Korean friend and the other international students that something as simple as eating in a restaurant could be such an ordeal. He and the roses in the picture have something in common, wouldn't you say?
The history of the tea ceremony, an essential part of Zen Buddhist thought and practice, is very old. It’s more than a cup of hot water and tea leaves. It has all the earmarks of holy leisure and gracious hospitality. Time and time again, it has been proven to be relaxing, refreshing and, yes, healthy! Actually, I enjoy it as a religious experience by its very nature.
Imagine our delight on October 8 as six of us Benedictine Sisters were invited guests at a ceremony performed by a professional, mother of my former student, Yoshie Takada. Beautiful ceramic bowls (cups), flower arrangements and a sweet morsel welcomed us. Seated on chairs (actually, guests usually sit on their ankles on a tatami--straw matting--floor), we watched the calm and reverence marking Mrs. Takada’s graceful movements, her delicate handling of instruments, even to the dipping of the boiling water into each cup, and the almost imperceptible stirring that followed. Her “assistant” reverently placed a “bowl” of steaming green tea before each of us. We bowed mutually before picking up our bowl and began to sip appreciatively. Custom then allows guests to examine the lovely bowl, turning it every which way, and to comment on it. We did exactly that, delighted in so beautiful a vessel.
Up to this time, all was done in a circle of quiet calm! But after the last sip of tea, regular chatter resumes and we’re back to our normal selves.
It’s been said that the tea ceremony cult is like admiring the beautiful among the more squalid facts of everyday life. It creates a certain harmony and purity, a mystery of mutual charity, and a certain touch of romanticism as we plod along in everyday life. I find it to be all of these!
Yesterday I was reminded again of the healing power of human connections. Each November the monastic community has a communal anointing service for those who request healing. Two aspects of this service create an amazing sense of solidarity and sacred space.
The Sisters to be anointed sit in the front pew of one small section of the chapel spaces. All the Sisters seated behind those being anointed walk up to each one, place their hands on their bowed heads for several seconds, and invite Healing Love to flow into all levels of their being. Human touch, accompanied by images of the recipient’s luminescent wholeness, invites each Sister to humbly receive the ointment of loving communal solidarity.
Many ministers of healing acknowledge that the explicit invitation for “Love to be manifest” always opens the recipient to an outpouring of wholehearted healing. Within this sacred sharing, there is a ripple of healing that extends well beyond those being anointed.
After the prayerful laying on of hands, each Sister’s name is called. Then follows a liberal and unhurried anointing of the recipient’s forehead and hands with oil. This powerful proclamation of each Sister’s unique identity, and their open receptivity to the oil-of-compassion, can create spaces for healing movements to gently unfold deep within. It invites each to move into the days ahead with renewed strength. With grateful hearts, those in solidarity with the anointed ones, share in this renewal of communal wholeness.
This week, it’s time to share what S. Olivia Forster and S. Colleen Haggerty did during their two weeks in Japan.
The following notes were submitted by S. Colleen shortly after returning to the US. It’s clear that their time there was more than just a vacation. The activities planned for the Sisters show how much their Benedictine heritage means to the people of Muroran and how deeply they continue to honor the connection.
S. Colleen writes:
One of the special gifts during this time in Japan was being with our Sisters at Saint Benedict’s Monastery, Muroran, an independent monastery whose roots spring from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph. Many of our Sisters here in Minnesota know a number of them in Japan (some of whom spent years in formation and study here), so renewing friendships and memories was a GREAT GIFT of these TWO WEEKS.
ACTVITIES during the two-week stay:
• Major event - Recognition of S. Olivia at the high school, Kaisei Gakuin (formerly St. Benedict's High School)
o Tree planting ceremony
o All-school convocation - S. Olivia addressed assembly; flowers given to both of us--customary
to honor guests!
o Small group of English speaking students given 15 minutes to ask questions/answers-- in English
o Tour of school
o Reception--tea and cakes with English Club students (about 15)
o Formal tea ceremony by students learning the art from an alum who comes weekly
o Yearbooks shared with visiting group and some students
o At least 12-15 alums came throughout the afternoon for ceremony and to greet S. Olivia
• Tour of Muroran City – view of Pacific Ocean; every hill, mountain and high point of the area; tour of one Catholic Church in Muroran (one at each end of city)
• Afternoon social time with many Japanese courses at the home of Toshiaki Sugawara (head teacher at school) and his wife Mineko; unusual invitation as most Japanese families do not easily invite people into their homes. Mineko is an accomplished musician -- piano and voice; has many parts in operas; she entertained us with many selections. Two of the Japanese sisters accepted the invitation.
• Tour of JWS -- Japanese Steel Works—one of the main industries of the city; included the museum of sword manufacturing; observed the “making” of a hand-crafted sword
• Reception-- tea ceremony at the school on Saturday afternoon with alumnae. Many attended.
• Public concert in city hall on Saturday evening by the daughter of an alum, former student of S. Olivia; were fortunate to attend
• Reception at the Catholic Church at East Muroran on Sunday after Mass; good Catholic people; tribute to S. Olivia and to American Sisters: speeches, light lunch; choir performed with Mineko Sugawara directing.
• On Monday afternoon, tea ceremony at the home of a professional tea ceremony teacher whose daughter had performed at Saturday’s concert.
• Gathering of alums-- three former students (and Mitsuo Takada, former principal at Kasei Gakuin) in Tokyo Narita Airport during our four-hour layover there on Tuesday, October 16; had hoped for more to attend but a workday for many. Over 40 alums in the Tokyo area.
• Many one-on-one visits to and from friends--personal and school-connected; each one carrying gifts (o-miyage) of flowers, candy and Japanese treats or small gift.
From Observations and Notes, collected by Colleen Haggerty, OSB
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author of the classic Gift from the Sea, speaks mysterious words about the human experience of loneliness, an uncomfortable situation, at best, and one from which we normally wish to escape! She says, however: “Loneliness is really never cured; it is only covered up, filled temporarily. And I am not so sure we should try so hard to cure it or cover it up. Loneliness, if one comes to terms with it, is one’s good daemon: out of it come one’s creative powers” (in Against Wind and Tide, a collection of her letters and journals, p 140).
A broken relationship-- or no relationships at all-- a disability that separates one from ‘normal’ human beings, a death, a writing block, a feeling of having no identity or acceptability, the experience of being on the periphery instead of on the "inside"—these are but a few of those deep feelings or experiences that may cause unbearable loneliness. Because of our inability to deal with this loneliness, we often seek to fill up the void, cover up the pain, or, in some way, escape that which is really inescapable.
Quite unexpectedly, our author says we need loneliness and ought to protect each other’s precious loneliness! Her Gift from the Sea was born during the lonely hours of her retreat at the seashore. What creative action or expression might arise from us, if we could but hunker down and be lonely? How could our country be different if we stopped filling up the airwaves and newsprint with words that simply cover up the deep loneliness which we currently suffer and which causes so much estrangement from one another?
This week, our Japan blog is a story about kindness: the kindness that enabled S. Olivia Forster and S. Colleen Haggerty to travel there, and the kindness with which they were greeted during their stay.
Mr. Tom Haeg decided to gift Sister Olivia with this trip because her experience there and the love he also has for Japan. When Tom graduated from Saint John’s University, he decided he wanted to go to Japan. He came to the high school, where S. Olivia was principal at the time, looking for a job. Sadly, she had to tell him there were no openings in their school. So off he went to law school and practiced law; he also became a judge in Hennepin County, Minn. Years passed. One of Tom’s daughters graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in 2009. At the ceremony he inquired whether S. Olivia was around. She was. Thus-- friends once again!
Tom had continued to have a special interest in Japan; when he retired, he “took up” that interest in earnest. S. Olivia put him in touch with Mr. Mitsuo Takada (an acquaintance of hers for many years, and the principal of the school in Japan at the time) and the rest is history. Tom has been invaluable in helping with host families, outings, etc., when Japanese students come to America.
Both S. Olivia and Tom have kept in touch with Mr. Takada, who has visited in America a number of times. In October 2012, when the Sisters were the visitors to his country, he was there to greet them at Tokyo airport and kindly saw to it that they got through immigration and on the right bus to the hotel. The next morning he also made sure they were at the right terminal for the connecting flight to Muroran, Hokkaido. On their day of departure, two weeks later, he was once again at Narita airport in Tokyo to bid them farewell. He had travelled from Kyoto-- some distance from Tokyo-- for each of these meetings!
From Observations and Notes, collected by Colleen Haggerty, OSB
I never know whether I like November or not. On the one hand, although I love winter and I'm looking forward to snow and brittle sunshine, I don't like the sense of the year fading. I don't like the damp, grey days. I don't like the hour going back and the start of long, dark evenings. On the other hand, I like the cosiness of being indoors and the thought of curling up with a good book.
Thinking about how I'm looking forward to cosiness and books set me off on a train of thought that brought back lots of happy memories, like lying on the rug, by the fire, reading 'When We Were Very Young' by AA Milne, with my mother. I'd read a poem and then she'd read one and we'd keep changing off. By the way, I'll mention here, that I'm not going to launch into a tirade about why books are better than electronic means of reading. All sorts of reading is fine. It's simply that I have a lot more experience of reading printed books than anything else.
So, what do I love about books and reading? I love the preliminaries: browsing in a bookstore or library, the feel and the smell of books. I love the promise of dipping into other worlds, learning something new, engaging with lives and events that I would otherwise never have access to. When I get the book home, I even enjoy the stage of osmosis, where it sits on the shelf for an indeterminate length of time and I feel that simply by having it there, some kind of knowledge is seeping into my soul. Once I begin actually reading, I love the fact that I can enter so intimately into other lives, times, ways of being. This is true of all sorts of books, whether fact or fiction.
I read all sorts of books, but here's something key that underlies my love of reading, and it's the fact that reading makes me think. It keeps my mind alive. I don't read the words and believe them because they are there on the page. I mull over them, criticize them, decide if and why I agree. And it's not just about forming opinions and keeping my mind alive. It's about assimilating the world, as I learn about it, into my life of faith and prayer. Reading makes me a more rounded, whole person, more capable of bringing the needs of the world, as it is and not as I'd like it to be, into my heart and prayer.
Two of our Sisters, Olivia Forster, OSB (left), and Colleen Haggerty, OSB (below right), recently visited Japan, and there’s quite a story behind their visit. Every Thursday during November, we’re going to share something of their journey with you, based on the observations and notes collected by S. Colleen and approved by S. Olivia.
First of all a little background: the reason they made the visit was because S. Olivia was principal at a high school in Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan. The high school was begun by our Sisters in 1960, and has flourished for over 52 years. Following the leadership of S. Benedice Schulte, who built the new school, S. Olivia became the second principal, and remained in Japan for 20 years. The history of the school is recognized by the current leadership. S. Colleen reports that their effort to recognize the Benedictines, and Sister Olivia in particular, was VERY evident during this two-week visit.
The school, now named Kaisei Gakuin High School ("Star of the Sea" High School), is one of 11 Catholic High Schools in Japan. At its height, there were 500+ students enrolled; this year there are 175. Most of the students are not Catholic. The present principal is Kenji Kagawa, and the vice-principal/head teacher is Toshiaki Sugawara whose wife, Mineko, is a soprano opera singer. The staff includes two Catholic teachers of English: Jack Brodowski, an American who has lived in Japan for 11 years, and is married with two children, and Hiroshi Yamane who is married with two children. A third English teacher is another American, Matt Benscoter. Even though most of the students are not Catholic, these men work together very well to promote the school as a Catholic school.
Next week, we’ll share how an act of great generosity enabled S. Olivia and S. Colleen to travel to Japan.
Adapted from OBSERVATIONS AND NOTES collected by Sister Colleen Haggerty as she accompanied Sister Olivia Forster on a “gift” trip to Japan - October 2-16, 2012.
I am spending the current academic year in Chicago at CTU (Catholic Theological Union) in the Institute of Religious Formation.
When I left for Chicago in late August with a car filled with suitcases and boxes, I knew very little about the city to which I was going other than it was a BIG city. In fact it took me two hours to drive from the outskirts of the city in the North end to Hyde Park at the southern end. But I knew a few things: that President Obama was from Chicago, that it was on Lake Michigan, and that at one time there were famous gansters living here. I was also familiar with the names of the sports teams. However, I was not prepared for what I discovered over the past two months. Did you know that outside of Warsaw, Poland, Chicago has the largest concentration of people of Polish descent in the world and that there is a multitude of ethnic neighborhoods all around the city? The photo above was taken on a glorious September day when a group of us from CTU took a boat ride along the Chicago River to see the extraordinary architecture, both old and new. The boat also took us through the lock seen in the picture and we went up and down Lake Michigan for several miles. And so I am learning that there is much to discover about this beautiful city: the parks, the waterfront, the neighborhoods, the festivals, etc.
I also discovered that Chicago is a "religious" city. There are churches everywhere. I am not sure they are as well attended as they once where but they tell a story of what this city was in the not too distant past. I knew when I left Saint Benedict's that I would be meeting many people of religious communities at CTU; what I did not know was the number of religious communities that have a home in Chicago, mostly for their people in formation and/or their administrative houses. I am astounded at the many names of communities that I have never heard of before.
I cannot end this short expose of Chicago without saying something about the people. My experience of big cities until now has been that people tend to keep to themselves, being somewhat fearful that someone might take advantage of them. Not here! It is most noticeable on the buses and trains around the city. When I returned from California two weeks ago I had to take two trains from O'Hare airport down into the city. I got off the first train but was unsure where to go next so I asked a young man, probably a Latino who spoke very little English, and with gestures he made sure that I found my way to the correct train. A real guardian angel! More recently when a friend and I were going downtown to the Art Institute at least three young people offered me their seat in a very crowded bus, and I have witnessed that kind of attentiveness to people who need a little help on the bus many times so far. It seems automatic: if an older person gets on the bus, a younger person pops up immediately.
There would be so much more to write about this wonderful and great city but time and space are at a premium for now. Next month I will write about the experience of being a student.
“I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds around my neck.” (Emma Goldman). My love affair with roses began about ten years ago when I “inherited” 16 tea rose bushes from a friend who was moving away. Always loving roses, but without any knowledge of how to care for them, I agreed to take them. Under the tutelage of another Sister who had been raising roses for many years, the roses survived and continue each summer to bring a special touch of beauty to many. For me, the delight in raising roses comes in sharing them. It is a joy to bring a few roses to a Sister when she is ill, recuperating, for a special occasion or in appreciation of assistance given. To add a touch of beauty in an unexpected place, fresh roses are placed in a women’s restroom that is used by Sisters and guests. Sisters delight in the roses and the feminine touch they bring.
Sister Dale Wollum, OSB’s poem expresses my sentiments:
It’s October, and I’m rejoicing in all the canned pickles, frozen vegetables and dehydrated fruits in our food storage areas. They appear because two of the people that live in my monastic living group have labored faithfully to make this happen. As soon as the March snows show signs of melting, they feel the surge of spring and begin plotting the garden spaces. Out come the packages of seeds, the needed trellises, posts and boundary twine. And so begins the rhythm of summer watering, weeding, thinning and fall harvesting and preserving. What has all this faithful monitoring yielded? Besides the produce, gardeners regularly hear the cheers of those around the table that are seeing and eating these wonderful treasures.
Maybe you have noticed how richly flavorful meals are when they include food grown in the local soil, carefully preserved and served on eye-catching platters. Those who watched them grow from scratch proudly add the right amount of tasty herbs and garnish. So, in addition to the healing nutrients these foods provide, there is a palpable aura of gratefulness for the hands and hearts that nurtured, prepared and served this food feast.
"We return thanks to our Mother, the Earth, which sustains us.
We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.
We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.
Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in Whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children."
-- Iroquois Prayer, adapted Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace
The Gospel of Thomas gives good advice: “Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you.” There is not much that I can do about the revelation; that always proffers the unexpected; but what I can do is recognize what is before my eyes.
I want to say something about a kind of daily liturgy that feeds the soul, viz., the amenities of a loving interchange! Frankly, I miss some of the amenities of a more loving and expressive way of being with one another! I will mention only three: a gracious greeting which includes being called by my name; holding the door for another-- whether carrying a package or not; and including another simply through eye contact. I am often reminded of the 13 year old Emily from Thornton Wilder’s classic piece, OUR TOWN, who although she had died was given her wish to re-live a birthday! You may remember that she descends the staircase, watches her mother make breakfast and then receives from her mother a much too perfunctory “Happy Birthday” greeting. Emily cannot bear the inadequacy of that tiny meeting and greeting! She so poignantly says to her mother: “Mama, please look at me as if you really saw me!”
Emily wants to be recognized; after all, it is her birthday! A loving embrace, greeting, fondness would have been the liturgy that could have fed her soul!
And we? Might we start a little revolution and make an effort to call one another by name, hold a door for another, or grant one another eye contact? Is it only the “child within” that longs for safety in the hands of an adult? Or is it the craving of the adult heart for little moments of communion?
Again, in the words of the Gospel of Thomas: “Recognize what is before your eyes, and what is hidden will be revealed to you.” If we let the quality of our lives together fade in the name of speed and/or efficiency, do we not run the risk of harming one another ... and ourselves?
My new job as Communications Director is a real challenge. It's not so much the job. I know that as I work into it, I'll get faster, handle things that, at present, are new and scary with greater confidence as they become familiar. I'm looking forward to that.
What is really the challenge is starting a new job and making it a part of my monastic life. It would be so easy to say , "I need to finish this announcement. I can't go to prayers." Self-discipline helps with that. I consciously ask myself, "Is it more important to finish this or to spend time with God, which is what you committed to?" I'm usually able to prioritize and prayers win.
What is even harder, in the whirl of the day, is not be dismayed by another request coming in, just as I see light at the end of the tunnel, and think I'll finally have a chance to get to grips with some planning. I have to remind myself that Christ is in the person making the request, and that this is a chance to see Him there, and to treat the person accordingly.
Even greater is the challenge to remember that my work is not taking me away from monastic life; it is the means through which I'm being asked to live my monastic commitment at this time. I'm not finding any of this easy, but I'm grateful that I don't, because I know that it is a blessing to be challenged like this. It's a great opportunity for transformation. I'm learning on the job a new way to be transformed. And, after all, I came here to be transformed.
During this dry summer I’ve become more and more aware of the preciousness of water. I spent some time at Mercy Retreat Center in Colorado Springs. And that gave me a firsthand view of the life giving power of water. Outdoor watering definitely happened as needed. However, instead of grass around three of the residential areas there was: 1) a tended vegetable garden; 2) a fenced in chicken area (home to 27 chickens giving organic eggs daily after munching on the weeds pulled from the nearby garden); and, 3) a large earthen area that created a permanent labyrinth.
Each of these seemed to say to me, “Look at me. I love giving life to you and creating quiet spaces that reveal the presence of the Holy One.”
There were the days when rain anointed everything. As I watched the first drop cling to the window, it quickly revealed its simple majestic essence. And when it did, gratefulness accompanied the droplet’s shout of “Let there be life!”
Immediately it brought to mind the words of Mahmûd Shabistari. “Penetrate the heart of just one drop of water, and you will be flooded by hundreds of oceans”. May oceans of gratefulness flood our hearts as we marvel at every drop of water that moistens our thirsty being this day.
It's two months since I made perpetual profession. I've started to miss my blog weekly posts so, as promised, I'm starting to contribute occasional blogs to our monastery blogsite.
It has been quite a two months! The plan was that I would stay in my job in the development office for at least the first year after making profession. This was all neatly thought out to give a sense of continuity as I adjusted to being perpetually professed. That was the plan.
The reality? Eight weeks to the day after I professed, I found myself in a new role as Director of Communications. I'm both nervous and excited: nervous because I have a lot to learn, and excited because I like new challenges, and also because it's a job that demands doing a lot of things I enjoy (writing, for instance).
There's a particular challenge that I want to consider today: how starting a new job relates to my monastic life. I'm in a professional role that is very demanding and, despite occasional bouts of anxiety, I feel very energized by what I'm beginning. Put together, those two factors could mean that my job becomes all-consuming. I have to keep bringing myself back to the purpose of my call, the reason why I'm here. Meeting work deadlines and learning new skills can't become the center of my life, because the center has to remain God, and my primary activity has to be seeking God. I'm starting to understand how this relates to the promise of stability. Aspects of my life are changing, and they matter. But there is a stable core from which everything else stems, and remaining aware of that, keeping it nourished and flourishing is an even more significant job than being Director of Communications. After all, if I lose sight of my true goal, God, I won't have anything worthwhile to communicate.
That which we humans appreciate, we magnify! When we love someone, not only do we praise the magnificence of the one loved but the lover herself seems to grow in beauty, in carefulness, in admirable qualities. When we love and praise the beauty of our Mother Earth, she responds to our love and care. She, then, is productive so that we can gather her fruits and be nourished. It is required that we return gratitude in the form of care. As we play in her waters and climb her mountains, harvest her forests, and dig in her quarries, we must renew what we might have spoiled so that her health is restored . We need to teach our children what things are more important than other things. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, but proper relationships to the Earth teach all of us that we have treated our Earth without care or reverence, without knowledge of her needs or cognizance of the complexity of our present troubles. Wendell Berry, contemporary farmer, philosopher, poet, essayist, novelist and social activist, puts it this way: “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free”(“The Peace of Wild Things” in Green River Review, #1).
What would it take for all of us to look again upon our Earth as mother, sister, brother, and know that we are all children of this universe? That we need to change our lives from ones of exploitation to lives of explicit gratitude so that all might again rest in the grace of the world, and be free? What we humans appreciate, we magnify! “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility,” writes Wendell Berry. “To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
One of the highlights of our annual Donor Day celebration is the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, made to a woman who we’ve known for years, and seen living the Benedictine motto of “Work and Prayer”. What a joy this year to recognize someone who’s like part of the family, Irene Pundsack.
Irene wouldn’t claim to be anything other than ordinary, but we sisters know she isn’t. She and husband, Richard, totaled nearly a century of devoted service as our employees. Irene didn’t just do a fantastic job in the bakery and kitchen. She balanced work with prayer, often coming in early so she could join sisters at Morning Prayer and Mass. She listened to their troubles, gave help as needed, and cared for St. Raphael’s Convent when it closed and sisters transferred to St. Scholastica’s (where Irene later followed).
L to r: Sister Karen Rose, Irene Pundsack, Sister Gen Maiers
If Irene shared the life of the Sisters, she also shared her family life with them. Her 7 children had dozens of “sister-grandmas”. Family life was important, so it was no surprise on Donor Day when Irene arrived surrounded by family. And what a family! Only weeks before Donor Day, Irene broke her hip and had surgery. Despite still being in pain and using a wheelchair, she was determined to go onstage to receive her award. Family made it happen. Her sons carried her up the steps, wheelchair and all. Irene received the honor, made a gracious speech, and then her children surprised us all with a tribute to their mother in song – not a dry eye in the house.
Irene continues to shine her Benedictine light to this day. She’s done amazing work building community through her church and work with projects such as Place of Hope and Hope Park. In April, she walked a 5K marathon in support of Earth Day. What a privilege to see her honored by our Benedictine community. No wonder the applause was deafening!
Who could say anything to surpass Anne Higgins’ luscious poem? Read it again. Carry it around with you. Experience the split skin, the ecstatic taste-- warm and sweet. Are you sitting on the ground and letting the juice burst in your mouth? After all, it is August; (we’re not yet in one of those formidable months spelled with an“r” ). Have you noticed a hummingbird or two as well in the great green silence? And is your own heart bursting? Cherry tomatoes can do that for one.
As I sit at my laptop in Colorado Springs, CO I feel a bit like Tevia from the “Fiddler On the Roof” when he repeatedly said, “On the one hand…and on the other hand” as he tried sorting through his mixed feelings. Because as I see before me the majestic Rocky Mountains from the front yard of the Mercy Retreat Center, I simultaneously recall all the forest fires that recently blackened major portions of the mountain’s face. The retreat center itself needed to face possible evacuation as clusters of ash the size of zucchini leaves began landing in the yard on Tuesday, June 26th. Fortunately the winds shifted and didn’t allow the flames to jump over the highway and cause the retreat buildings/homes to be counted among the many that were destroyed by the fires. It was a bit like trying to rejoice and simultaneously walk with the pain of all those affected by their flaming losses of homes and lives.
Driving up 14,110 feet to the top of Pikes Peak two weeks later left a vivid image of the scope of the fire. Yet I remember how Yellowstone forest workers chose not to replant trees after their devastating fire and simply let nature’s seedlings reshape the swatches of forest that had been fire blackened. Who knows what varied fall colors may emerge ten years after this awesome mountain’s blackened canvas face has been repainted with young foliage and fauna. It may happen that a young poet may be inspired to write yet another stanza to Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” written under the inspiration of her beholding the vistas seen from Pikes Peak in 1893.
Recently I listened to an interview that Krista Tippett, host of Minnesota Public Radio's "On Being," did with Jacob Needleman, the philosopher and author of "The American Soul: The Inward Work of Democracy." His ideas have particular resonance this week, when our nation celebrates its historic invitation to self-actualization and freedom. That resonance becomes even more powerful in the face of the many questions and complications - not to mention confusion and divisive partisanship - with which our country is so riddled right now. Jacob Needleman passionately presents some of the great and fallible human beings who forged this country we love - men and women who demanded of themselves high ideals, which they in turn expressed in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Among these people, he highlighted: George Washington, for being a man who "turned away from power" - no easy task in our competitive and power-hungry world; Jefferson, who knew the invaluable importance of "listening well," particularly if there were to be agreement among the Declaration signers; Lincoln, "humbled by power" even as he firmly exhorted "malice toward none, and charity toward all"; and from the 19th Century, Frederick Douglas, an escaped slave who deeply loved the America he felt compelled to criticize for allowing slavery to exist. Call what these men stood for what you will-- ideals or virtues-- but we need to reflect on them today, as we struggle to maintain our democracy. Let it not be thought that anyone, least of all Jacob Needleman, would deny Americans the fireworks, festivals, marches, and parades we so love to employ in our Fourth of July celebrations; but Needleman feels our patriotism must go deeper than all that. Astutely, I think, he asserts that our age needs not just external action groups, but "think groups" that could help us ask such hard questions as: "What are the duties implied by our rights as very blessed Americans? What is the inward work of democracy? What does the Declaration of Independence imply when it says, "All are created equal," and, "All have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? Dear God, we pray for this our nation and world. We ask that You help us remove the walls that separate us. Now, in this moment, we ask for new light; illumine our minds, so that we may seek truth, harbor no malice, and live in charity toward all. Use us, dear Lord, as part of your plan for the world's healing. May we no longer be at war with each other, or with ourselves. May every nation and every people, every color and every religion, find at last the one heartbeat we share. Continue to create and sustain this country, dear God, for us and for our children. Hallelujah at the thought! Praise God, that such a thing could come to be, through You, through us, and through Your light that shines within us! So may it be. So may it be. We thank You, Lord. AMEN.
The weekend of May 19-22 was a busy one for the BWSC, Benedictine Women’s Service Corps. The volunteers who had been serving in Puerto Rico arrived at St. Benedict’s Guest House Friday night.
On Saturday afternoon they gave their first presentations to the Sisters at St. Scholastica, along with the volunteers who had served in Tanzania. On Sunday afternoon at St. Benedict’s Monastery Dining Room, the Benedictine Women’s Service Corps volunteers showed a video and power point presentations to the Sisters at St. Benedict’s. Sarah Schwalbach and Jana Graczyk spent ten months in Humacao, Puerto Rico living with the Benedictine Sisters of Monasterio Santa Escolastica and teaching English to kindergartners and history and geography to eighth graders at El Colegio San Benito. Ashley Irons and Maggie Niebur spent seven months in Chipole, Tanzania, and three months at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
The experiences of these women going out to the world as Benedictine volunteers, makes a huge impact on their lives and the lives of those they serve. As they debrief from their service, they demonstrate the differences in placements, cultures, and experiences. The audiences of sisters, mainly, showed their appreciation when the women would talk about the various Benedictine Houses and their local customs, or about the length of liturgies.
The Corps now boasts of seven women who have served in the past two years, and will be sending out another volunteer at the end of August. This year, the emphasis is domestic. Therefore volunteer Ashley Blaine, just recently graduated from the College of St. Benedict will serve in Ridgeley, Maryland, where the Benedictine community of St. Gertrude’s ministers through their Benedictine School for Exceptional Children, the Barn, which helps the poor with clothing and food, and a transition house for abused women and children.
I love the months that don’t have an “r” in them for several reasons. One of the main ones is my inclination to go barefoot whenever possible, especially on warm grass. I’m sure I may have lost some “cold feet” readers just mentioning the removal of shoes. But I wager there are a good number of us that rarely wear shoes in the house, even in winter. Might it be that taking our shoes off in the house acknowledges it as “sacred space”. You can probably guess my scriptural basis for this belief.
Remember when Moses saw the burning bush and God called out to him saying, “Remove
the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” [Exodus 3:5]. When we remove our shoes, could it also be possible that this very act creates a sacred space? I think of the many early tribal peoples that have a profound reverence for the earth. They learned to walk as gently as possible on mother earth, acknowledging that it is pregnant with life. And those would silently let nature speak to their being, often report how each dimension of creation is a sacred aspect of ourselves that we may have forgotten.
Did you say you were going to join me in the revere of removing your shoes and running through a yard sprinkler… clothed but shoeless?! Some children never recover from their childhood delights.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of Pentecost! It’s one of my favorite feasts but it is also a disturbing one!
Scripture gives us the wonderful story of the first coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles by referencing many images of surprise, change, movement, energy, fire, empowerment, understanding of foreign languages. And, today, if we consult Scripture scholars and spiritual directors, they will tell us that the same-- the exact same-- changes, surprises, energy and empowerment are meant also for us, gifts from the same Spirit, to fit our needs, in our specific place and time! That’s the disturbing part of the Pentecost liturgy and truth! But also the most promising part of Pentecost! So, you may ask, how can it be both disturbing and promising? Where’s the missing link?
Recently I received the following e-mail message entitled “Dead Church.” There are times, aren’t there, when we feel we are dead members of a dying church? Let me share this email with you! It seems a new Pastor in a small Oklahoma town spent the first four days making personal visits to each of the members, inviting them to come to his first services. The following Sabbath, the church was all but empty. Accordingly, the pastor placed a notice in the local newspapers, stating that, because the church was dead, it was everyone’s duty to give it a decent Christian burial. The funeral would be held the following Sabbath afternoon, the notice said.
Morbidly curious, a large crowd turned out for the ‘funeral.’ In front of the pulpit, they saw a closed coffin, smothered in flowers. After the Pastor delivered the eulogy, he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.
Filled with curiosity as to what would represent the corpse of a ‘dead church,’ all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin. Each ‘mourner’ peeked into the coffin, then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.
In the coffin, tilted at the correct angle, was a large mirror.
Does anyone ever really remain free of delight when the warmth of May comes around each year? I, for one, consistently revel in its appearing. Among the many reasons for this is the forceful presence of my mother and Godmother (my mother’s sister) at this time. Both of these formative “Ammas” [wisdom women] died in May.
In 1983 (3 years after my mother’s death) I was invited by the pastor to give a few remarks at the Saturday and Sunday Eucharist in my home parish, St. Boniface church, Cold Spring MN. This invitation came because that year I was celebrating my 25th Jubilee as a Benedictine sister. I actually welcomed the opportunity to comment on how several parishioners were wonderful role models for me as I was growing up.
After having repeated the same remarks for the third and final time, I finally felt relaxed as the sun streamed in the large church window landing on my left cheek and shoulder. After the Eucharist, my cousin who was present, came to me and asked, “Did you feel the sun on you as you spoke?” I needed to admit that I had and its warmth felt so comforting. She responded, “That was your mother, she wanted you to know she was with you again today.” The flood of tears that followed her remark revealed again how terribly much I continued to miss her. However, almost immediately, the refrain of a popular John Denver song came into my mind.
Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy.
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely.
Sunshine almost always makes me high.
So now, all year round, whenever the sun warms my left cheek or shoulder I say, “Hi mom, I’m so glad you keep letting me know you’re with me. I love you too.”
In a very short time, we will be celebrating the soul-shaking, global-shaking feast of Pentecost. St. Luke says that the Spirit came down upon Mary and the disciples with power to open the gates of life to all nations! Peoples of every language and culture could now become proclaimers of the message, “Jesus is Lord”, in their own tongue and with their own expressions of joy and faith! St. Paul teaches the early Church by using my favorite image of the Body of Christ: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
Now, obviously, not all of us are shaken to the depths of our beings, nor is our world so shaken by the coming of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, I have been praying the following Spirit Psalm which may appeal to you as well. It is inspired by the image of the Spirit rushing upon David when he was anointed King (1 Samuel 16: 13) and it can fit any time or clime:
Lately I’ve been thinking more about how tough it is to really listen. Maybe you can relate to this too. What got me started was an article I read in the Feb 13, 2012 issue of the America magazine entitled, “Vatican II at 50” by Richard Gaillardetz. Gaillardetz focused on Conversation starters: Dialog and Deliberation during Vatican II. He remarked that one of the dynamic characteristics of Vatican II dialogs was humble learning.
According to Gaillardetz, Vatican II reminded us that all disciples of Jesus are lifelong learners. And that this is as true for the pope as it is for children preparing for first Communion. And research has shown us that the greatest barrier to listening is, “having your mind so steadfastly made up that there is no room for dialog, no room for 'being a student' ” in the presence of someone who thinks differently than I. Christ was only impatient toward those who were arrogant in their certitude.
I cringe when I think of how often I have my response ready for anyone who disagrees with me on a given topic, even before they have had a chance to tell me why they value certain aspects of their lived-truths on this same topic. I can hardly ever stop my chain-of-thoughts unless I figure out a way to really be quiet long enough to take in what they are trying to tell me.
So far, the only ear-opening behavior I have found to learn from others, is to “Sit still, be quiet, and then ask them to give me an example of what leads them to value their opinion on the topic at hand." Often their example provides ample room for dialog that is both humbling and open.
I’m here to confess that I fail at this oftener than I succeed. That doesn’t keep me from continuing to try to hang out with others who think differently than I, so that my life-long-learning-lens can include an expanded view of unfolding lived-truths. I certainly know the safety I feel when I have been with someone who respectfully provided me the time and space to be- honest-out-loud in their presence.
Jeremy was born with a twisted body and a slow mind. At the age of 12 he was still in second grade, seemingly unable to learn. His teacher, Doris Miller, often became exasperated with him. He would squirm in his seat, drool, and make grunting noises. At other times, he spoke clearly and distinctly, as if a spot of light had penetrated the darkness of his brain. Most of the time, however, Jeremy just irritated his teacher.
One day she called his parents and asked them to come in for a consultation. As the Forresters entered the empty classroom, Doris said to them, "Jeremy really belongs in a special school. It isn't fair to him to be with younger children who don't have learning problems. Why, there’s a five-year age gap between him and the other students."
Mrs. Forrester cried softly into a tissue while her husband spoke. "Miss Miller," he said, "there is no school of that kind nearby. It would be a terrible shock for Jeremy if we had to take him out of this school. We know he really likes it here."
Doris sat for a long time after they had left, staring at the snow outside the window. Its coldness seemed to seep into her soul. She wanted to sympathize with the Forresters. After all, their only child had a terminal illness. But it wasn't fair to keep him in her class. She had 18 other youngsters to teach, and Jeremy was a distraction. Furthermore, he would never learn to read and write. Why waste any more time trying?
As she pondered the situation, guilt washed over her. Here I am complaining when my problems are nothing compared to that poor family, she thought. Lord, please help me to be more patient with Jeremy.
From that day on, she tried hard to ignore Jeremy's noises and his blank stares. Then one day, he limped to her desk, dragging his bad leg behind him. “I love you, Miss Miller," he exclaimed, loudly enough for the whole class to hear.
The other students snickered, and Doris's face turned red. She stammered, "Wh-why, that's very nice, Jeremy. N-now please take your seat."
Spring came, and the children talked excitedly about the coming of Easter. Doris told them the story of Jesus and then, to emphasize the idea of new life springing forth, she gave each of the children a large plastic egg. "Now," she said to them, "I want you to take this home and bring it back tomorrow with something inside that shows new life. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Miss Miller," the children responded enthusiastically--all except for Jeremy. He listened intently, his eyes never leaving her face. He did not even make his usual noises. Had he under-stood what she had said about Jesus' death and resurrection? Did he understand the assignment? Perhaps she should call his parents and explain the project to them.
That evening, Doris' kitchen sink stopped up. She called the landlord and waited an hour for him to come by and unclog it. After that, she still had to shop for groceries, iron a blouse, and prepare a vocabulary test for the next day. She completely forgot about phoning Jeremy's parents.
The next morning, 19 children came to school, laughing and talking as they placed their eggs in the large wicker basket on Miss Miller's desk. After they completed their math lesson, it was time to open the eggs.
In the first egg, Doris found a flower. "Oh yes, a flower is certainly a sign of new life," she said. "When plants peek through the ground, we know that spring is here."
A small girl in the first row waved her arm. "That's my egg, Miss Miller," she called out.
The next egg contained a plastic butterfly, which looked very real. Doris held it up. "We all know that a caterpillar changes and grows into a beautiful butterfly. Yes, that's new life, too."
Little Judy smiled proudly and said, "Miss Miller, that one is mine."
Next, Doris found a rock with moss on it. She explained that moss, too, showed life. Billy spoke up from the back of the classroom. "My daddy helped me," he beamed.
Then Doris opened the fourth egg. She gasped. The egg was empty. Surely it must be Jeremy's she thought, and of course, he did not understand her instructions. If only she had not forgotten to phone his parents. Because she did not want to embarrass him, she quietly set the egg aside and reached for another. Suddenly, Jeremy spoke up. "Miss Miller, aren't you going to talk about my egg?"
Flustered, Doris replied, "But Jeremy, your egg is empty." Jeremy looked into her eyes and said softly, "Yes, but Jesus' tomb was empty, too."
Time stopped. When she could speak again, Doris asked him, "Do you know why the tomb was empty?"
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said, "Jesus was killed and put in there. Then His Father raised Him up."
The recess bell rang. While the children excitedly ran out to the school yard, Doris cried. The cold inside her melted completely away. Three months later, Jeremy died. Those who paid their respects at the mortuary were surprised to see 19 eggs on top of his casket, all of them empty.
I have been enamored lately with spring: trees bearing green buds, crocuses announcing the beginning of a new season, tulips springing up, and bright yellow daffodils greeting me on my walks. Every year the wonder of spring amazes me. As I prepare for Holy Week at the monastery, I am aware of how nature parallels the Easter season and the Paschal mystery. Life comes from death. Death cannot overpower life and resurrection. Amazingly, our spirit witnesses that same process in conversion and the journey of our lives.
In a reflection titled, “The Courage of the Seed,” Mark Nepo writes:
All the buried seeds crack open in the dark the instant they surrender to a process they can’t see.
-- The Book of Awakening
Spring discloses a powerful lesson. All around us, everything small and buried surrenders to a process that none of buried parts can see. And this innate surrender allows everything edible and fragrant to break out of the dark and damp ground into a life we call spring.
Quietly, nature offers us countless models of how to give ourselves over to what appears dark and hopeless, but is really an awakening beyond imagining. Moving through the dark into more abundant life is the Easter of our soul. Like a seed “cracking open” in the process of becoming, may Holy Week open us to the mystery of God’s love blossoming into divine beauty.
Today a friend emailed thisthis Rumi quote to me .
"Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray."
Suddenly hints of Spring came flooding into my imagination… grass greening, lilac branches plumping and more. And I remember so vividly how easily I move out of awareness and into unawareness as I walk through my days. And then I recall that some of my friends regularly choose to take their newly purchased calendar and reserve specific 36 hour-blocks-of-silent-time each month to spend at our monastery hermitage. This they do in pencil, so if absolutely necessary it can be shifted but never totally erased from that specific month. It’s their way of allowing time to let silent awareness have its due time in their word-filled lives.
Brother David Steindl-Rast would add a delightful practice to their hermitage “awareness time” for those who are interested. He suggests that there is a simple way to explore “seeing into the heart of things” and freeing wonder and gratitude to spontaneously arise.
Once, he invited retreatants to “Take a holy card with you tomorrow. Just a 3x5 card with a pin-hole punched in it. Then walk up to a fabric, the wings of a beetle, or even the underside of a plant or weed and look very carefully at it through the hole in your card. When you block out everything around you except a tiny, tiny space you are able to see things your never saw before in your life.”
Maybe that’s another way for me to rediscover the strange pull of what I really love, care about and am immensely grateful for. It may even leave room for the God-given way of seeing things to become visible in my life.
One thing you count on is that on Friday nights, about 80% of the Sisters will be watching TV, many of them watching Washington Week. I have fallen into this habit myself. Often, I will excuse myself from a party to watch Washington Week with my housemates.
Lately, this news hour review of world and national events has been covering the Republican, presidential race. I am not adept at negotiating the waters of politics and faith, but I’m amused at the recent focus on conservatism and who qualifies as a real conservative. What exactly does conservatism look like? Does it come in a variety of flavors like Baskin Robbins ice cream? Are there different shades of conservatism? Can people agree on a single definition of conservatism?
Yesterday, I was asked my opinion on the selection of carpet for a hall way. On the table there must have been fifty swatches of different colors, patterns, and variegations. Most of us couldn’t decide and finally picked a swatch matching our personal preferences. We all knew the small swatch would look different depending on hall size, wall color and lighting. I think this is a lot like conservatism with regard to politics. We only get “swatches” from each candidate, and we know that what we hear will look much different in the broader scheme of the present political arena.
I regret Andrew Rooney isn’t alive to do a Sixty Minutes clip on conservatism. He might muse out loud about whether Republicans have a monopoly on conservatism, or whether a Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent might be conservative on some issues. Maybe, what we are looking for is not whether someone fits one of the above categories, but the ability of politicians, as well as all of us, to listen to the merits of every perspective. Could we benefit from Benedict’s advice when he asks us to do the following: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and behavior ... ”
If we did that, could we stop the ways labeling one another prevents good things from getting done?
Lent has never been my favorite “sacred” season—as a child, an adolescent, a middle-ager or now, as a senior citizen. I have come to terms with it, of course, and I know I should welcome this time as an opportunity to be ever more open to where the Spirit blows, though it is still a struggle. However, as I reflect on the recently-passed Ash Wednesday I do have an upward lilt of the heart.
Each Ash Wednesday other Sisters and I marvel at the outpouring of students who come to chapel in the late afternoon to participate in the Mass and—probably most important to them, the imposition of ashes on their foreheads. We sometimes chuckle as we note “They’re coming out of the woodwork.” People we don’t see in chapel any other time will come to the Ash Wednesday services [reported by many a parish minister, too!]. And that’s a good thing, I believe. Something about this age-old ritual still speaks to them and, at least for this particular time, they are in tune with the Church and with the age-old mystery of God reaching out to us with love and mercy-- and we being willing to acknowledge our sins and need of this love and mercy. I got a warm glow as I received my ashes and watched the “hordes” of others receiving theirs. And somehow I am deeply comforted and at peace.
I read a line yesterday that stays with me! Maybe it touched my winter doldrums or a Lenten day that had not yet experienced Easter risings! But I know I need to take this idea beyond mere insight into action:
"Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from afar to watch you burn."
Recently I was trying to help our secristan light a candle that just would not receive the flame held over it. I took the candle out of the holder to bring it to eye level. . . and what we saw was a piece of wire extending beyond that part of the wick that could easily be set aflame! Immediately we by-passed the wire and the wick caught fire. I went back to my pew and watched that candle burn brightly! Of course, I thought of the quote: "Catch the fire of enthusiasm and people will come from afar to watch you burn."
We, too, burn and die a bit, change and move a bit-- day by day-- when fanned by the Spirit. Enthusiastic, joy-filled action attracts; it may challenge; it surely gives off light. Nothing wrong about that, is there? And does the enthusiasm minimize the dying even as it simultaneously lights up the eyes, warms the fire of love in one's words, gives a lilt to one's voice or joy to one's relationships? No, I don't think so. I would come from afar, too, to see this life and light in you!
Lately, as I gaze at the evening skies, I’m reminded of the lens-shattering insights of Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist. We have come to acknowledge that the cosmos is evolving. Barbara has long been supportive of awakening the divine within through meditation on the evolving cosmos and our place within that unfolding. When I recognize this divine connection to the universe, I begin to acknowledge that each of us is called to be an intentional co-creator of this world of ours, moving through an extraordinary transformation.
Barbara invites each of us to meditatively look at our life from God’s point of view. Our God yearns to create heaven on earth, but can only do so with the participation of human beings.
Can I expand my human consciousness enough to allow myself to both care deeply about the unfolding universe, and simultaneously envision my unique “co-creator-gifts” as part of this forward movement? Each morning, can I contemplate the cosmic context of my life and connect to its boundless energy? Am I willing to name a specific way in which my day might acknowledge my alignment with the divine impulse toward the good, the true and the beautiful? I’ve come to recognize that only in meditation does this alignment reveal itself.
Teilhard de Chardin believed that in the evolution of human consciousness lies our hope for the future. For my part, perhaps I might need to do what Joseph Campbell suggests, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” To quote Maureen McCormack, SL, “Awakening to an evolutionary relationship to life may be ‘the life that is waiting for us.’” It could be the change that changes everything.
Today, I read an e-mail about procrastination that made me chuckle. Maybe, because it was so true to my nature, the best thing to do was laugh. I don’t know about you, but I seem to get into ruts of procrastination especially when life issues or projects seem overwhelming or stretch my brain.
This quote sighted from by Barrie Davenport reads:
“Do you ever wonder why you procrastinate? Well stop wondering, because it doesn't matter. Analyzing why we procrastinate is just another way of procrastinating. “
In fact, I am writing this blog so I can cross “Write blog” off my list and move on to my next procrastination project. I value the wisdom of the Rule of Saint Benedict about not procrastinating. "What can be sweeter to us, dear brethren than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness, the Lord shows us the way of life. For if we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it.”
Gently, with the beckoning the loving kindness of God, do one thing you have been “putting off.” I would love to hear from you.
Are you one of those persons who love mashed potatoes with or without gravy!The process of mashed potatoes most likely involves peeling them.
Today, Jan 28, we celebrate the death of Sister Cordella Goertel, who loved to work with her hands.She faithfully peeled potatoes for the sisters at the monastery for thirty years.Her excellent culinary skills – that brought delicious joy to the sisters.She also loved to dig in the ground working in the gladiola fields.
Sometimes we live so much in our head and intellectualism that we forget the obvious joy of working with our hands.At the monastery we celebrated peeling potatoes and had a party for all those women who faithfully gather as a community to peel potatoes.
Have you today found time to do work with your hands serving, creating, or caring someone?And may I add: keep it plain and simple.Enjoy the connection of your hands to the heart that begins to bloom like the gladioli in the field that S. Cordella tended too.
This blog is maintained by a group of Sisters at Saint Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. We try to post weekly and often succeed at that.
The opinions on this blog belong to individual writers and do not reflect any official position of the monastery. Please feel free to comment on any of the entries-- comments are moderated, but we'll publish any reasonable comment.