Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Springtime Solitude

When the wind blows,
the scent of the lilacs hits you—
Nonviolence.

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Nonviolence:
When the wind blows,
and the scent of the lilacs hits you.

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Vast varieties of daffodils—
Small, big, orange, yellow, white.
What’s in a name?


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A diversity of daffodils,
The first spring I notice,
Might I live differently now?


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In the distance
I hear the monastery bells
Calling me to prayer

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The chapel bell rings
In the distance
Will I make it home?


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Solitude comes…
I make space to welcome it—
The dance begins.

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Solitude comes
Long-awaited one:
Birth new life in me.


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Green,
Budding on the branch of every tree.
Crayola, no name will suffice.

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Green,
Budding uniquely on each and every tree.
Crayola, don’t even try.


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Nature repeats the lesson
Over and over again—
Live easy.
Forget the rules.

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The lilies of the valley,
The violets of the field,
The children of the streets.


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Old Monk is my haiku teacher. When I was a novice, I spent time writing with her for a few months, practicing different styles of poetry. The haiku is her favorite.

I remember trying to force the haiku back then; I remember trying so hard to polish them. I wanted to be ingenious, maybe even cunning with my words. Don’t I do that with my life all too often? I would create a version of the lines in my head, honing the words, not putting anything down until I was satisfied. I would only present one set of lines for each idea. I don’t think I was ever really satisfied though.

Ah, so young. And still, now, so young.

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I went into solitude this past weekend for a much-needed break. The haiku about the lilacs came first, and then some more. But I knew that that one was the gift, the spontaneous grace. I could tell when I was trying harder than I needed to. I went back and experimented with different versions of the same poem. Let it evolve, Val. Let life evolve. Old Monk has taught you that—over and over.

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Here are some poems that came to me on the deck, in the morning, by the water, surrounded by delicious nature.

Thanks, Old Monk. For all the lessons then and now…and in between..and to come.

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Let us walk in the holy presence.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Happy Feast of Benedict!

My friend, Jackie, wrote a great reflection on the Transfiguration last week. She is writing weekly for an email we receive from our community's federation (Federation of Saint Scholastica) as we prepare to celebrate its centennial this June in Atchison, KS and in our home communities. Surely Jackie's words were part of my subconscious when I realized that I had formed enough thoughts to put together my own words for this blog. Read a part of what she has to say about the mountaintop, and then continue on. (If you care to read her thoughts on the Third Sunday of Lent, here they are as well.)
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A few weeks ago, I met a young Episcopal priest who was very interested in monasticism. She particularly wanted to understand its appeal for some spiritual “nones” who are leaving parishes like the one she serves.

“Monasticism seems to have a certain mystique that makes it very attractive,” she sighed. “Being in a regular parish church is mostly a matter of putting out folding chairs and then putting them away.”

I laughed and said that, although she’s probably right that many people who are drawn to monasticism expect it to offer something exotic, our day-to-day life also largely consists of chores. “We’re not exactly living on the mountaintop,” I said.

[...]

That’s what we are called to do, too: to fully give ourselves over to awe when we feel the divine presence, of course, but more importantly, to doggedly look for it, day by day. We monastics do our quotidian little chores, sit through long meetings, hold signs in inclement weather at political demonstrations, serve difficult guests at a soup kitchen, pray the same 150 psalms over and over, find a way to live peaceably with our sisters… all of it, hopefully, with a reverent awareness that God may be found in the midst of this.

That does seem to be attractive to many people, as my new priest friend noticed. It may be especially attractive to those who are disillusioned with institutions that have a flawed sense of certainty about exactly who, and exactly what, is holy. The monastic eagerness and curiosity about where God can be found–our willingness to seek the sacred in the mundane and even the ugly–is part of our gift to the world.


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As I've gotten older, (I know this phrase makes my sisters laugh at a median age of 76, but I am standing firm at 34!) my experiences of God have changed.

When I was in my early 20's, I had some pretty big, obvious moments of sacred sensation, fully aware that God's presence was the center of my being and that of the cosmos.

These days those grand and awesome "mountaintop" moments often escape me; I cannot recall the last time I experienced one.

And, now it's even harder for me to use the word "God" to describe the movements of my life. I am less and less sure of what the word even connotes, and I think God likes it that way.

But, yesterday morning, at Liturgy, there were two so-totally-ordinary things that happened, and I was so-totally-sure of their holiness.

At the start of Liturgy two sisters who are dear, lifelong friends walked into chapel together. One is recovering from surgery, the other accompanied her. When the healing one walked past the chairs the other had pointed out to her and chose her own seat, the other sister simply shrugged her shoulders out-of-view of her friend as if to say, "Yup, that's my friend...always doing her own thing," and she simply sat down.

Jackie and I laughed at each other, acknowledging the mirror to the future that this small moment provided us. We both knowingly said, "We're going to be both of them one day!" (If we are not already there now.) Laughing at the quirkiness of the intimacy that monastic life affords is joyful. It's hearing the footsteps of someone behind you walking into chapel and smiling to yourself as you identify her by the sound of her gait; it's changing the routine you have on your dish team when you sub on another because you know that they don't do things the same way as yours; it's knowing who is going to follow you to the fridge after morning prayer and getting out the orange juice with some pulp because that's what she likes...some pulp. Beautiful, unique, odd, lovely intimacy—indeed. It's nowhere near the mountaintop, but I have no doubt it's part of the journey there.

The second moment that stood out to me during Liturgy came during the responsorial psalm. We heard one of my favorites: a harmonized duet of Our God is Kind and Merciful. The sung harmony of these two sisters is always beautiful and breathtaking, but it felt especially beautiful yesterday. I think it was because in front of me sat two sisters who, too, are dear, lifelong friends, but they, on the other hand, were sitting side-by-side. You could tell that they were each leaning in toward the other with a particular fondness and love.

One of them has Alzheimer's, and the other helps with her caretaking, after decades of living together. She takes turns accompanying this sister—sitting next to her at prayer, pointing out where to make a turn down a hallway, helping her play Bingo—as Jackie would describe, "quotidian" events. And, even as the latter helps with the former sister whose memory is fading away, there is no doubt that she remembers and loves her sister deeply.

But, it was hearing the words of the psalm, "Our God is kind and merciful" while witnessing to this very real personification of the holy presence a few rows ahead that took me a little higher on the mountain. Isn't that what we are called to do? Be Christ in the world, here and now, for others?

The monastic life offers daily opportunities for this, all life does. But, having just made monastic vows, having just made a commitment to live the Christ life in this community, adds a little power to my reflections these days. We heard a reminder of it at morning prayer this morning: we commit our lives to coming together as strangers and making Christ's presence known.

We heard those words because today is a special day for us Benedictines. We celebrate the feast of our founder. Saint Benedict attuned himself so fully to mundane and asked us to seek God there. Indeed, the mundane makes up much of the Rule he gave us to guide us in our way of life. Where to say "Alleluia" when we pray, how to prepare to serve a meal, how to divide up the balance between work and prayer. There are no formal instructions on seeking God to be found in the Rule, except that it's all an instruction.

Let us celebrate, as some say, "the extraordinary ordinary" of the Benedictine way of life today. Wherever you are on the mountain, be grateful for God's presence with you—whatever that means.

Let us walk in the holy presence.


Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A Few Thoughts on Time

I was in a store recently and saw a greeting card that made me laugh.
On a drawing of a cake was the line, "Time is a construct."
Inside: "Happy Birthday!"

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The other day I was writing the date on the top of a bank deposit slip. When I was writing the month, I wrote "11," as if it were November...but it was March.

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We are entering into year 3 of living with, grieving about, and adapting to life in the pandemic.

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Last week we opened up the soup kitchen for indoor seating for the first time in two years, minus a week, after having served dinners through a window during that entire span, never having missed a meal.

On Friday, two guests asked me to tell them the Emmaus gospel story...something that wouldn't have happened through a window.

How good it felt to welcome our guests inside again.

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Two weeks ago, one of our sisters died. Sister Bernadette entered into the fullness of God's love for eternity.

I feel like I will still see her walking toward me when I turn the corner in the monastery hallways. I looked at her seat in chapel during her memory service, still filled with her reading materials and midday prayer psalter.

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Today is the death anniversary of Benedicta Riepp, the founder of our Benedictine life in the United States. She traveled to Pennsylvania from Bavaria in 1852, came to Erie in 1856, and died in 1862. She was in her late 20's when she left everything she knew, alongside four other women and traveled to a completely unknown place, trusting in God and her chosen way of life. I'm 34 and feel like I can barely decide what to wear in the morning.

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It feels like both yesterday and forever since I last wrote on this blog. It was Advent when I last wrote; now we are in the second week of Lent. Sometimes the liturgical calendar feels more real than the Gregorian calendar.

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Time is a construct, indeed—a truth given even more perspective by having "sprung forward" in Daylight Savings this past weekend.

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How are you relating to time these days?

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Let us walk in the holy presence.

our soup kitchen ready for guests...what does time mean for the poor?

water time...4 years ago

Monday, December 6, 2021

Advent and Beauty

I spent Saturday in some Advent solitude, hopefully having prepared at least a tiny part of my self for Christmas. I brought with me two trusted and dear friends: Greg Boyle and Mary Oliver. Greg Boyle (the Jesuit priest who runs Homeboy Industries in L.A.) wrote a new book during the pandemic, and I had received it as an early Christmas gift. The title is The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness, and the first line reads: “Nothing is more consequential in our lives than the notion of God we hold.”

Well…

If that wasn’t enough fodder for the day, enough fodder to prepare my heart for Christ being born in my midst—here and now. But, there was also revisiting a Mary Oliver poem I love, Varanasi.

Early in the morning we crossed the ghat,
where fires were still smoldering,
and gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges.
A woman was standing in the river up to her waist;
she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling it
over her body, slowly and many times,
as if until there came some moment
of inner satisfaction between her own life and the river’s.
Then she dipped a vessel she had brought with her
and carried it filled with water back across the ghat,
no doubt to refresh some shrine near where she lives,
for this is the holy city of Shiva, maker
of the world, and this is his river.
I can’t say much more, except that it all happened
in silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that felt
like the bliss of a certainty and a life lived
in accordance with that certainty.
I must remember this, I thought, as we fly back
to America.
Pray God I remember this.

I first encountered this poem on a long retreat as I discerned making a perpetual profession to the community last year. Someone with whom I was having conversations recommended the poem to me because of the phrase “the bliss of a certainty.” She encouraged me to move from the fear of commitment (my natural inclination) to the beauty of commitment.

Old Monk gave the Advent reflections on Saturday evening at our vigil prayer. To turn the previous phrase, she spoke of making a commitment to beauty. That commitment has a healing and saving power in a world so full of darkness—and not always the Advent kind.

So my question to self in my solitude was this…

What are the people, places, things, words that most easily connect me to Love and Beauty?

What is your answer?

May they continue to expand our hearts until nothing is left out.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Now my orchid has four blooms...two weeks ahead of Advent!

Monday, November 8, 2021

Not everything has to die in autumn

This morning I looked at the orchid at my window, and there she was. A bloom open. I have been waiting three years for this moment. It reminds me of Jackie, going back to work today after a year of novitiate in our community. Sure, this orchid had an extended novitiate of sorts (three years instead of the canonical one), but today she is most lovely and the cause of my joy and gratitude and contemplation this morning.

I thought to myself, “Not everything has to die in autumn,” while I tried to look closely at each petal, color, and curve of the bloom...with a golden tree as its backdrop through my window. I also thought to myself, “Val, not everything has to be a metaphor.” Autumn is ripe for them, as is each season, but autumn seems more obvious for us humans, called to die to self and let go each day.

The orchid seems to hold many metaphors, too. (Nature is good to us that way.) I could write about the bruised leaves juxtaposed against the beauty of the bloom…how many times (two) I accidentally broke off what could have become new blooms over those three years and how it so often feels like I get in the way of my own growth…how more blooms will come with patience and time...how the orchid requires a particular and unique care regimen. But why? The loveliness and joy are so in my face as I stare at it in equal amounts to the time I am spending writing these words.

Find something beautiful today. Celebrate it for what it is, not for the meaning you make for it.

Let us walk in the holy presence.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

On Being A Perfectionist

Some of you know that the last few weeks of my life have been quite, quite, full. A week and a half ago I made my perpetual monastic profession, the last step in becoming a fully committed member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. It was a six-year formal journey, but one that began many years prior with spiritual mentors, teachers, and other graceful influencers asking the right questions and accompanying me while living into them.

Now, the days and weeks leading up to October 9 were full of details and planning and logistics and preparations. While it was easy to get caught up in it all, I had one sister whose main mission was to remind me throughout each step, "Savor this moment." It helped to slow me down and remind me to breathe.

And since my profession, many have asked me how I am feeling. The first few days after October 9 the answer was always the same, "Joyful...but exhausted." Now, the answer has changed into another consistent response, "Everything is pretty normal again."

I am back into my regular routine. I have mostly caught my breath after a night or two of good sleep. I just finished a week of being "on dishes"...the number one sign of "normal life" at the monastery.

But, let me tell you...
The day was most magical. It was far from regular, routine, ordinary. And I think I did savor it. I know for a fact that the grace of the day has the potential to carry me through so much, if I let it. Because while the monastic life, lived in community, can be utterly challenging and demanding, it is so authentic to my heart. Because while the promises of stability, conversion, and obedience can feel so counterintuitive, they have already proven powerful for me. I want to be consumed by my commitment to these vows, and I want to let the commitment consume me as I continue to look into the white fire of great mystery.

Being a perfectionist is quite, quite hard living the monastic life, a life that calls me to be totally human. But one moment that I totally savored during the ceremony was a reading of Mary Oliver. (How could the ceremony not feature the beloved poet?!)

May this poem be my thesis for a life of stability, conversion, and obedience. As the sister who told me to savor each moment also said to me, "Welcome to the rest of your life!"

Enjoy some photos below.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

The Ponds
Mary Oliver

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided
and that one wears an orange blight
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing
that the light is everythingthat it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Profession cookies—a community tradition!

A part of the dessert table—so many contributed delicious treats, and other dishes, to the meal!

...including an empanada-making/cupcake frosting gathering the night before!

Singing of the Suscipe—Uphold me, O God.

perfect sky—perfect day

lilies in chapel

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Arrival/Lavirra

When I was in second grade, we learned about palindromes. Already a classified nerd, I was obsessed. For homework we had to bring in three examples of this unique word classification. My list read:
1. mom
2. dad
3. Madam, I'm Adam.
(Obviously the third landed on the list thanks to my own mom.)

My next vivid memory of palindromes occurred in college when I was sitting in what turned out to be one of the most impactful classes I would have, General Systems Theory. My dear professor told us about a book whose author had a "palindromic name." While I delightedly defined palindrome as a word that reads the same forwards and backwards, my professor was surprised that I knew the definition. Mark Kram was the author of the book he referenced.

Over the weekend, Katie and I watched the 2016 sci-fi film, Arrival, with Amy Adams portraying a linguist who works on a team trying to communicate with intelligent life from "the great beyond." Language and words—and their impact on science, on life, on us—take center stage in the film.

It's one of those movies that woke me up in the middle of the night because it was so, so good and was still on my mind. And I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about since we watched.

It's hard to write about the film without spoiling it, so for now, if you're looking for something to watch, consider Arrival!

Let us walk in the holy presence.


The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Springtime Solitude

When the wind blows, the scent of the lilacs hits you— Nonviolence. +++ Nonviolence: When the wind blows, and the scent of the lilacs hits y...