There is a thread I have been following these last few months while living in Vienna which I haven’t yet shared with you, mostly because of my own amazement and wanting to respect the call without putting too many words and explanations to it.
It began in late summer when two different online monk friends sent me images of Our Lady of Czestochowa, one of the Black Madonnas found in Poland. They were drawn to send them, I felt drawn to receive them. My journey to Vienna has much to do with healing my relatinship with my father, and I felt this invitation to allow the Blessed Mother in all of her fertile darkness to be a part of that journey.
This was followed by a dream I had of being sentenced to ten years in prison because of the murder a little girl committed who was in my care. I brought the dream to my spiritual director and we talked about what it would mean to welcome in the rage of that little girl (clearly an aspect of myself in rage at my father) and to commit to being in that prison cell with her, knowing that the root of the word cell comes from the monastic tradition and the call was to stay there with my experience. I mentioned to my spiritual director my recent encounters with the Black Madonna and he encouraged me to find one in Austria I could visit for wisdom.
Two days later I attended a new church service in Vienna and was invited to come on a pilgrimage the next Saturday to visit the main Marian shrine in Austria called Mariazell. It turned out that not only had Mary come to invite me to visit her, this particular Mary’s name means “Mary of the cell.” Apparently the legend goes that a Benedictine monk was walking in the forest carrying a wooden statue of Mary when he got lost and cried out in prayer to her. The way opened before him and on that site was created a prayer cell for the Madonna. This Mary was speaking directly to my dream, telling me she would be in that cell with me.
I went on the pilgrimage. It was a lovely day and group. But what was long ago a simple shrine, had now become an elaborate basilica. The wooden statue of Mary holding Jesus was adorned with a white and gold-embroidered dress, both wearing gold crowns. They were placed in an altar space with gold rays expanding out from them. I was a bit taken aback by the lavishness of the setting and as I prayed with her, I heard her speak to my heart, release me from these encumberments and go find me in the forest.
I had already been finding great solace and healing in the forest, but Mary’s call urged me on to spend as much time there as I could. The Vienna Woods are only a tram-ride away from the city center and there I felt peace. It was a place my father always found some peace as well.
The following week I was writing content for our Women on the Threshold class and I chose the story of the Handless Maiden because it has spoken to me in profound ways in the past and she finds healing in the forest. I wanted to let this story inform me once again.
What seized my imagination in my reading of it this time was the maiden’s journey through the forest to the pear garden. I was so moved by the image of her, vulnerable and alone, finding nourishment in the gift of pears. I discovered a poem by Nan Fry, a contemporary poet, about the handless maiden which reads in part: “Her father had sold her / to the devil and lopped off her hands, / but you bent to her, Pear, / and offered yourself, breast / and milk both, the earth / grown pendulous and sweet.”
Those words: “you bent to her, Pear, and offered yourself” broke something open in me, a longing I had for receiving rather than reaching, for sinking into an even deeper trust of life’s nourishment for me. I was hearing other words around me about not striving, not needing to work so hard. The pear became a symbol for this.
As I was falling in love with the wisdom of Pear for my life, my local grocery store here in Vienna had started a promotion. They had plush toy fruits and vegetables you could get free with the points earned on your store card. Within the week I had enough for “Birnadette” (the German word for pear is “Birne” and so this is the name she came with), a silly but absolutely delightful plush pear who makes me ridiculously happy, because again her full body is a reminder of rest for me, of receiving the plushness of life. She reminds me to be playful and take things less seriously.
Soon after, my dear friend and teaching partner Betsey came to visit me in Vienna for a few days before she was heading to France to help lead a pilgrimage which included visits to several Black Madonna sites. I told her of my unfolding journey with Mary and the pear. She told me that very often the Black Madonnas were carved from pear wood. I began looking on the internet to see if Mariazell had been. I was never able to find out the wood she was made of, but what I did discover stunned me. I found a photo of her statue without the elaborate dress she was wearing in the shrine, her unadorned beauty I had been longing for when I visited. In her hand, beneath that elaborate dress, was a pear.
Here was Mary offering me the very pear I had fallen in love with from the fairy tale. Here was Mary saying in a new way, “let me bend down and offer you the nourishment you need.”
Please forgive the lengthiness of this story. There are, of course, many more layers to it all. But this is what it means to me to follow the thread. I also call it living organically, letting go of long-term plans, and stepping into each moment from a place of deep listening, unfolding, ripening.
It is so hard to articulate what the journey this fall has meant for me, this time following my heart’s call to leave almost everything I own behind and come to Vienna. I have experienced some deep healing of old wounds. I have found freedom from the sometimes tyrannical inner voice of my father.
My husband and I have both been drawn to Ireland as a place to live and explore as well. He has roots on his mother’s side, I have made several journeys there each time falling more in love. We traveled there recently for some discernment to see how the thread was calling us forward. We stopped in a cafe for an afternoon pause, a chance to talk about what we were discovering. As we left we noticed on a display shelf that was filled with homemade jams for sale, also a large bottle. Inside the bottle was a beautifully preserved pear in brandy. I was stunned again, such an unusual way to encounter a pear. We left the cafe and walked up the street and there at the intersection only a few yards from the pear was a statue of Mary.
We will be moving to the west coast of Ireland at the end of December. The timing in part has to do with taxes and residence permits in Austria, if we leave before six months, everything is simpler (on that end things have been complicated). Without the language barrier, my husband will have an easier time with work. But more than these things, as important as they are, my heart is feeling a longing to live by the sea, to explore the wild edges of this landscape where ancient monks set up communities. I know that there will be inspiration for my work with the Abbey beyond my imaginings.
And I know that I will be back to Vienna – certainly for leading our wonderful Springtime in Vienna retreat next April – but also for extended time walking in the forest and more healing. Vienna is a city I have fallen even more in love with, which I didn’t think was possible. I know deep in my bones that this place will continue its call to me. What an incredible gift all of this is.
I am feeling some of the grief I felt when we left Seattle, a longing to savor everything, even as I know I will return. Much of this journey is about a longing for home, and being present to this experience right now of not knowing where that is.
There is much more to come dear monks. There is more revelation ahead, more grace, more juicy pears.
Where exactly is this all going? It has to do with discovering a deep freedom, of embracing the path of the monk as one who stands at the fertile edges of things, of dancing life. But really, I still have no idea other than I know I need to keep walking in this direction of radical trust. I need to keep following the thread.
In monastic terms, this thread-following is about the vow of obedience for me: being obedient (which means deep listening) to whatever emerges in my life. Being a monk in the world means following wherever the call takes me, even if (and perhaps especially if) it takes me off the trajectory I was expecting.
This is also what it means to me to birth the holy. Each moment we are given an invitation to move in the direction of new life. To choose what nurtures this birth or what sabotages it. Advent, for me, is about immersing myself in the gift of holy darkness and honoring that place of waiting and mystery and releasing my need to know what it all means.