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What is the end you’re living for?

I was searching for something in my digital files and came across this column from January 2012. It seemed to ring true all over again, although, to be honest, I had totally forgotten about it — both the words and the lessons. So here it is again, if only for myself.

It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us. Read more

Remembering Thomas Merton

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton about 28 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I’m not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint, but that’s precisely why he’s a great example. Read more

Lessons from Brother Sun

So much happens on silent retreat, even though nothing at all seems to be happening. No talking, no reading, no writing, no casual eye contact. Doesn’t sound like much could be happening, does it? But, let me tell you, there is so much energy and movement and chatter going on under the surface, it’s hard to contain it. At one point on the first day, as I let go of everything that was going on in my head and heart, my interior was actually shaking, almost like I was shivering, but I wasn’t cold. Just a flood of feelings and emotions and questions that came rising up to the surface after being pushed down day after day by the normal events of life. Read more

Into great silence, Adirondack-style

I am so honored and humbled by the many, many prayer requests that have come pouring in from friends on Facebook. I asked people to send me their special intentions so I can carry them with me on silent retreat this weekend, and I now have three full pages — and I’ll be adding to the list right up until I leave at 3 p.m. in case you want to email me or leave an intention in the comment section before then. What a beautiful thing, to have people trust me with their worries and needs. I promise I’ll honor all of them. Although I’m not supposed to read on this silent retreat, I will make an exception for my prayer list so I don’t forget or miss anyone. Read more

More wisdom lessons: Embracing ‘what is’

I almost didn’t go to yoga class this morning. I was awake at 5 a.m. but my body felt worn out, more so than usual. I wanted to “sleep in” until 6:15, except I couldn’t sleep. So I figured, if I’m not going to sleep, I might as well do yoga. And off I went. Read more

Why Merton matters

Ever since I first came in contact with the writings of Thomas Merton some 25 years ago, he has spoken to me. I know I’m not alone there. Countless people of every faith and persuasion have found meaning in his writings and his life. Of course, others will counter that with claims that he was too flawed to be held up as a role model, or, dare I say, saint. But that’s precisely why he’s a great example. Read more

Striving to become your ‘true self’

My latest Life Lines column in the current issue of Catholic New York:

It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us.

I was at lunch with some friends recently, laughing and sharing stories, when one line, uttered in passing, hit me like a brick. I was suddenly on the playground in elementary school, feeling unwanted for reasons I never quite understood. As I had during those sometimes painful times of my past, I kept a dim smile on my face, hoping to hide the fact that I was aching inside, not because what was said was intentionally hurtful but because it spoke a truth I’d rather not admit.

We all want to be loved, even if we don’t show it or say it. We want to feel accepted, appreciated, and while that sometimes seems important on the surface—as evidenced by the popularity of accumulating Facebook friends by the hundreds—that kind of goal only serves to take us farther and farther from our truth. Read more

Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More

It’s always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.

I like the waiting time of Advent. I’m not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won’t be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.

This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:

“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

That role isn’t reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It’s not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).

I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called “Pray All Ways” by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here’s what I shared with my group (more or less):

As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he’s standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really “got” that story because most of the time I’m standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing — a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton’s words keep echoing in my heart: There’s no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.

When I returned to “real” life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God’s love in my life if I don’t let that love come out through me, if I don’t walk around shining like the sun, or Son.

It’s hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It’s much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can’t make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It’s not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?

And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn’t to be “up” all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn’t in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.

When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:

“Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight.”

The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there’s light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.

So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.

Entering the silence of Genesee: Part 1

I returned late yesterday from my private weekend retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., where I was privileged and blessed to pray the Divine Office and attend Mass with the Cistercian monks who call this abbey home. To be honest, I’m not yet to the point where I’m ready to ramble on and on about my spiritual experience. Silent retreats are like that, at least for me. I want to hold onto that spirit of silence for as long as I can, even in the midst of the chaos of normal life. Right now, spending too much time trying to write my experience when I’m still trying to absorb it all would somehow corrupt the beauty of what happened there. And so much of what happened there is invisible, indescribable and still unknown to me. So I’ll try to tell you a bit about the retreat in pictures and descriptions, and then throughout the week I’ll be back with reflections and observations.

The photo above is a shot of the front of the abbey, which is a beautiful stone and wood structure where the monks graciously welcome visitors to join them in prayer. The abbey was founded from the famed Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani and is the location written about by Henri Nouwen in The Genesee Diary.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and got my first taste of monastic prayer when I attended Vespers at 4:30 p.m. When you walk through the front door of the abbey, you can turn right to go to the bookstore, bread store (more on that another time) and sitting area where you can rest and look out at the magnificent view. If you turn left, you go down the hallway seen in the photo to the left. This leads to the chapel. Strict silence must be observed once you enter the hallway. Through those doors is the beautiful chapel, with its wood ceiling and stone walls.

Inside the chapel, guests are invited to sit in the stalls facing the monks, separated by a low iron gate. The circular altar is in the center. What a gift to be allowed into this space and to chant the Office along with the monks. A bell rings, the monks rise, one of them knocks on a wood stall to signify it’s time to begin and then the low, haunting melodies of the ancient prayers take over. We used the beautiful Abbey Psalter (seen here on the right) to pray throughout the day.

I loved each of the hours for different reasons, but if one stood out, it was Compline, specifically for the end of the hour when the monks turn to face an icon of Mary holding Jesus and chant the Salve Regina. The darkened chapel, two candles flickering under the icon, monks chanting. Can it really get any better than that? Well, perhaps only when you add to it a walk back from the abbey to retreat house just as the sun dips below the corn fields and the horizon right before your eyes.

I managed to make it over to Vigils at 2:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, which, of course, was spectacular for the very fact that while the rest of the world was sleeping, we were softly chanting.

Our retreat guest house was about three-quarters of a mile from the abbey, down a hill and then following a long stretch of field alongside a fairly busy country road. I often found myself wondering where all those pick-ups were speeding off to in the middle of nowhere.

Summer came on full force this weekend with temperatures hovering around 90 all day and well into the evening and no air conditioning. Anywhere. It was more than slightly uncomfortable, and I will admit that Friday was a rough entry period for me. I kept wishing it would be cooler, and then realized part of this retreat would be surrendering to what was instead of wishing for what wasn’t. Once I accepted the fact that I’d be dripping with sweat for the next 48 hours, things got much better. (Of course, next time I’ll plan for later in the fall or early in the spring.) I figured that with all my trips back and fourth to the abbey for various hours and then my five-mile walk along the greenway behind the retreat center, I clocked about 10 miles of walking on Saturday alone. Good thing I threw in those hiking boots at the last minute.

At the retreat center, I was assigned the “Hermit Room,” so named because the guest who gets this room can remain even more isolated than the other retreatants. Although it was much more sparsely appointed than the other guest rooms, it had a private bath/shower and a comfortable rocking chair. I set up my own little sacred space on the desk of my cell. You can see it over there on the right, complete with crucifix, battery-powered candle, a pine cone I found on a morning walk, a copy of the icon from the abbey chapel, St. Francis, Thomas Merton, prayer books, Rosary beads, and some Queen Anne’s Lace I picked on my long walk. The shell is obviously from a beach very far from Piffard, but seashells are always part of my sacred space.

Now, if you thought I was kidding about that Hermit Room label, please take a gander at my bed, which appears to be either a short picnic table or a large coffee table with a mattress on it. It was as hard as a board because it was, in fact, a board. (Other guest rooms had typical mattress/boxspring beds.) When I first saw this bed, I groaned. Out loud. Which you aren’t supposed to do on a silent retreat. But I will admit that I slept quite soundly, so I guess all that walking paid off.

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in my room anyway since I was either up at the abbey or out on the lovely retreat center grounds or in the small chapel inside the guest house, which was a nice place to pray late at night when I wanted some quiet prayer time without heading out into the darkness. I did that once and decided against it after that. On Saturday morning, at 5:30 a.m. I grabbed my flashlight and reflective vest and walked alone and in total darkness up to the abbey. Longest three-quarters of a mile of my life. I started with my guardian angel and moved right into the Rosary. I didn’t have beads. I wasn’t even counting. I was just saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers as fast as I could, as if rushing the prayers would get me to that abbey faster. I saw the shadow of at least one large figure lope through my flashlight beam. I’d like to think it was a deer. And then one smaller animal. I opted for imagining a bunny or groundhog over skunk or rabid fox. When I finally saw the beautiful Asian-style lanterns of the abbey, I breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to drive whenever darkness was part of the prayer equation.

I’ll bring you more photos and thoughts on my retreat in the days to come, but for now here is a brief video clip of one short piece of my walk to the abbey. It’s the last stretch of hill before the abbey comes into view. Forgive the bright sun in your eye; it was almost dusk and the sun was getting pretty low. This clip is not nearly as compelling as Into Great Silence as there is no melting snow, dripping water, or feral cats, just me breathing as I hike up the hill and some occasional crickets chirping in the background. Click the play button below: