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.”