Tomorrow morning it is time to lock the door to Apartment 3 at the Collegville Institute, my home away from home for the past month, and start the drive home to New Jersey. This time as a short term resident scholar has been filled with many graces, not the least of which have been rest, reflection, reading and writing. I finished a small reflection book on St. Joseph and have an outline, a good bit of reasearch and a large reading list for a larger writing project on sowing peace in chaotic times.
Our pandemic reality has made this month a mostly solitary experience, but I have had company … the trees, the fields, the lakes, sun, clouds, and even snow! In the midst of everything, seasons continue to change, a reminder that crazy as things might seem, the rhythm of life continues and invites us to pay attention.
This month has been a gift to me, a time to read, write, reflect and walk. One book I read with deep gratitude was Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh (Harper One 2015). As I finished the book this week, I found myself laughing aloud at this particular passage:
“Much of my teaching is aimed at helping people learn how to recognize suffering, embrace it, and transform it. That is an art. We have to be able to smile to our suffering with peace, just as we smile to the mud because we know that it’s only when we have mud (and know how to make good use of the mud) that we can grow lotus flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
You see, I literally got stuck in the mud on a walk in the woods a few weeks ago, before the snow but after a rainstorm. I had decided to try out a new-to-me trail. After a few wrong turns, even though I had consulted a trail map, my planned 45 minute round trip walk through the woods was already 1 hour in, one way. I resorted to the GPS on my phone and saw that I was WAY off track.
No worries, I thought. I’m still in the general vicinity, and over there, I can see the marshland where I started my walk. This trail should take me in the right direction.
Up ahead I saw a giant puddle, from the night before. No worries, I thought again, I’ll just walk around the puddle. Which I did. Until my right foot got completely stuck in the mud.
No worries, I thought, still fairly calm. I’ll just hold onto this fallen log and pull my foot out. I did. My foot came out. But my shoe was still firmly in the mud.
This photo is misleading. It is not of my feet , but rather a photo from the internet depicting what would have been sensible footwear for my walk. But, remember, I had planned a short easy walk that I’d checked out on the map. I was only wearing my sneakers, and my right sneaker was now in the mud, my muddy foot was in the air. What to do?
I leaned back on the log with one arm, balancing myself, and managed to get my shoe out of the mud–after pulling off a leaf or two and some twigs off my now decidedly muddy foot–and put the sneaker back on. But by then, my other foot was stuck in the mud. The whole scenario repeated itself.
I was still pretty calm. I was not in a hurry. This was an adventure. But just as I was about to continue on my way, both feet got stuck in the mud at the same time and I fell back, plop, into the mud.
Which is when I burst out laughing.
I was laughing so hard at myself, that it was difficult to grab back onto the log and get my muddy self standing again on solid ground. It took a couple of tries. The birds and other creatures must have heard my raucous laughter. Maybe even some other hikers on other trails. God certainly did.
Eventually my uncontrollable desire to laugh at my situation subsided and I decided to continue on the trail, watching out for further mud holes and puddles. Then I realized that the trail I had taken which I thought was going in the right direction was actually a loop. I was right back where I started , at least half an hour before, when I’d first realized I was basically lost.
I laughed again. I looked down at my muddy jeans, felt my wet socks inside my muddy shoes, put one foot carefully in front of the other, and carefully traced my way back. Eventually I figured out where I’d made the wrong turn, and made it back safely to my car. Two and a half hours after I’d started, but thankfully while it was still daylight.
A few weeks later, reading these words of wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh, I felt closer to understanding. Suffering is one of the major mysteries of the universe, and has been the source of some of my most heated debates with God. This little muddy adventure was not true suffering, I know, but it taught me how it might be possible to smile to my suffering, with peace, and maybe not get so stuck in the mud.
This Sunday morning, as I listened to public radio and live streamed mass, I thought about the importance and influence of our sense of place. In our digital age, we can live stream news and even liturgy from anywhere in the world. Yet what did I chose to do? I live streamed the local public radio station and the local Sunday liturgy.
Now, were I at home in New Jersey, this would be unremarkable. As it happens, however, I am spending the month of October as a short term resident scholar at the Collegeville Institue at St. John’s University in Minnesota. When I applied for, and received, this residency opportunity, it was in a pre-pandemic world. I researched the local area. Looked forward to attending mass and prayers with the monks at the abbey and the sisters at the nearby monastery, both Benedctine. I was excited to participate in all the public lectures and other opportunities a university environment provides, especially having access to a library, as well as interacting with the other resident scholars.
Then of course, the pandemic happened. I was so grateful that the Collegeville Institute and university decided to stay open and welcome scholars, even though of course things had to be adapted for public health reasons. It has been a graced opportunity to have the time and space to read, write, and reflect. I have certainly taken advantage of the wonderful grounds, which are designated as an arboretum. The library is open, and thanks to the wonder of electronic databases I’ve been able to reserve and pick up books. Sadly, the St. John’s Bible display is closed, but I looked through the books on display in the bookstore. As to the other scholars, we’ve waved to each other on our solitary walks and had some socially distanced interactions. A different experience than the one I’d envisioned, but a blessed one nonetheless.
As I finish my month here, I feel grounded in and gifted by this place. The Collegeville Institute is nestled in the woods upon a lake. It is no surprise that I have a sense of place here, because as it happens that was intentional.
My work space looks out at the trees and the water and my squirrel friends. As I’ve worked and prayed, I’ve watched the seasons change and walked the trails through the woods and fields, which are just outside my door!
But back to my morning realization. Why did I go to the effort, shortly after I arrived, to download the Minnesota Public Radio app to my phone? After all, I already had the WNYC app downloaded, which has essentially the same NPR programs that I am accustomed to, although one hour earlier. Partly I suppose it’s an adaptation of habit. Back in the day when you actually listened to the radio at home ON a radio, which I now only do in the car, of course I’d listen to the local public radio station. Here in the 21st Century, I made a concious choice to download the app for the local public radio station to help me tap into the local, if just a bit.
This morning I reflected that this has to do with the importance and influence of my sense of place on my imagination and being. In away, during this weird covid time, it’s more important to make these concious choices to get the lay of the land and to BE in the land, even if virtually. Otherwise, with little social interaction and most time spent safely inside, wherever we are, we can settle into a kind of no land.
My first two weeks here were an official quarantine, after my travel from New Jersey. Since then I’ve had more time to walk on the grounds of the unviersity and even did some early Christmas shopping at the bookstore–masked and following social distance guidelines of course. But I’ve not yet made it into the Abbey Church.
Instead, each Sunday I have live streamed mass from the Abbey. Is it the same as physically being there? Of course not, and I do plan to go to daily mass before I leave, when there will presumably be less people present. Yet even participating in the Abbey Sunday Liturgy from my couch, looking out at the tranquil scene outside my window and then back to the screen, I feel connected. Connected to the monks and the other people there, in their masks, socially distanced, praying in this space, from this place, for the needs of the world.
This month I have the incredible privilege to be a short term scholar at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. It is an unstructured time to read, write and reflect. I am working on a couple of projects: reflections on St. Joseph and exploring how we cultivate peace in chaotic times.
One way I am cultivating peace within myself while chaos abounds in our political situation is by taking long walks each day. Incredible autumn beauty is just outside my door here in Collegeville.
On this afternoon’s walk, the trees were calling and shining in the light. I was reminded of this poem by Mary Oliver. Really a prayer and a way to engage the chaos from a space of peace.
When I am Among the Trees
By Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.” The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”
Four years ago it was my honor and privilege to be a Nun on the Bus. You remember that election I am sure. I was on the bus from Janesville, Wisconsin to Cleveland, Ohio. Along the way I met some amazing people and heard incredible stories about the joys and struggles of our brothers and sisters. My leg on the trip ended at the Republican National Convention where we passed out lemonade to delegates and asked them three questions: 1. Who is difficult to talk to about politics in your family and why. 2. What conerns you about the election. 3. What gives you hope for our nation.
“Our diversity is our strength,” one man from Wisconsin told me. “It can be scary, but over time our country will heal based on our strong values.” Another from Tennessee said, “We have overcome a lot before as a nation and can do it again.”
For that to be possible, we need to bridge the growing political divide. We need to sweeten the sour conversations in our body politic, in our families and in our communities. We need to talk with people with whom we do not normally engage. If we want to mend the gaps and reweave the fabric of society, then we need to move beyond trading barbs, attacks and presumed facts and focus instead on our hearts, probe our fears, and dare to hope for our nation.
(you can read other reflections I wrote from the bus in 2016 here, here, here, and here.
Sadly, the divide has deepened and the gaps seem even wider today. I believe that this 2020 election comes at a critical time in our nation’s story. The theme of the 2020 Nuns on the Bus Tour–which will of course be virtual given our COVID reality–is therefore quite fitting: Who We Elect Matters. For this reason, I decided to get back on the bus this year to talk about how I feel called to be a multi issue voter.
In many ways, the voter I am today is because of my Mom. My Mom knew in her bones that who we elect matters in the lives of real people, especially those who are poor and vulnerable. She taught me to care for life at all stages, to promote human dignity and the common good and to bring all those concerns into the voting booth (or onto the pages of a mail in ballot, as the case may be.)
Now, you might be wondering what a virtual Nuns on the Bus Tour looks like! Well, the journey officially begins on September 23, but the website is live now. When you click on the link you will find a map of our great country, with various stops you can make, including:
-Meet a Nun on the Bus Videos (you can watch my video here) and Site Visit videos where you can meet people involved in social service agencies and community organizations
-Sign up for live events, including Site Visits, Town Halls for Spirit Filled Voters and Dialogues Across Geographic Divides.
I will be attending events in New York City, New Jersey, Florida, Kansas, St. Louis, and Arizona — all virtually of course. I hope to maybe see some of you there!
But most importantly, I pray that all voters will take this election seriously, follow their conscience, and vote for the common good.
My Mom knew how to be about what was important, but also knew it was important to take time away for rest, relaxation and renewal. Case in point is this qunitissential picture of her on a porch in the mountains, taking a break from her novel to ponder the beauty around her.
She is my role model in many ways, including how to vacation.
My religious community enshrines in our constitutions a philosophy I think my mother would have agreed with, and in fact lived out.
In solidarity with our sisters and brothers we engage in human labor as a means of service and sustenance. We recognize the value of leisure as contributing to restoration and wholeness. In these ways we come to share in the creative power of God. Constitution 54
This week I am blessed to have a chance to value and experience leisure, and hopefully contribute to my own restoration and wholeness. After this time of vacation, or holiday as my sisters in the UK are apt to say, I will return to what is mine to do.
But for now I am all about not having a daily schedule, but instead having a pile of novels I might read and plenty of opportunity to just ponder the beauty of creation if that is what I feel like doing. In other words, channeling Mom.
This week, on a day packed with very important zoom meetings (which seems like everyday of late, begging the question of how important they can actually be), I spotted this tableau on my way through the house.
Joseph, standing tall. The caption that came to me was “Joseph pondering the needs of the world.”
Given the caption, the needs of the world are pretty big, and Joseph, while standing tall, can barely peek into the top of the jar/well/container.
(What you don’t know is that Joseph has a broken foot, super glued back into place).
So here is Joe. Standing tall, but barely taller than the needs of the world. Standing on a broken, haphazardly fixed, ceramic foot. Looking tenderly upon the needs of our broken world. The needs of the family of God. His family.
Don’t know about you, but I found this very comforting.
St. Joseph, pray for the people of God, your family. We need your prayers and intercession!
We nurture our life of prayer by reflective reading, particularly scripture, by periods of solitude and silence,and by an annual retreat. (CSJP Constitution 30)
It has been my privilege and joy to spend the last week on my annual retreat. My planned directed retreat at a retreat house was of course cancelled, this being 2020 when everything has been disrupted. So instead I met with my spiritual director virtually and retreated within driving distance to a quiet spot to make a private retreat.
It has been a week of gentle surprises, holding the intentions of our mixed up world close to my heart, and experiencing the presence and deep love of God. In addition to spending quiet time with God and reflective reading, I took some contemplative photos on my walks with God in the beauty of creation. Prayer in action all around us!
God of love, source of all that is good, thank you.
Your creation reminds us of beauty, goodness, wonder and awe.
You are our creator, our companion, our center.
You desire us to ground ourselves in your goodness and gift one another with love, justice, and peace.
Help us to see goodness when it is hidden, even in ourselves.
Inspire us to spread goodness.
Guide us to read the signs of the times and respond by building right relationship between and among all peoples and creation.
This post is dedicated to the people in my life who are most directly impacted by the sin of racism.
My prayer of late is percolating, filled with emotion and low on words. I am a very strong “T” on the Myers Briggs (those who know me will not be surprised), but my thought bubbles right now are being outpaced by my heart bubbles.
Love for the people in my life most directly impacted by racism. Frustration at the daily challenge they face just going through life, microagressions, burdens, barriers and other things I can intellectually try to understand but never really will. Care and concern for them, especially at this time when everything is, just, everything.
Anger at the lives lost and put in danger because of the lie of white supremacy. Kids with candy or toys killed. Young men running or walking killed. Young women in their own homes or cars killed. Enough says my heart. When will it stop cries my heart.
Suprise that many well meaning people with skin tones close to mine, who normally don’t see color, are now making the NYT nonfiction best seller list decidedly anti-racist themed. Grateful even if they are late to the party. Worried that a crash course or binge read may not be the best way to do systemic work.
Hope. This moment does feel different. Fervent hope that it truly is different.
Because of the LOVE I feel deep in my heart for the people I have been blessed to call friend and family and community who are most impacted, each moment, each day, each hour, each minute by the sin of racism.
Because of the LOVE that created us and knitted us together. In the beginning, now and forever.