Monk Medicine (a love note from your online Abbess)

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Coole_park_310a20aThe Roses

One day in summer
when everything
has already been more than enough
the wild beds start
exploding open along the berm
of the sea; day after day
you sit near them; day after day
the honey keeps on coming
in the red cups and the bees
like amber drops roll
in the petals: there is no end,
believe me! to the inventions of summer,
to the happiness your body
is willing to bear.

—Mary Oliver

Dearest monks and artists,

The poem above has been shimmering for me, and at first I hesitated to share it here because we are entering the depths of winter in the northern hemisphere. But then I remembered my brother and sister monks in the southern hemisphere, who are experiencing this embrace of light and warmth.  I love that we have a global community and at any moment there is full spectrum of experience.

This poem in praise of rose's gifts shimmered because I have also been praying with Thomas Merton's words for our Community Lectio Divina practice this month where he considers the lake, the hills, the trees, the mountains, and the sea to all be saints, because they each live out their divine call so perfectly.

In my personal practice I have been deepening into the path of herbalism, so grateful for my dear friend and herb mentor Tonja Reichley (for those of you in Denver she has an amazing shop called Moon Dance Botanicals). Merton's quote has invited me to ponder the wisdom of St. Rose and St. Elderberry, St. Clover and St. Dandelion, among many others.

For those of us with northern European roots, we might often find ourselves looking to eastern medicine or native American indigenous paths of healing, when we have our own rich tradition of healing practices which sustained and fortified our ancestors. Even more exciting for me is the way herbalism has a distinctly monastic lineage.  For hundreds of years, monasteries were places of both physical and spiritual healing.  The monks cultivated herbs and crafted medicines to offer to those who were suffering. They were the repositories of this sacred knowledge.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, the patron saint of our contemplative and creative work here at Abbey of the Arts, was also a great healing practitioner.  She wrote a manual of herbs and their healing qualities and her principle of viriditas, or greening power of God, was applied both to the spiritual dimension of life as well as to the body.  She would look at a person with illness and ask where this life force has been blocked. Victoria Sweet describes her own re-imagining of this process in her wonderful book God's Hotel, where she brings Hildegard's practice of medicine to her modern context as a doctor.  This leads her to name "slow medicine" as one of the gifts herbalism has for us.

Slow medicine means not seeking the pill that offers the quick fix, but embracing illness as a journey of healing where nourishment of the body and all its systems play a central role. It means I have to ask myself how the rush and pace of my life, and ways I have neglected my own nourishment, play a part in discernment of what will bring vitality again. In Hildegard's own life, many of her illnesses were the result of her actively resisting the call of God in her life. And while I do not believe we are to blame for our physical ailments, there is still an invitation to deepen into our own healing.  Illness can be its own kind of pilgrimage.
In my exploration of herbalism as a path of healing for both body and soul, I find a kinship to those ancient monks who preserved the wisdom. I find myself contemplating the gifts of "Monk Medicine" on many layers of our lives. I ask myself, How do the practices of these wise monks offer us a path back to alignment with both body and soul?

For Hildegard, she considered the rose to have special virtues, and recommended adding her to all medicines: "Rose is also good to add to potions, unguents, and all medications. If even a little rose is added, they are so much better, because of the good virtues of the rose". I think Hildegard and Mary Oliver would have been kindred spirits, finding the generous blooming of rose as a sign of the joy freely offered to us.

In these darkening days I have been making elderberry syrups, nettle and oat straw infusions, thyme and oregano tinctures, crafting my own herbal tea blends and oils for anointing, and other explorations. In the process I have grown more intimate with these green saints who offer me the gift of nourishment, of moving always toward myself again. I am finding empowerment and intimacy by becoming familiar with these gifts offered to us.

Even herbalism can be practiced from a modern medicine mindset, where we seek the quick fix in a pill, we look for standardized extracts rather than taking in the gifts of the whole plant. We do this in our spiritual practice as well, seeking the one way of praying that will alleviate our unease and anxiety, rather than embracing a whole system and way of being that brings a lifetime of deepening.  In monastic spirituality lectio divina is intimately connected to centering prayer and sitting in silence and solitude, which are also deepened by praying the Hours and gathering in community. Our bodies and our souls hunger for this kind of slow integration.

What if, when your body presents its ache and pain, instead of seizing upon the quick relief, you slowed down, softened into this place of vulnerability, listened for the wisdom beneath the rush of life and fear of growing older. What might that conversation sound like?

Herbalism and modern medicine are not mutually exclusive, as someone with a serious autoimmune disorder, I am grateful for the drugs which have given me quality of life.  And yet those great saints of the green world invite me into another way of being as well. As I listen I hear the call to wholeness, to honor the sacredness of all things, to celebrate the abundance of healing poured forth by the world. Becoming a monk in the world means embracing the many-layered gifts of healing, to know that body and soul are one, to let the greening life force of viriditas flow freely once again.

With great and growing love,

Christine

Monk in the World guest post: Wil Hernandez

I first met Wil Hernandez through one of the Spiritual Directors International conferences.  He has an irresistible passion for this work of spiritual formation, direction, and supporting people in listening to the voice of the Spirit at work in the world. He has just launched an exciting new project: CenterQuest School of Spiritual Direction, is a fellow Benedictine oblate, and is the author of a trilogy of excellent books on Henri Nouwen, the third in the series released last year, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, is especially powerful reading.

Read on for Wil's reflections on being a monk in the world:

wil hernandez 1I’m a proud Oblate of Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California! After five faithful years of attending a monthly Oblates group in the San Fernando Valley area, I finally professed my vow during the Feast of Saint Benedict last March of 2012. I’ve always wanted to be an Oblate and have dreamt about the occasion of my final oblation as one of the sacred moments of my own spiritual journey. There I stood on that special day, in front of a few close friends, vowing to live by the Rule of Saint Benedict as a layperson in the world. It was a highly emotional moment for me, even as I confidently took on the name of St. John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz in Filipino and Spanish) as my Oblate’s name.

Little did I expect that in less than three months after that glorious event, I would plunge into my own version of my dark night experience that would haunt me for the remainder of that year. I could not, for the life of me, make sense of such seemingly ironic twist of fate. Admittedly, it even made me seriously question why in the first place I chose John of the Cross as my saint of preference. Why did I become an Oblate to begin with?

Wil Hernandez ValyermoIt all started in early 2004! Through the encouragement of my former spiritual director—a long time Benedictine monk at Valyermo—I was privileged to be admitted to the Abbey for a period of six months (in and out) while I worked on my dissertation writing on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen. I was given a special room up on the hill, separated from all the rest, to concentrate on my work. I remembered how, each time the bell rung for the observance of the liturgy of the hours, I’d hesitate to come down to join the monks at the chapel for fear that it would break my momentum for writing. Grudgingly, I’d make my way down with a tinge of guilt, thinking it was the least I could do for the incredible hospitality extended to me by the monks. Slowly, but surely, I found myself being drawn in over time by the beauty of the liturgy. My day would seem incomplete if I missed one of the prayer offices. Without me realizing it, I gradually fell in love with the rhythm of it all and even begun to experience in more ways than one the transforming power of the liturgy in my own life. It’s not an exaggeration to mention that my regular participation in the liturgy was what inspired and sustained my otherwise unexciting writing process. I was so impacted by the whole routine that I found myself eagerly appropriating the practice on my own even after I was done with my stay at the Abbey. To this day, I rarely miss praying the Lauds first thing in the morning and ending my evening with the Compline.

Now back to my own dark night episode: It’s actually been a while now since that unwanted experience occurred. Looking back, I do have a clue as to how it all happened. Soon after my oblation, I found myself deeply immersed in the busyness of my work, which only led to my sense of coming unglued as a person—experiencing fragmentation more than integration. Before I knew it, when I was confronted with all sorts of challenges connected with my job, I was far from being in a stable state of groundedness. Put it simply, I was caught off guard by the turn of events because I was not as centered as I should be.  I became susceptible to everything that was opposite of anything identified with harmony, balance, stability; I was completely decentered and I did not even know it.

In retrospect, the one valuable interior lesson I learned through my painful “dark night” has to do with the vital role of presence and its direct relationship with a life of centeredness. Suffice it to say, I lost my footing because I lost my own center. For me, being a monk in the world is staying fully centered in God, experiencing a profound sense of at-homeness and interior stillness despite the outside chaos that may surround us at any time. I keep reminding myself, as simple as it may sound, that the rhythm of the prayer liturgy, is foremost, my lifeline for sustained experience of centeredness. And each time I find myself again on the edge of succumbing to the tyranny of busyness, of entering into my cluttered and occupied space, that I need to leave room for God to have the rightful place in the Center of it all. When I fail (and I bet I will continue to do so), I just need to reclaim the Benedictine saying: “Always we begin again!”

Wil Hernandez CQWil is the author of a trilogy on Henri Nouwen: Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration, and the most recent Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension. He is also the founder and president of CenterQuest (CQ) – an ecumenical hub for the study and practice of Christian spirituality (www.CQCenterQuest.org).

CQ is launching the inaugural cohort for its School of Spiritual Direction (SSD) in the fall of 2014. Early applications are now being accepted. Check out: http://www.cqcenterquest.org/school-of-spiritual-direction/

 

 

 

Invitation to Photography: The Call to Our True Selves

Welcome to this month's Abbey Photo Party!

button-photographyI select a theme and invite you to respond with images.

We began this month with a Community Lectio Divina practice (stop by to read the beautiful responses).  As I prayed with the reading from Thomas Merton, this image of what it means to become a saint kept shimmering for me, and the image of creation as witness to this call to be myself.

What if we could receive the trees and rivers and creatures as wise guides about what it means to truly embrace ourselves? What can they teach us about not refusing our divine call? How might their witness reveal new dimensions of my own sense of self?

With our overall theme of the year at the Abbey as discernment, I love the possibility of exploring how creation can remind us of what is most essential, can call us back to our true selves.

I invite you for this month's Photo Party to play with this idea as you go out in the world to receive images in response. As you walk hold this inspiration of the true self and be ready to see what is revealed to you.

You can share images you already have which illuminate the theme, but I encourage you also to go for a walk with the theme in mind and see what you discover.

You are also welcome to post photos of any other art you create inspired by the theme.  See what stirs your imagination!

How to participate:

You can post your photo either in the comment section below* (there is now an option to upload a file with your comment) or you can join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group and post there. Feel free to share a few words about the process of receiving this image and how it speaks of the "The Call to Our True Selves" for you.

*Note: If this is your first time posting, or includes a link, your comment will need to be moderated before it appears. This is to prevent spam and should be approved within 24 hours.

You can see the fall calendar of invitations here>>

Winner of free book drawing

On Monday I shared Ken Peterson's monk in the world guest post and there was a drawing included for a free copy of his new book Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline.  The lucky winner is Pacia Dixon!  Pacia, send me your snail mail and we will arrange for your copy to be sent out.

The Call to be a Saint (a love note from your online Abbess)

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Coole park 2Dearest monks and artists,

November is the month of remembrance of all the many saints of our lives.  It is a thin time in the Celtic imagination, when heaven and earth draw closer together. I spent the feasts of All Saints and All Souls at a small gathering at the monastery of  Clonmacnoise, once a great spiritual community and center of learning. During the Dark Ages, it was the Irish monks who brought inspiration and hope back to the continent of Europe. The question our gathering was exploring was whether this tradition of Celtic monasticism might today also offer light in our current Dark Ages and time when institutions are crumbling. From church systems to banking systems, the world is hungering for a new way of being.

It seemed so appropriate to spend these feast days remembering some of the great monastics in whose lineage I follow and I met some wondrous fellow monks in the world.  I felt inspired and renewed in my commitment.

Last year, when John and I embarked on our great life pilgrimage, it was much in the tradition of the great Irish monks who would set out on journeys steered only by wind and current and the Spirit, to bring them to the places of their resurrection.  We have not known the full vision we are moving toward, just glimmers, but as we contemplated in this gathering the way that Ireland really served as a spiritual center during these difficult times, I found myself seeing our own call to live here as part of the same movement, a return to the spiritual center.

We have been called to immerse ourselves here in the landscape and the elements, to be steeped in the ancient monastic wisdom which took its inspiration directly from my beloved desert mothers and fathers, and into an encounter with the God who is revealing something new right now.  And now I feel myself even more aligned with so many others who also share a similar vision, who are carrying this seed and spark forward in their own ways.

In the month of October, our theme at the Abbey was softening and yielding.  How are we called to release our own agendas and expectations and make room for the great unfolding? This practice of making space is an essential step toward receiving the gifts that are ours.

This month's theme is drawing inspiration from the words of Thomas Merton.  For the passage, see the invitation into a practice of Community Lectio Divina.  Merton describes the animals, trees, rivers, and mountains as all saints of creation.  They are saints because they are who they were created to be.

We, however, as poet David Whyte describes, are "the terrible part of creation privileged to refuse our own flowering." Merton says that to be a saint means to be myself. This sounds so simple, and yet we know how challenging it is, how many obstacles we set before ourselves, how many layers of fear and resistance have built up over the years, how much my ego is attached to being viewed in a certain way, and what I am grasping onto.

As you sit with the Merton passage in prayer, I invite you to listen for this call to be fully yourself and how best to get out of your own way. Let the softening of this past month create a supple heart, ready to receive a new insight, a new vision. Listen for the wisdom that arises in the stillness and then share it with our community.

One possible way to pray during this month of remembrance is to call upon the Saints to support you, as well as the souls of your ancestors. Consider beginning each day with a few moments of silence inviting the presence of a favorite Saint or wise ancestor to simply be with you in the day ahead and to help reveal the places where you move away from your own sainthood.

Or you could practice an Ignatian Examen-inspired prayer of ending the day in reflection on the places where you embraced your truest, deepest self and the places where you put on masks.

To become a Saint doesn't mean to be some contrived image of holiness, practicing your faith in ways that imitate others, but to find your own unique expression in the world. You are a revelation of the sacred, and there is only one revelation just like you.

With great and growing love,

Christine

Monk in the World guest post: Ken Peterson

I am delighted to bring you fellow monk in the world Ken Peterson this week. Ken and I first met as part of the Benedictine oblates of St. Placid Priory in Lacey, WA, when I lived in Seattle. He and his wife were recently traveling in Ireland, so it was fun to meet up in one of our favorite Galway pubs for lunch.  Ken has been working for the last couple of years on his new book, which is officially released November 1st: Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline. It seems especially appropriate that it be published during this season of growing darkness, as Compline is the great night prayer the monks sing to enter into the mystery of silence.  He has been part of the Compline Choir in Seattle for almost 50 years (if you go to this link you can click on podcasts and here past prayers). You can even get a quick taste of this sublime prayer at this YouTube link.

Free Book Giveaway:

Ken is giving away a free copy of his book. To be entered in the drawing leave a comment in the post below by November 8th.  You can share the link to this post on Facebook to receive a second entry, just be sure to first like and then tag this page so Ken can see the posting.

Read on for Ken's reflections:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA recent drive from my native Seattle east to Wenatchee set me to thinking about what I would say about being a “monk in the world.”

The geography of the Pacific Northwest is fascinating, because the Cascade Mountains divide the area into two distinct climates, which are (generally speaking) rain forest and desert. Driving over the mountains, I experience a feeling of expansion in leaving the big city and the cloud cover, and I rejoice in the sunlight and spaciousness of Eastern Washington, with its stark brown hills and sagebrush.

Ken Peterson 1Probably from before recorded history, people sought out some deserted place to pray and meditate, and we, too, seek a place apart from (as Carl McColman put it so well in his guest blog), “our dysfunctional culture.” There are various degrees of physical separation from the world, which run the gamut from living in a physical cloister to just having moments of interior sacred space.  I’m somewhere in the middle, having become a Benedictine oblate three years ago. Although I would never call myself a monk, I am related by my vows to a particular sacred place, the Benedictine Priory of St. Placid, in Lacey, Washington – in a way that is monk-like.

Being a monk in the world is about living a contemplative life in the midst of the world of work and relationships outside a physical cloister. I recently re-read the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). As you remember, Martha was complaining about having to do all the kitchen work while Mary sat listening to Jesus:

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (NRSV).

Reflecting on this reading, I found a meaning that was new for me: that the early Christian monks had conceived the idea of continuous prayer as a way of combining worldly work and contemplation.  In order to pray continuously, the early Christian monks trained themselves to recite a prayer, usually the Jesus Prayer, during all waking hours, until the prayer itself wove itself into the fabric of their every moment.  The Jesus prayer is:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Just as there are degrees of being physically cloistered, we also have varying degrees of intensity in our daily contemplation (I’m thinking just of an ordinary day, not special times for retreat or silence).  There are times where we have to focus completely on some task, but many times during the day when we can stop all tasks to just be in stillness.  It helps enormously if there are set times during the day that we stop to be still and to pray.  And we have the opportunity in our daily interactions with others to practice other monk-like virtues, such as compassion and humility.

My own path into monkishness started almost fifty years ago, when I joined a group that sang the monastic office of Compline every Sunday evening at the Episcopal cathedral in Seattle. Long before I became interested in who monks were, I was singing chant – doing what monks do. And I was involving myself in the beauty of sacred music, which I know now is a way of being in the Divine Presence. The constant weekly divine office and the encounter with hundreds of works of great beauty has sort of shaped and formed me, as if I were a rock in one of the Cascade Mountain streams.

The photograph included with this blog was taken in Wenatchee, which is in Eastern Washington on the Columbia River. I drove my wife and three other attorneys over the mountains to give free legal services to immigrants who were permanent residents seeking citizenship. I was free to wander around the surrounding area, which is known for its apples. I saw this orchard, with the morning sunlight coming through, and had to stop to marvel at it. The picture probably doesn’t do justice to the depth and color of the leaves, or convey my feeling of peace and wonder. Here were ordered rows of trees, having brought forth a marvelous harvest, and now entering into the season of rest and transformation. Being a monk in the world is to pause frequently to marvel and to rest.

My book Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline has just been published as you are reading this post. One of the musical examples in the book illustrates the concept of the world versus the cloister. It’s about having a part of our mind where peace and joy exist apart from the dark side of fear, worry, and despair. This is to have a monastery or cloister of the heart.

All the examples from the book are on a public website, and my concept is that the texts can be used as lectio divina, assisted by music. I would love to hear your comments on how this works for you. You can listen to “If we could shut the gate” here. I recommend headphones, especially if you are listening at work. :-)

Thank you, Christine, for inviting me to write here. I pray that we may all find a cloister within, every day that we are given to live.

Kenneth Peterson has sung with the Compline Choir in Seattle since 1964. He taught music before entering into a career in software engineering, and has had a long interest in chant and early music, performing in and also directing ensembles. In 2010 he became a Benedictine oblate at St. Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington. His book Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline, will be published in November by Paraclete Press. In it he tells the story of the history and themes of the office, woven together with reflections from his own spiritual journey and links to musical examples that accompany the text. For more information, go to www.prayerasnightfalls.com.

Community Lectio Divina: Thomas Merton

button-lectioWith November comes a new invitation for contemplation. This month I invite you into a lectio divina practice with one of my favorite readings from Thomas Merton. I ran across it again this past week as I was contemplating the feast of All Saints and All Souls and what it means to live into our individual call to become saints, our truest deepest selves created by God.

How Community Lectio Divina works:

Each month there will be a passage selected from scripture, poetry, or other sacred texts (and at some point we will engage in some visio and audio divina as well with art and music).

For the year I am choosing an overarching theme of discernment. I feel like the Abbey is in the midst of some wonderful transition, movement, and expansion.

How amazing it would be to discern together the movements of the Spirit at work in the hearts of monks around the world.

I invite you to set aside some time this week to pray with the text below. Here is a handout with a brief overview (feel free to reproduce this handout and share with others as long as you leave in the attribution at the bottom – thank you!)

Lean into silence, pray the text, listen to what shimmers, allow the images and memories to unfold, tend to the invitation, and then sit in stillness.

The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance. The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God's saints. . . For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours.

—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

After you have prayed with the text (and feel free to pray with it more than once – St. Ignatius wrote about the deep value of repetition in prayer, especially when something feels particularly rich) spend some time journaling what insights arise for you.

How is this text calling to your dancing monk heart in this moment of your life?

What does this text have to offer to your discernment journey of listening moment by moment to the invitation from the Holy?

What wisdom emerged that may be just for you, but may also be for the wider community?

Sharing Your Responses

Please share the fruits of your lectio divina practice in the comments below or at our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group which you can join here. There are over 800 members and it is a wonderful place to find connection and community with others on this path.

You might share the word or phrase that shimmered, the invitation that arose from your prayer, or artwork you created in response. There is something powerful about naming your experience in community and then seeing what threads are woven between all of our responses.

You can see the full fall calendar of invitations here>>

Join the Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group here>>

A Time of Remembrance (a love note from your online Abbess)

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St Hildegard

Art © Marcy Hall of Rabbit Room Arts

–Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

Dearest monks and artists,

This is one of my favorite times of year with the darkening days of autumn and the spreading color across the trees.  I have long loved the wisdom of the Celtic Wheel of the Year, but living here in Ireland I experience the turning points more keenly.  In the Celtic tradition, August 1st was the feast of Lughnasa and the beginning of fall and the harvest season.  Here in Galway I could feel the light beginning its shift and the air grow cooler.  Summer offers endless days as we are so far north, but by August 1st, the hints of autumn were already arriving.

Now we approach the cross-quarter feast of Samhain on November 1st which is the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter.  The dark half of the year is beginning, and the nights have grown ever so long.  In the ancient Celtic imagination, this was considered to be a "thin time" when the veil between heaven and earth grew more transparent and the wisdom of our ancestors was closer to us.

It is, of course, the root of our celebration of Halloween (All Hallow's Eve) and All Saints and All Souls Days.  In the Christian tradition, November is the month of remembrance, the time when we remember our blood and spiritual ancestors who walked this earth before us and leave us with their struggles to find meaning here.  We are reassured that we are not alone, that we share the world with a great "cloud of witnesses" and "communion of saints" just across the veil.

If you have been reading here for a while, you know my love of the dark season and working with ancestral energies in my life.  Both invite us into a season of mystery and unknowing, where things don't work according to our logical expectations. My ancestors have been the impulse behind my many travels to Europe in recent years and now my grand life pilgrimage of settling here to live.

October 19th was the tenth anniversary of my mother's death.  It felt like a significant milestone in my own journey, as her sudden death was a loss which wrenched me apart on many levels at the tender age of 33 when I was counting on many more years with her. I longer for her to show me what it means to mature into a woman of wisdom and a fierce sense of who I am called to be.

Certainly my own seasons of grief following her death was a profound journey of descent. Descent is the path of having everything stripped away that offered comfort.  In the mystical tradition, the descent is also the slow revelation of God. And what I am living into now is a deep truth I only sensed at the time: the more I am able to give myself over to the heart-breaking truths and losses of this human life, the more I am carved out for the possibility of the deepest kind of joy.

These days, I am finding that I live more of my hours from this place of profound joy and deep trust, a place we can't simply tell ourselves exists, but need to encounter it with our whole being.  But paradoxically the encounter comes with a journey down into the heart of sorrow, of opening ourselves up to the deepest kind of vulnerability, so we might be broken open for joy – not happiness, which lacks the depth I mean. To know that the pain of feeling orphaned by the loss of my parents, and left without any siblings, has also led me to treasure community in the most dear way, to cherish the intimate friendships which sustain me. I find myself now at the heart of a vibrant and rich community of monks and artists around the world.

And I know that life will offer up more grief to me in time, and all I can do is dwell in the beauty of this moment now, its sheer possibility, its lavish generosity to me, to be alive and to know how blessed I am, to know the incredible grace.

I have been experiencing life very intensely lately, as if something in me knows how essential what is unfolding in me right now is.  My word for the year is "breakthrough" and I have been feeling it all along, but something has been shifting these past few months. My dear friend and teaching partner Kayce joined me on one of my retreats in the Northwest in October and at the end as we embraced and she said "Ireland really agrees with you."  And my heart said yes and I felt tears in my eyes at the truth of it. Ireland has provided a fertile nest to help me bring things to birth.  Ireland is eliciting the poetry of my soul.

I think what I am trying to say – and really what I always am trying to say – is that I am witnessing to the incredible power of allowing life to move through me in all of its messiness and complexity, to stay true to my experience and try as much as I can to follow the leading of the Spirit rather than my own plans or what I think others' expectations of me might be. This unfolding path always has more richness than what I can contrive.

One of these sources of profound joy has been the gift of dance. Ten years ago I never would have imagined myself leading others in the gift of dance, much less be leading a community of dancing monks.  I don't look anything like a dancer, and yet I have opened myself up to the glorious freedom to be found in the dance and know it as the energy that moves the cosmos, and so now I can't help myself and how I look matters little. And I invite others to embrace the joy and freedom of dance in all of life, whether your dance is through friendship or your work or your art.

How will you honor this time of the thinning of the veil?  Will you make space to enter into the gift of holy darkness?

Is there a blood or spiritual ancestor you will remember during these November days?  Is there someone you might call upon for wisdom and guidance, who might lead you into the great dance of life? Will you choose their "ongoing companionship" as Henri Nouwen invites?

I am delighted to share the image above of one of our spiritual ancestors – as Benedictine, monk, Abbess, artist, musician, herbalist, spiritual director, and more – St. Hildegard of Bingen has long been a patron saint of Abbey of the Arts is the first in a series of dancing monk icons.  I love her joyfulness, her naked toes in the fresh green grass, her sense of aliveness.  She was painted by the delightful artist Marcy Hall.

If you would like to join the Honoring Saints and Ancestors online retreat that just began, registration will be available until November 17th at this link.  All of the materials will be accessible to you as well as a wonderful community of fellow monks gathering to remember.

We continue this month at the Abbey with a new Invitation to Dance on the theme of softening and yielding.

We also have a wonderful new monk in the world guest post from spiritual author and novelist Paula Huston.

With great and growing love,

Christine

Monk in the World guest post: Paula Huston

I adore Paula Huston's work and wise spirit.  She is a fellow monastic oblate (Camaldolese Benedictine) and writer of several books on spiritual practice, including my favorites Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit and The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life.  I had the gift of participating in a nonfiction writing workshop with her several years ago in New Mexico through the fabulous Glen workshop.  The Glen is a really wonderful gathering of writers and artists wrestling with the questions of meaning and substance in life.  Paula is a gifted teacher and also offers her wisdom for writers through the Image Journal's online manuscript critique in creative nonfiction.

Paula HustonYears ago, a young newspaper reporter showed up at a contemplative hermitage in the wilderness of Big Sur, hoping to interview some of the monks.  Never much in evidence except in the chapel during the Hours, on this particular day they made themselves especially scarce.  She looked in vain for someone she could talk to.  Finally she was rescued by Fr. Bernard, a diminutive French-Canadian who never could resist the sight of woman in distress.  He led her to a bench overlooking the sea, then gallantly invited her to ask him whatever she liked.

Thrilled to have captured a real monk, she said, no doubt a little breathlessly, “You’ve been here for almost fifty years, am I right?”

“You are indeed,” Fr. Bernard responded with his charming blue-eyed twinkle.

“Well, what I really want to know,” she said, “is why a person would ever come to a place like this.”

Without a moment’s pause, as though this were a question he had been thinking about for a very long time indeed, he said, “That is easy. I came here because life is short and I wanted to live it in the best way I could.”

In all the years I have been an oblate member of Fr. Bernard’s community, I have never heard of a better reason for taking up the monastic life. The monk’s life, when it is going well, is a life of discipline and integrity, one that (given enough time and commitment) slowly but inexorably leads to a new kind of person.  And when I first met Bernard and his brothers, that is what I wanted more than anything: to be better than I was.

That longing was so strong that it carried me through several decades of learning about and trying my best to practice (while still living very much in the world) various monastic disciplines: silence, solitude, fasting, chastity, frugality, simplicity, anonymity.  Much of that time was spent in frustration.  My efforts were so weak and I myself so apt to be derailed by the usual stresses of modern life that the task seemed hopeless.  Over and over, I rushed to the sanctuary of the hermitage for refueling, only to re-shoulder all my burdensome responsibilities as soon as I got back home.  Teaching.  Wifehood and motherhood.  Caretaking of elderly parents. Farm work. Writing.  The obstacles to a contemplative life seemed insurmountable.

Yet one of the great teachers of Christian contemplation, the fourth-century Evagrius of Ponticus, believed that the kind of life I was seeking and failing to find came only to those who did what I was doing, no matter how unproductive it seemed.  He called this early, essential stage on the contemplative path “praktikos,” a terms that connotes both “practical” and “practice.”   What it means is that we not only read about becoming less self-centered and egotistical but actually “practice” doing this through a disciplined approach to daily life.

If we persevere long enough, he believed, then we will advance to a stage he called “physikos.”  We will begin to understand created nature, including human beings.  We will begin to see why the world is as it is.  Or as the great British Romantic poet Wordsworth put it, we will learn to “see into the life of things.” More, we will begin to love the universe, including our sometimes irritating, sometimes horrifying fellow creatures, in a way we cannot possibly love them when we truly only love and care about ourselves.

And finally, said Evagrius, we might even become “theologikos,” or whose who are gifted–perhaps like Fr. Bernard was at the end–with the ability to see and comprehend divine realities.  We might become what the Eastern Orthodox call “pneumataphors,” or “bearers of the Holy Spirit.”  We might become pure enough of heart and focused enough in the mind to contemplate God.

As a “monk in the world,” if this is what I really am, and most days I feel like a bit of a fraud in that regard, I know I am a very long way indeed from Evagrius’s definition of a theologikos.  What I do know, however, after nearly twenty years of attempting to incorporate whatever monastic wisdom and practice I can into my everyday modern American life, is that I have indeed changed along the way. I am a little better than I used to be.  And I do, at rare but riveting times, see the world and its tragic beauties and terrible griefs and inexplicable sufferings in a new and unfamiliar way–a way that makes me want to love instead of condemn it.

As an “artist of the everyday,” if that is what I really am, and most days I seriously doubt this too, I know that whatever I once thought the writing life was meant to be has long since burned to ash.  My early aspirations to literary greatness.  My secret conviction that only public praise, and a lot of it, could possibly validate my existence.  Instead, I’ve come to believe that the only writing worth doing anymore  (not that I am yet capable of doing it) is that which helps light the way to theologikos, or genuine contemplation.

What I have learned is that transformation has a way of sneaking up on us.  Whatever happens along the contemplative path is very subtle.  And it is only in looking back at ourselves from the perspective of decades that the change begins to reveal itself.

For this small insight after so much stumbling blindness, I am profoundly grateful.

Paula Huston is the author of two novels, Daughters of Song and A Land Without Sin, plus six works of spiritual nonfiction.  Her essays and short fiction have been honored by Best American Short Stories, Best Spiritual Writing, and the NEA.  She currently teaches in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

To read other posts in this series click here>>

Invitation to Dance: Softening and Yielding

button-danceWe continue our theme this month of "Softening and Yielding" which arose from our Community Lectio Divina practice with Yehuda Amichai's poem "The Place Where We Are Right" and continued with this month's Photo Party and Poetry Party.

Dance invites us to soften the armoring of our bodies and yield to the impulse of life moving through us moment by moment.  We spend so much energy trying to control events, dance is an opportunity to practice the deep surrender we are called to as monks in the world

I invite you into a movement practice.  Allow yourself just 5 minutes this day to pause and listen and savor what arises.

  • Begin with a full minute of slow and deep breathing.  Let your breath bring your awareness down into your body.  When thoughts come up, just let them go and return to your breath. Hold this image of "Softening and Yielding" as the gentlest of intentions, planting a seed as you prepare to step into the dance.
  • Play the piece of music below (Vivaldi's Spring 2 Recomposed by Max Richter) let your body move in response, without needing to guide the movements. Listen to how your body wants to move through space in response to your breath. Remember that this is a prayer, an act of deep listening. Pause at any time and rest in stillness again.
  • After the music has finished, sit for another minute in silence, connecting again to your breath. Just notice your energy and any images rising up.
  • Is there a word or image that could express what you encountered in this time? (You can share about your experience, or even just a single word in the comments section below or join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group and post there.)
  • If you have time, spend another five minutes journaling in a free-writing form, just to give some space for what you are discovering.
  • To extend this practice, sit longer in the silence before and after and feel free to play the song through a second time. Often repetition brings a new depth.

 

You can see the fall calendar of invitations here>>

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