Thursday, November 16, 2023

Pax in Terra: A Meditation from Pema Chödrön

"One of the astronauts who went to the moon later described his experience looking back at Earth from that perspective. Earth looked so small, he said. Just a single sphere hanging in space. It made him very sad to realize that we have divided the world arbitrarily into countries that we're fiercely attached to, with borders we keep waging wars to protect. What we do just doesn't make sense, he realized. We have just this one Earth with one people to take care of it, and the way we're going about it is crazy.

Chief Seattle had the same insight more than a hundred years ago:

'We are all children of the Great Spirit. We all belong to Mother Earth. Our planet is in great trouble, and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die.'"

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Many Shapes of Grief or, a Little Bit of Everything

After my last post, one of my sisters stopped me by the community room and told me about a podcast from Anderson Cooper. In the eight-episode series called All There Is, Anderson explores grief from his own experience of the deaths of his father, brother, and mother. Each episode is unique and exquisite. And while they were a challenging listen in parts, I'd give the series an A! I was quite grateful for the recommendation.

I enjoyed each episode, but the one featuring Stephen Colbert was a highlight for me...taking me back to my high school and college days when I had a one-sided love affair with him each night on The Colbert Report. He told the story of his father and two closest-in-age brothers who died in a plane crash when he was only 10. Stephen said, "My experience of grief has made me long for beauty."

How couldn't I think of dear Mary Miller? Someone for whom beauty was an essential, a non-negotiable of life.

I have been spending a few days down the shore enjoying some time away; beauty abounds. Just the first evening we were sitting bayside with this incredible view of the myriad, varied clouds while the sun poured through them. Lo and behold, we turned around to find a rainbow over the ocean! Mary's presence was damn-near tangible while experiencing the beauty of creation in such a full way.

This mixture of sun and clouds led to a day of pure sunshine and warmth yesterday. We went to the north end of the island at low tide, marveling at such a perfect blue.

And then, overnight last night, the storms from Hurricane Lee passed through. I could hear the thunder and lightning through my ear plugs! We went over to the ocean to see the waves in the morning.

So, the weather here resonates with how I'm feeling most days: a little bit of everything.

But so much of the "little bit of everything" comes from the grief from Mary's death. A quick Google search for the definition of grief was half-predictable, half-enlightening...
"deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death"

I didn't necessarily expect that second part... caused by someone's death.

There's grief, sadness, and anxiety these days, but they're also balanced by such joy and gratitude. It's right in-line with part of Stephen Colbert's main theme in the podcast: gratitude and grief can go together. Indeed, it's nearly impossible for me to feel grief about Mary without feeling some gratitude to balance it out. Gratitude for all I learned from her, for the gift of Emmaus she gave me by offering me a position there, for all the beautiful people of Erie who I've met because of her and the ministry, for simply having had Mary's life in mine for a brief time.

Which, of course, reminds me of one of my favorite Disney/Pixar films, Inside Out. Until preteen Riley can learn to experience multiple emotions at once she struggles to work through the increasingly challenging moments of life. We must be grateful for all the moments that force us to hold multiple emotions at once. And these beginning days of my new role at Emmaus are certainly that.

So, here are a few pieces of music offering me more than one feeling at once.

I stumbled upon this violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers, via her Tiny Desk Concert. But it's her version of one of my favorites, Gabriel's Oboe, that totally did me in.

Then, there's Allison Russell's new album. This song is called Requiem.

And my always-favorite band, First Aid Kit...when we went to their concert earlier this year, they blew us away with a cover of Fleetwood Mac. Here they are playing Songbird.

May our grief always be an avenue to experience so much more of life and to learn so much more about ourselves and to discern so much more about what we truly value.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Tending the Growth

This past week we had our annual community days—a combination of learning, leisure, and legislation, or LLL as some of us say. It's always a good time to reconnect as a whole group since our lives and ministries take us to many places and in many directions, but for this week, we are together, and that's the best part.

Of course, another nice part is going out for a meal as a community. I was sitting next to a sister of mine who asked, "What are you reading these days?" I had to be honest. "I haven't been able to read, or write for that matter, since Mary died." I was expecting some sort of different response, but she said—so simply and equally honestly—"Yes, it'll come."

It was a reassuring answer from someone who has much more life experience than I do. And given that she is known as one of the most well-read sisters of our community, it made the comment even more impactful. On a similar note, I remember a dear mentor of mine telling me that there was a period in her life where the only prayer she could pray was the psalms.

It's not just that I haven't written here; I haven’t really written anywhere since our dear Mary Miller got sick in April. I haven't read anything besides what I have to read for work, and while I make attempts to open books, a few sentences in, and I put them down, unable to engage with the text.

It's very weird and even disconcerting at times. I have been a faithful journaler since college, and I love to converse about my latest read with others. But I am trusting that this particular lull is just one of the ebbs and flows that comes with the realities and events of life. In fact, I was able to get more than just a few phrases written down in my journal this past week.

So, from where have my reflections been coming these days? On Saturday night after our closing meal at LLL, I headed out into the little patch of land I tend at the monastery. I hadn't weeded since June—being in and out of the house as much as I was—so needless to say, it was a bit overrun. On the other hand, the sunflowers were almost four feet tall!

As I began working away inch-by-inch, trying to get to the roots, I thought about myself these past months. Even if I don't have the written proof of what's been going on, I am sure that, like the garden, I have grown quite a bit from all that has happened. Perhaps now's the time to do a little weeding of myself, too. What am I doing these days that isn't necessarily serving me so well? What areas of my life need a bit more cultivation and attention?

A second "needless to say" is that much of my growth comes through my ministry at Emmaus. Taking on the director role in the wake of Mary's death has presented plenty of challenges, and a lot of exhaustion and thought-filled nights. Feeling her presence alongside helps, but it also makes me sad. The good, good people she brought together to create the Emmaus community: staff, volunteers, donors, and the rest are a huge support and comfort as well.

Emmaus isn't about Mary, and Mary would have been the first person to tell you that; Mary just happened to model what Emmaus is about unlike anyone else. Her abilities to become present to the other, to give generously and selflessly, to companion both friend and stranger along the way, to nourish body and soul...those were her gifts. And she brought out those abilities in us all.

Mary loved the garden, too. I remember exchanging texts with her on Easter Monday after we had both spent time with the soil. She knew what was essential—beauty, delight, a concern for others—and she knew what to let go, too—pettiness, small talk, unkind words. The garden of her life was well-tended.

May we all continue to cultivate what is beautiful in the world and in our hearts.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Mary, at the soup kitchen, with flowers...a lovely combination!

The patch of soil I tend, seen here on Easter Monday...looks a little different now!

A patch of flowers at a monastery in Nebraska, where we traveled for a Benedictine conference in July.

Part of same patch...I believe these are called lisianthus, and I loved them!

The first passion flower opened at the soup kitchen this year.
Mary's favorite...a beautiful, yet poignant bloom.

(And a little PSA: If you are able, consider supporting Emmaus Ministries during Erie Gives tomorrow, August 8th. Follow the link here.)

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Journeys Ended, Journeys Begun: On Mary Miller and Ted Lasso

To begin: I **promise** I won't reveal any Ted Lasso spoilers. (But I do write about a scene without giving anything away.)

The wonderful show ended this week, and I really loved it. I loved Ted Lasso because it was such a treat to have a feel-good show with depth, with well-written characters, and with heart when there are so many shows out there that I can't watch too close to bedtime because I won't be able to fall asleep after.

One scene in the finale hit me hard.

During a meeting of the "Diamond Dogs," the coaches and friends are in the locker room before a soccer match, and Roy seeks advice. (The "Dogs" meet when someone in the group needs a bit of counsel.) Roy, a character who has gone through considerable change throughout the three seasons, asks if change is possible, if we can become a better version of ourselves.

One character chimes in that change doesn't really happen, but "we learn to accept who we've always been." Others disagree; they say that people can change both for the worse or the better.

And then, another character offers an opinion: "Change isn't about trying to be perfect. Perfection sucks; perfect is boring."

This leads to some light joking about the way things can be perfect, while humans can't. (A thing like The Shawshank Redemption, for instance, is obviously perfect.) They all agree, and Higgins sums it up: "Human beings are never going to be perfect, Roy. The best thing we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when we can. And if you keep on doing that, you'll always be moving toward better."


When I started working at Emmaus Ministries in 2019, Sister Mary told me that working in the ministry would help me with my own striving for perfection. "You're going to lose that, Val. There is no perfection at Emmaus. Not when you work with the poor." I can only imagine what her commentary to me would have been about those lines in the show.

It's now four years since Mary and I began having conversations about coming to work at Emmaus. I didn't begin there until December 2019, but I had shadowed her at the soup kitchen and met with her multiple times before I "signed on the dotted line."


I found out not long before Sister Mary died that she both watched and loved Ted Lasso, too. I don't know how the show came up, but I was sitting across from her at her desk having one of our "morning chats", and we got to talking about it. This would have been in April. After that conversation, she watched only one new episode before she died. She texted me after watching it, wondering if I liked it or not. (For the record, I did—it was the episode set in Amsterdam.)

I'm very aware that I haven't written here since the unexpected death of our dear Sister Mary Miller on May 14. I haven't really written anywhere...because it's really hard to write about this loss.

Working with and for Mary Miller has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. It's hard to write about how much it means to watch her walk into the office each day where you work together, have her greet you with her sweet smile, and wish you a "Good morning, honey."

That was the gift of Mary, among myriad others—her presence. Just yesterday I was listening to someone talk about Mary while looking at a picture of her and say, "That's the face she always had when she was listening to you. I can still see her looking at me—like I was the only person in the world." She had that power, Mary did, the power that allowed her to look at you and make you feel completely unique and special—the holy power to look at you and see you the way God sees you. Beloved and beautiful.

To be able to work in her presence—to have her offer her presence to me and to watch her offer it to others, especially the poor—I repeat, it feels nearly impossible to articulate the gift.


She and I would return to that perfectionism word often, as she continued to remind me that I didn't need to do anything else, to work any harder, to get anything "more right" to be perfect. I was beloved and beautiful just the way I was. Mary would text me quotes that she read about perfectionism; she would stop me when I got too caught up in trying to make something perfect, and she would often go back to the line, "Emmaus is going to help rid you of that nasty perfectionism."

And it has. You give up control when you work with the poor, when you work at a soup kitchen, when you work with kids, when you garden. You give up any chance at having things pan out just the way you envisioned them unfolding. It's the blessing and the challenge of human messiness, of journeying together. And Mary was a model for that journey. She delighted in others; she accepted and had compassion for their messiness. And the same way she felt about me—that I was just fine just the way I was—she felt that way about everyone. She welcomed everyone just as they were... unless, of course, you weren't sensitive to the suffering of the poor...then she might try to teach you a bit.


We sometimes sing a song at prayer called Journeys Ended, Journeys Begun. I feel like I am in that space more profoundly than usual —in my life, in this moment. When Mary and I began talking about me taking on the role of Director of Emmaus, I'm not sure how real it felt. She had done it for 42 years; the name Sister Mary was synonymous with Emmaus. But, after 42 years, it was time. She would step back; I would step in. We would have regular conversations about the transition, though we never really worked out too many details; I think I began to trust that it would work itself out as it should.


But, sometimes it's hard to trust the reality of her death. The word "perfect" hasn't entered my mind in weeks. But, I look at the words to the song Journeys Ended, Journeys Begun written by the monks at Weston Priory.

Refrain: Journeys ended, journeys begun:
to go where we have never been,
to be beyond our past,
moments of lifting up, transcending death,
rising in transparent light
to the fullness of God’s presence.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

1. Do not let your hearts be troubled:
trust in God and trust in me, you shall not be alone.
To prepare a place for you I go but shall return
so that you may be with me
in the mystery of rising to new life.

2. Loving one another in truth,
choosing clear the many deaths of going beyond self,
living in the spirit of one who gave his life
so that we might come to know
how profound the gift of God in Jesus Christ. 

3. There can be no greater love than this:
to give our lives for others: our joy will be complete.
I have told you all this so that you may find peace
in the sharing of your life and know the depth
of love to which we’re called.

And they do feel pretty perfectly-fitting of this moment and of Mary Miller's life. One journey has ended; another is beginning, for both of us. I am humbled to carry on the ministry she cultivated and that centered her for 42 years. And, like Higgins said, I am grateful that there are so many wonderful people who love Emmaus and who are willing to help when I ask. I am grateful that I am learning to accept the help and to not feel like I have to or that I can do it all on my own. I am grateful that Mary taught me these lessons.


Furthermore, I am so grateful that my life intersected with Mary Miller's; I am so grateful for warm, easy shows when the days are sad and hard; I am so grateful that Mary was right because Emmaus is, indeed, helping me let go of perfectionism; I am so grateful for the journey.


Let us walk in the holy presence.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

On Monastic Stability

Monastics take three vows when they make profession: conversion of life, obedience, and stability.

When I began to learn about each in greater depth, I had an instinct that stability would be the most challenging for me. The vow of stability means we commit ourselves to a particular monastery and community. Or, another way to say it, from Pema Chödrön:

It's best to stick to one thing and let it put you through your changes.

That's hard for anyone, and it's really hard for perfectionistic/idealistic Val.

In August it will be eight years since I entered the community.  And I have thought about running away at least 800 times. Or, as Joan Chittister writes:

When a monastic makes a vow of stability it is a vow designed to still the wandering heart.

Because it's that 801st moment of grace that gets me every time. And these past few weeks, I have been having a grace-filled experience of stability. I alluded to it in my last post.

Watching spring arrive in the natural world would be a source of joy for me anywhere I planted myself. But now that I have been at the Mount for eight springs, I am starting to notice things. I can tell that the little green leaves popping up will soon be fully blooming irises. I know that the forsythia became its beautiful yellow a little earlier last year than this year. And then, there's this tulip.

When you walk into our old convent where I work, there's a row of green along a fence. In the spring it's daffodils; come summer it will be mint. And right after the daffodils begin to bloom, there's this red tulip. When I saw it a week ago, I realized that it stops me in my tracks each year.

I love this tulip; I think it's just gorgeous. And if I weren't here each spring, I wouldn't have the opportunity to see it, to let it delight me. That's the gift of stability.

The 801st grace always comes. Alleluia!

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

A Magic House: Alleluia!

Last year at Christmastime, my friend brought her kids over to see our decorated home. Her five-year-old son, upon walking through our motion-automated chapel doors, proclaimed, "Your house is a magic house!" They also couldn't get over how many Christmas trees we had.

Of course the adults got a good laugh.

But, in a way, our monastic life here is a bit of magic. Guided by Benedict's Rule, women who were once strangers come together and live a Christian life rooted in community and prayer. I do believe it is a bit of magical witness in our society today, or as Benedict puts it: "Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else."

Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter are peak-magic for Christians. They remind us that even in our darkness and waiting, in our grief, our sorrow, and confusion, there will be "Glorias" and "Alleluias" resounding somewhere, somehow.

I've never learned a magic trick, other than trying to practice living this life in the daily. But this time of year—the Easter season, our springtime here in the Northern Hemisphere—makes it feel worth the effort, makes the attempt feel possible.

The changes in the earth each day are wonderful evidence, too, so right in your face as they are. When I turned into our driveway last night after dinner at the soup kitchen, the willow tree stunned me. It's complicated branch system and leaves beginning to do their thing...amazing. Magic.

A patch of crocuses springing up in the neighborhood, bursting in vibrant purple. Abracadabra, and there they are! Same with the hydrangeas in the inner courtyard. I leave for work, and the bush is merely branches; I come home and there's that perfect spring green popping through the ground. This morning it was the tiniest tulip tree that got me.

May it be a blessed Easter season for you, one that attunes you to the magic of life, of creation. Alleluia!

Let us walk in the holy presence.

P.S. Here's a shout-out to my sister Linda who wrote a piece for Global Sisters Report, also about the power of possibility and living differently as women religious.

One of my favorite things about the Triduum...the vigil candles leading us into chapel

Crocuses in our neighborhood

The root system of our irises at Benetwood, a tulip tree, and those hydrangeas

Mary was so happy to revive this daffodil blossom that had fallen off its stem.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

To become what I believe: March Madness Edition

It's been a little difficult to take my eyes off March Madness and, subsequently, to get anything done. The games are just *great* both the men's and women's tournament. Right now we are finding out if both the men's and women's teams from University of Miami will make the Final Four! (The men already won as of writing this post. The women are down at halftime.)

There have been so many nail-biters, so many comebacks. It's just been fun to watch, though anxious at times!

It reminds me of a piece I wrote for A Nun's Life during Lent in 2021. A Nun's Life is a website that helps Sisters connect and share their experiences of religious life with the broader community.

To become what I believe

Do I grasp the Paschal Mystery? Of course not. Do I believe in it? You bet I do.

Our community heard a presentation a few weeks ago on grief and how we can use contemplative practices as part of the healing process. It was an incredibly moving presentation, especially considering how much grief we have had to bear this past year. To be reminded how normal it is to feel as heavy as we do right now was reassuring.

The speaker told us that she used to watch a lot of sports, and it was an emotional experience. She would get tense and anxious and easily excitable because of her vested interest in whichever team was her favorite to win. “It stole my peace,” she said. If the opposing team wasn’t playing fairly, her blood pressure might rise. If the game was turning into a nail-biter, and it was only the third quarter, you might find her yelling at the television or putting her body and her emotions into the experience.

As she began her contemplative practice, she realized she had to stop watching sports, or at least watching the games or matches in real-time, as we normally do. Instead, she began to record the games, looked up the score the next day, and then decided if she would watch. If her team won, she would watch. If not, well…you know how that goes if you have a favorite team.

Because she knew the outcome beforehand, she was able to watch the game with a greater sense of peace. Even if it didn’t seem as though her team would pull through, she was assured that at the end of the game, they would be the victors. There was no need for anxiety, for tension, for getting too caught up in something as insignificant-in-the-long-run as a sporting match.

Our presenter was a great storyteller, and hearing this alone resonated with me; I am a big sports fan myself. But far greater than any allegiance to any sports team, I have chosen to ally my life with the life of Christ. Our presenter arrived at the true end of her story. “We are Christians. We know the outcome of this game. We believe that the Paschal Mystery is our story, too.”

Why do I get so easily wrapped up in the small stuff of life? Why do I let one insignificant annoyance ruin my day? Why do I feel this desire to control so much that is out of my hands? Why do I allow so many little things to steal my peace?

I believe that our Lenten journey and the days of the Triduum end in “Alleluia.” Not just for Jesus, but for me, too. Can I hold closely to that belief when it feels like the score isn’t in my favor? Can I let go of the tensions and the anxieties of the day, reciting to myself the words of our dear mystic sister, Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well”? Am I striving to become what I believe?

Soon we will know which college teams will be singing the biggest "Alleluias," and not long after that, we will sing our own as Christians. May these remaining days of Lent be rich with trust in the Paschal process in our own lives and in our collective story.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

My friend joked the other day that she always knows which flowers are in bloom by reading my blog! Here's the first crocus I found this the Neighborhood Art House...a perfect place to spot it!

We helped put in the last pour of the Paschal candle the other night.

And we celebrated St. Patrick's Day last week...always a Lenten highlight...because Rose puts in 100% to make it extra festive!

Pax in Terra: A Meditation from Pema Chödrön

" One of the astronauts who went to the moon later described his experience looking back at Earth from that perspective. Earth looked s...