With all happening in our world this past week, from Afghanistan to extreme climate events to challenging events in the lives of some folks I know, this was an interesting time to be on retreat. I don’t think I fully understood, until I got to the spot of grace and beauty that is Mercy by the Sea, how very tired and weary I have been. I wasn’t entiretly surprised, given the past year and a half in the time of COVID. Plus the fact that I just finished a six and a half year term of leadership for my religious community and have started a second term. What was suprising was the depth of my need for rest. Lucky me … a whole week to rest with God. A privilege really. A luxury. The grace and beauty of this time, for me, has been God’s abundant presence. And my own presence to the wonder of God’s creation.
I usually have so many words rumbling around my head. It can make it harder for me listen for the voice of God. Sixteen years ago, on my first silent directed retreat, the invitation was to let go of the words and focus instead on images. Ever since, on retreat, I feel drawn to pay attention to the beauty of creation through a contemplative photography practice. Resting my eyes on signs of God’s creating presence, God’s love.
From talking with friends and family, I know I’m not the only one who is a wee bit tired these days. Pandemic. Politics. Life in the midst of pandemic and politics. No elaboration is necessary. If this is where you are at these days, you might like this video prayer I just put together, set to “Show Up” by Jill Phillips.
I’ve been praying with her song this weekend. I’ve also been praying in gratitude for the book of creation. The seasons show up like clockwork, even if our human activities add stressors. The animals go about their business, sometimes letting us get close enough for inspiration. So I paired some of my recent photos I’ve taken on walks the past two months, some in Federal Way, WA and some in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. (Yes, I took my first plane trip in December, with built in quarantines on either end so that I could visit our sisters).
Back to the song. I find it both consoling and inspiring.
… Afraid that what we have to give is so small.
You don’t have to save the world. All that hero talk is only superficial stuff. If you want to change the world, What you gotta do is show up, show up, just show up.
We’re so used to an immediate response, So used to giving up when things don’t work. The road of long obedience is hard, No shortcuts will make it easier Because the journey so long But the difference is made By the million small steps along the way.
This song is a good soundtrack for my prayer right now. I share it in case it is helpful in your own prayer and discernment on how you might show up and make a difference through small things and small steps in great love.
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.
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.
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.