I've known Judy Smoot for several years now, first connecting through Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist, then several other online classes, and finally the pleasure of spending time with Judy in person at our Awakening the Creative Spirit intensive.
Judy is a fellow Benedictine oblate, a spiritual director, a lover of the expressive arts, and the founder and director of Always We Begin Again, a nonprofit dedicated to serving those with chronic illness and their caregivers through contemplative and creative programs. I am delighted to share Judy's wisdom here with this community on being a monk in the world:
“Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”
– St. Seraphim of Sarov
For reasons I did not understand at the time, this gentle piece of wisdom intersected my life in 2007 and became my heart’s desire. At that time, six years ago, I had no idea what “a peaceful spirit” would come to mean in my own faith journey, nor what would be undone and recreated in my spirit to acquire this peaceful spirit for myself and others.
Since 2007, I completed training for spiritual direction and began companioning others personally and through retreat work. I discovered St. Benedict and committed to the Oblate way of life, resigned a long-time staff position in a church, began a nonprofit ministry, and enrolled in an expressive arts program — all amidst our son returning from 2-1/2 years serving with the Peace Corps, gaining a beautiful and caring daughter-in-law, companioning my father as he left his human life on earth, and navigating various medical issues that come with age. All of these transitions have resulted in relationships ending and new ones beginning, old habits released and life-giving practices welcomed — the shedding of the old to make way for the new has been terribly painful at times. In retrospect, I am pretty certain I would not have entered into this turmoil of life-giving change had it not been forced upon me in quite a few instances. As I reflect on how I “handled” all of this life change (and how it “handled” me some days), I am not entirely confident calling myself monk, mystic, or contemplative. I recall the heat of the fire that surrounded me on some days and don’t remember feeling at peace or grounded in all the uncertainty. Is this mindfulness and truth-telling part of what makes one contemplative ?
In January 2010, I began Way of the Monk Path of the Artist. As an introduction, we were invited to offer a six-word autobiography. Six words. Can’t be done. It could be a long retreat experience and doubt began to creep in. I wondered if this was the place in which I was to settle for 12 weeks. Once I moved past the initial resistance, the words came quickly — “Contemplative seeking to offer spacious sanctuary.” I have come to appreciate the word, “seeking”. WOTM was exactly where I needed to be. In 2011, Awakening the Creative Spirit confirmed I was beginning a journey toward something of significance.
Like some of you, I have redefined my understanding of what it means to be a monk. I also have redefined “artist” – neither being attributes I would have assigned to myself even a few years ago, but characteristics that I now claim as part of my soul’s story. As I have entered more deeply the process of “naming and claiming” (also known to me as “taking personal responsibility – ugh), the Contemplative Seeking to Offer Spacious Sanctuary has become a fully alive person living as a monk in the world.
I spend a lot of time tethered to a very non-contemplative computer. As I write this, I am waiting for a call from a computer programmer about web updates I am unable to do on my own. As director for this new nonprofit, I must squeeze in my first love of serving people simultaneous with board development, creating a strategic plan, fund raising, maintaining blogs and Facebook accounts — all of the details that support the end result of programming for those we serve. I try to create a somewhat contemplative work space in which all of this can occur. But, as I look around, my immediate space is, frankly, a mess. I am fully in the world. Yet, I sense the monk expanding within me.
The Abbey supported me in establishing my Rule of Life in 2010. It reads,
I choose to live:
true to my authentic self;
simply and without hurry;
within supportive communities;
with abandon and confidence; and
as a mystic living in the world.
Some days (months), I do this well. Others, not so much. It is life’s ebb and flow. My desire to live mindfully and truthfully keeps me in a seeking mode. The constant change of life’s circumstances keeps me humbly reliant on God’s provision. God’s peace is not the same as the world’s peace. That is important for me to remember. Often, God’s peace is not a warm, fuzzy, feel good sensation as much as a strong anchor holding me secure during raging storms of uncertainty and risk taking as I continue to walk the edges of life pushing out to the horizon (my word for 2013).
In 2005 I was blessed to travel to San Francisco with my husband for a five-day work trip he had in the area. We found ourselves returning repeatedly to Grace Cathedral and its labyrinths. I now realize that the monk began to push herself into my world during that trip. My husband took the below picture as I walked the outdoor labyrinth. The poem followed a short time later. Patience. Contemplation. Risk-Taking. Trust. Prayer. Truth. Simplicity. Community. The peaceful spirit has taken root within me. As it has become authentic for me, it spills into the lives of others seeking a sanctuary, seeking a refuge from the chaos that we all live within. Are lives saved as a result? I cannot say for sure. But I do trust that God works with my meager offering, and isn’t that enough for each of us to offer as monks in the world?
Thank you for hearing my story.
The Way is Made by Walking
She walks a labyrinth path
to enter the soft, strong sanctuary of her soul
Ideas and images weave with joyful abundance
through the channels of her heart
seeking their voice in one word of simplicity.
Freedom takes flight as she contemplates “what if?”,
and wonders of God’s invitation for a “sacred yes.”
Compassion for the least of these rises from her
deep silence with the Holy One.
Judy Smoot is a Benedictine Oblate, spiritual director/retreat leader, and founder of the non-profit ministry Always We Begin Again providing spiritual care for people living with a chronic diagnosis and those who support them on their journey. She is a 2007 graduate of the Columbus-based spiritual direction program, Wellstreams, and is currently a student at Expressive Arts Florida Institute in Sarasota, Florida. She enjoys facilitating creative-based experiences for those desiring to express their faith and prayer life through expressive art. Judy and her husband are currently following their dream to live more simply and close to nature by building a woodland cottage for themselves and visiting friends and family about 50 miles from where they currently reside. They anticipate a spring 2014 move.