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What is of the Essence? (a love note from your online Abbess)

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Dearest monks and artists,

I am delighted to reveal the newest in the dancing monk icon series (by Marcy Hall of Rabbit Room Arts) above of Mary with the Christ child, inspired by the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland. Mary was often depicted with a pear in medieval art, and the pear became significant for my own journey of learning to yield, to let go of my own striving and reaching. (You can read my poem I wrote last July about this here).

In the Catholic church, January 1st is celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, honoring Mary’s motherhood and her essential role in bringing Christ to birth in the world, and our daily invitation to say yes to the ways we are called to holy birthing as well.

I always have some mixed feelings about New Year’s Day. Shrouded in “after-Christmas” sales when the liturgical season of Christmas is still underway, raucous parties where people drink too much, and full of marketing for weight loss plans and gym memberships. The message is always about scarcity, telling us we aren’t enough as we are, and so we must buy more and do more to feel satisfied with ourselves. The irony is, of course, that this constant grasping never brings deep satisfaction.

And yet there is something archetypal about New Year’s Day.  As Richard Rohr describes it, “we celebrate a symbolic rebirth of time.” There is something deep in our hearts which are always longing for newness.  For all of our cynicism about the world or ourselves, and our doubt that things will ever change, we also have planted within us the seed of new birth. We anticipate what new thing God will be doing within us. We hope for the opportunity to “begin again” as the Rule of Benedict wisely counsels us. (For more thoughts on the New Year and suggested practices, stop by this article I wrote last year.)

Along with many of you, I have been pondering my word for 2014, letting it choose me. About a month ago, a question began shimmering for me: What is of the essence? I found myself asking this as a discernment question about how to allow myself the time I needed to recover from so much traveling this fall, and to listen deeply for what tasks for work were most calling to me. I didn’t have to complete the endless “to do” list, I had to remember what was most important, so that I might be nourished and restored.

It strikes me as very much the question of a monk as well, embracing the heart of simplicity. Asking what is most essential and leaving the rest. The Greek root of the word “monk” is monachos, which means single-hearted. The monk is the one who remembers what is most essential, and this is why I prefer to use the term “monk” for both men and women. The monk focuses on the presence of the sacred in each moment, each thing, each person, each encounter.

The question has been persisting and pursuing me in a series of synchronicities. I participated in a delightful storytelling workshop before Christmas here in Galway, and the facilitator asked that very same question about the stories we were telling: What is of the essence? And remarkably, that question freed me up in new ways around telling stories. I have always resisted considering myself a storyteller because I have such a poor memory for details. But the essence of what I am trying to convey in a story opens up new possibilities.

Two dear friends, in hearing me speak of this question, both thought immediately of plant essences. Herbalism is a practice I have been exploring with much delight this year, one rooted in monastic practices of healing, and in their reflection I heard new layers to the possibilities for this word.

In my daily practice of lectio, as I listen for the invitation my word from the scriptures offers to me, this question seems to keep rising again. This morning I had a dream where I was flying above the atmosphere, basking in the wonder and beauty of the night sky and the immenseness of the universe. Somehow it spoke to me of what is essential, this remembering of beauty and awe. I awoke with this question on my lips yet again.

And so I claim this word “Essence” as my word for 2014, or more appropriately, “Essence” claims me for the year ahead. I open myself to the gifts it will bring forth.

Last year my word was “Breakthrough,” a word given in a dream. It revealed itself to be a series of quiet breakthroughs: of learning the grace of yielding I mentioned above, of moving to Ireland and finding a sense of home here and deep kinship to the legacy of monks who have lived and prayed here for hundreds of years, I began writing poetry again more actively and shared it more freely, I invited the Wisdom Council to support me and recognized how essential it is that I ask for the support I need, and we named this community the Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks, finally embracing the truth of what we practice.

Has a word for 2014 chosen you yet?  If so, please share it here. If not, subscribe to the newsletter to receive a free 12-day mini-retreat to help your word find you.

What if we approached this rebirth of time from the perspective of generosity toward ourselves? What if we resolved to truly celebrate the incredible goodness of our bodies as the place where the incarnate God comes alive?

If you are one of the women members of our community, I invite you to consider joining us for Coming Home to the Body: A Women’s Journey Toward Contemplative Embodiment. New Year’s Day has an extra special dimension of newness and rebirth to it as it is also the day of the New Moon. Our course website opens on January 1st with a chance to get to know your fellow pilgrims, and the materials begin on Monday, January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.  Registration will stay open until January 6th, so please join us!  Instead of making the same tired resolutions, make a commitment to fall in love with your body again, to discover it as a vessel for the sacred. Journey with others hungering for these gifts.

If you are one of the male members of our community, we also have something wonderful in store for you starting January 20th: Exile and Coming Home: Priest, Prophet, Politician, and Poet on the gifts of the Hebrew Scriptures for nourishing a contemplative path in the world.

However you move through this time of newness, may you discover the gifts awaiting you with each breath, may you find yourself already in the presence of the sacred.

With great and growing love,


Photo: Mary, Mother of God dancing monk icon by Marcy Hall of Rabbit Room Arts

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2 Responses

  1. Gorgeous icon! Is there somewhere to see the other icons in the series you mention? Are they available for download or purchase? Beautiful work, Marcy!

  2. Dear Christine, I am taken by your clarification of the word essence. It is the same word that choose me on Dec. 9th (with some resistance from me as I wanted a word I could more clearly “hold”). I have after almost a month of being “haunted” by it, been able to wrap my head around the gift of the word essence. I share the visual of this word that came to me in the form of a self portrait. Seeing the essence of life as “a vessel” gifted to my contemplative soul to hold my ponderings as I embrace the yin and yang of my experiences. I join you and all fellow monks as we continue to “unwrap” and receive the gifts of our WORD. Blessed Happy New Year …may we collectively raise the vibration of this world to a level that will have next new year being rung in to the sound of love,peace and joy for all.