Category Archives: reflections

Stuck in Mud, She Laughs

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.

Photo by Peter Houghton, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0

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.

Sense of Place

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.

The monks insisted on the graceful architecture of Marcel Breuer, who conceived of apartments walled with windows to maximize the sense of place, in the midst of natural beauty.

History of the collegeville institute

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.

It is also important for me to recognize that I am on the land of the Mdewakanton, Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. (If you want to know the native peoples of the land where you are, go to https://native-land.ca/).

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.

Among the Trees

Walking among the trees near the Collegeville Institute

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.”

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 4

Channelling Mom

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.

Joseph Pondering

Joseph pondering the needs of the world

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!

Heart Bubbles

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.

Love is the way

Have you noticed that everyone (and everything) is weird these days.

And that no one is weird at the same time?

If you find yourself tired or anxious or frustrated or annoyed or even angry, of course you are. We are going on 2 months of this strange reality with no clear path forward that seems comfortable, sure or safe.

Yet here we are. Together. Alone. Safe in our homes or maybe on the newly redefined front lines, suddenly considered essential. Simple daily tasks seem daunting. We juggle home and work life all in one place. So many plans have suddenly disappeared. We might feel lost, dazed or confused.

In today’s Gospel (John 14), our friend Thomas follows his own doubts to help us find the way through. In my own simplified paraphrase of this passage, which I have often prayed with even before these pandemic days, we hear:

Thomas: How can we know the way?

Jesus: I am the way. Stay focused on me. Love a lot.

Yep. Love. A lot. Love is the way when people are weird. Love is the way when we are weird. Love is the way when your child/niece/student is sad that their graduation has been cancelled. Love is the way when you remind your grandmother/mother/sister/friend/yourself that all this isolation has a purpose. Love is the way when you reorganize your plans … again. Love is the way when [insert challenging situation here]. All the rest is distraction from what really matters.

A few years ago, in other life circumstances, my meditation on this Gospel led me to create a video prayer set to music by Sufjan Stevens. I find it is a fruitful prayer these days too, and so I offer it here in case it resonates with you.

Peace and love during these strange days.

Prayer during the pandemic

We’re all a bit off these days. Our prayer space, time and experience is probably off kilter a bit as well. For those of us used to a sacramental shared liturgical experience, we have the option of watching mass online, but it’s not the same. We all know there is SO much to pray for, but that’s just it. There’s so much.

For years now I have “prayed the news,” reading the newspaper in the morning as part of my morning prayer. I hold in my heart and mind some of the stories of human suffering, joy, and life within those written words and pray for the people and realities behind the story.

Last month, I was able to carve a little space into my oddly busy quarantine life for a mini personal retreat weekend. I walked the grounds of the convent where I live, which is perched on the palisades across the Hudson River from New York City.

New York City of course has been so hard hit by COVID-19, as has New Jersey where I live. I prayed for all of it and everyone, and later made this video prayer of photos from that day set to the song “Island” by Audrey Assad.

We are knit together
Together as one
Where you’re going I will go
Underneath the shelter of this love
We will walk each other home
You be home to me
I will be home to you
No one is an island
You be home to me
I will be home to you
No one is an island

If you are interested in more of my pandemic ponderings, you might want to read my reflection on Global Sisters Report.

Into the storm

I was reading the Urbi et Orbi message that Pope Francis gave today in an empty St. Peter’s square. He reflects on this time of Covid-19 in light of the story of the storm in Mark’s Gospel (4:35-41).

“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this. …

Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.” -Pope Francis

Click here to read the entire message: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/27/read-pope-francis-urbi-et-orbi-address-coronavirus-and-jesus-calming-storm

More than once in my life I have echoed the disciples refrain… do you not care that we are perishing?

Imagine their consternation, frustration and fear that he is, of all things, asleep!

We are terrified … we think we are alone.

But Jesus is with us in the storm.

A few years ago I created this video prayer reflecting on this passage, set to “How to Sleep in A Stormy Boat” by singer songwriter Amy Speace. The Pope’s message reminded me of this video, and so I share it here in case it is a helpful reflection for others in this time.

Peace. Be not afraid. We will weather the storm together.