The second annual of Feeding The Soul at Elks Lodge, Maine held on October 22nd 2017.
Theme: Listen to The Spirit
– Gary Crocker (Maine humorist and storyteller)
– Ken Parker (Maine’s own Garrison Keillor)
– Sr. Elizabeth Wagner ( Benedictine hermit, retreat leader, spiritual director and author of Seasons in My Garden: Meditations from a Hermitage)
We thank you for all the immeasurable support and participation in this event.
Click on the image below to view 5 minutes video clip of the event (12 MB via YouTube).
See you again next year for our third annual of Feeding The Soul!
Recently we hosted a weekend preached retreat here at the Hermitage. In setting up times for lectures and discussions with Sr. Donald Corcoran, our presenter, it happened that we left long blocks of free time for people. There were long stretches of free time early Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, again in the evening, and also early Sunday morning.
It was a picture-perfect May weekend: clear, mild, with a light breeze, all the trees and shrubs filled with new growth. People read, prayed in the chapel, walked the prayer trail, or simply snoozed. Many commented favorably on the long, quiet spaces, interspersed with presentations and discussion that gave rich food for thought and prayer. Such spaces and times felt like deep, refreshing breaths, filling our lungs with good air – truly the breath of the Spirit. As hosts for the retreat, Sr. Bernadette and I were busy, yet even so we were also able to breathe in some of the peace and blessed empty time and space which filled the Hermitage.
The weekend led me to reflect anew on those important Benedictine qualities of balance, rhythm, and moderation. What a blessing it was to have those long stretches of quiet, with nothing to do, no tasks to fill them. What a gift was the enforced idleness! What a blessing to have the rich and deep input. What a blessing to be sharing these times with others; all of us brought together by our common desire for God.
Balance, rhythm, moderation. These values are so counter-cultural today, in a world which rushes headlong into extremes. Ideas are totally right…or they are totally wrong. So are people. Or so we think! Emotions, actions and reactions are supercharged and supersized – much like the fries at a drive-through. Ordinary thoughts and emotions are not enough. Everything must be extreme or it won’t even be noticed.
In the midst of this insanity, Benedict’s fifteen-hundred year old Rule speaks of moderation and balance, of finding a deep, fundamental, humane rhythm to life. It says this obliquely, not directly. It models this through its own balance, for it braids together elements of the desert tradition of solitude with the cenobitic and communal tradition of Augustine and Basil. It weaves strands into the Divine Office from that same desert tradition, and also from the Roman office. It intermingles times of prayer with times of manual labor, time of lectio with times for meals and siesta and sleep. It suggests that the youngest members contribute to the community’s wisdom, as well as the eldest.
Balance. How hard it is to find balance today. A friend of ours who is a personal trainer tells us that people begin losing their physical balance by age thirty. How much earlier we lose our inner balance, our inner sense of what we need and when we need it. As infants, when we’re hungry we cry for food, when we’re sleepy we sleep. As we grow, we slowly become conditioned to ignoring our needs in favor of what the world around us expects of us. Some of these expectations are right and good, some not so good. But all need to be taken in moderation. Even our own wants and needs must be satisfied only in moderation. And all need to be held in a rhythm that is ever alert to balance the extremes of situations with their opposing and counteracting state. Too much work and pressure needs to be met with extra time for relaxation and rest. Too much prayer? (This only rarely happens!) We need diversion. Too much social interaction? We need to balance it with solitude. Too much attention to the world around us? We need to pay attention to the child of God who dwells within us. And so on….
A retreat can be a blessed reminder that our days on earth are limited, and we need to tend them carefully. God is to be found in all things: not work alone, not prayer alone, not the things of church (however wonderful and graced), not eating and drinking, not exercise, not any one thing. Rather God is present in all, and only discovered most powerfully when our lives are in balance, undominated by any one interest. God is all and in all and there to be discovered in gracious Presence.
A classic Maine nor’easter is blowing outside my window and the snow is falling so rapidly that it’s hard to see across the blueberry field. It’s March 1, and until now the winter has been so mild that it seemed the days would continue to roll calmly onwards into April. The crocus are up, the pussy willows are in bloom, and the robins are back. But March has a trick or two up its sleeve, and today we are rudely dumped back into the depths of winter.
Mildness seems to be the norm this winter. After a freak early snow at the end of October, and another prior to Thanksgiving, the ground has been nearly bare. It even seemed as though my inner world was paralleling the outer, for I’ve been blessed with a spell of inner mildness and harmony. Need I say that this is not usually the case?
The unusual weather, both exterior and interior, has led me to reflect on the nature of mildness and its causes. Most of us, myself included, are frequently tossed and buffeted by inner storms of all kinds. Today we say we are working through “issues”. These can be large or small, and can blow over in a few minutes or hours, or they can last for years.
The early desert fathers and mothers thought that many of these inner storms are caused by the ‘passions’, or negative habits. They realized that these passions generated various negative thoughts, which in turn fed the passions, and made them grow even stronger. Evagrius, one of the desert fathers, codified them into the eight negative thoughts (which later were condensed into the seven deadlysins): gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, accedia or listlessness, vainglory, and pride. Each of these thoughts, or passions, can throw us into an inner turmoil and away from the peacefulness needed to hear the voice of God speaking deep in our hearts. Paying attention to our inner world and combating these passions helps lead us forward in our life’s journey toward God.
This is an abbreviated version of a very complex ancient understanding of the human psyche, but it helps me understand mildness. According to one recent commentator on Evagrius, mildness is “that virtue of the mighty”. But what can this mean? We have often been told about Jesus ‘meek and mild’. How is it possible to be mighty and mild at the same time?
Remember that the word ‘virtue’ means strength. A virtue is a strength, a positive habit of a person that over time has built up a spiritual muscle. Faith, for instance, while it is also a gift, is also a virtue. We don’t merely receive it passively, we need to work at it. When it gets challenged, as inevitably happens in today’s world, we need to ponder the challenge, and find a response within ourselves, within the teachings of our faith, and most of all, we need to pray about it and ask God’s help. All of this is in contrast to merely allowing ourselves to be swept away by the tide of doubt, skepticism, or despair. As these challenges occur over time, and as we struggle with them, we build up the muscle (or the virtue) of faith.
It is no different with mildness, which is opposed to the quick and easy reaction of anger. Not that anger is evil in itself – it’s not. Evagrius tells us that anger is given us by God to help us contend with all the other negative patterns and thoughts that bubble up within us, and to combat the real injustices of the world. Positively used, anger is a real virtue.
But all too often anger is not a virtue. All too often it is an insidious evil, raging and tearing at us from within. Its causes are legion – things without and things within. Unchecked anger can be horribly destructive. Most of all, it destroys our inner peacefulness. Any of the passions will destroy peace, but one of the worst is anger.
“Prayer is an offspring of meekness and angerlessness,” says Evagrius. He is speaking here about what he calls ‘pure prayer,’ that prayer in which we are simply at peace before the Lord, and able to receive whatever God has to give us. Of course, we can pray at any time, and when we are in the midst of struggling with anger or any of the passions – or when we are grieving, or hurting, or frightened; or when asking for something, or interceding for someone – all of these are prayer as well, and very good prayer too. But it can be hard to hear the Lord, or to receive what God has to give us, when we are filled with emotions or needs or requests, or even just filled with our own endless interior chatter. Pure prayer, contemplative prayer, that offspring of meekness and angerlessness, is what we need to open ourselves to and allow ourselves to receive. We do so by building up our spiritual muscles so as to move away from anger and all the other passions. We do so by practicing virtue, and becoming mighty. We do so out of the strength that allows us to respond to others (and ourselves) with mildness, with peacefulness, and with kindness and compassion.
“O Lord, I love the house where you dwell, the placewhere your glory abides.” So sings the psalmist, and so do we, as we long to enter into the peaceful presence of God. Moving away from anger and from all the other passions, practicing kindness, thoughtfulness and mildness – all these strengths open us up to awareness of God’s presence. Like the weather, the events of life are changeable, various, and unpredictable. Often our emotions follow suit. In the midst of Lent, we are reminded that to be meek and mild like Jesus entails not weakness but the mighty strength that comes from God.
“Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you want to be….” So runs the opening line of the famous Shaker hymn, hauntingly beautiful and evocative of the Spirit it celebrates. These lines spring readily to my mind as I gaze on the simplicity of the bare trees in November. The trees didn’t have as much color as usual this year, and the leaves were about two weeks late in falling. But now in late November they are bare.
The weather has been unusually mild also, though we’ve had a freak early snowstorm or two. It’s felt like an extended moratorium, a pause of quiet and stillness before the sure and certain descent of winter.
During this pause I’ve been reflecting on simplicity and what it’s about. Perhaps it’s been conjured up by the simplicity of the bare trees, and the late autumn sunlight on bare ground, empty gardens and yellowing grass. The garden is put to bed for the winter, the hoses rolled up and put away, the lawn mowers are under cover, the benches as well. Everything looks neat and tidy and plain. Plain and bare may not always be the same as simple, yet we often make that connection. For surely it is hard to think of simplicity or to act simply when our lives and living spaces and minds are cluttered and confused.
But what is simplicity? Or what is it to be simple? There’s an archaic usage of the word ‘simple’ that means ‘mentally deficient.’ That’s not what true simplicity is about.
I ponder the image of the bare trees and lawns and gardens and one meaning that literally leaps to the eye is ‘unconfused’ and ‘open’. When the leaves and vegetation are removed, everything is open and visible. One can see for greater distances, even in the forest. The same may well be true in our spiritual landscape also. When we are focused on sikking God, and not on the clutter of conflicting and extraneous desires and needs, we can see more clearly the path before us – the path upon which God is leading us.
One of the ways to help ourselves see with this ‘single eye’ that seeks God’s way in our lives is to simplify. This can begin with disposing of some of our excess possessions, and move on to simplify the ways in which we spend our precious time. Everyone is so very busy today! Perhaps we could become less busy if we pondered which activities are most important to us, and which are less so – and then gradually extracted ourselves from the less important.
Imagine the gift of free time and uncluttered space! Why, we might even make room for God’s Spirit to speak to us! Although God’s Spirit is always speaking to us – but mostly we can’t hear this loving voice. We’re to cluttered up and preoccupied with all sorts of lesser attractions.
When we begin to unclutter our lives we may find deeper movements stirring within us. Or we may not even notice these stirrings, they happen so gently. We are being led to the depths of simplicity, in which our spirit itself begins to simplify and unify. We are becoming more integrated as persons. Instead of acting with layer upon layer of defensiveness, superficial emotion, and self-deception, we become more direct, more focused upon the ‘one thing necessary’ – seeking God’s path, God’s way in our lives. We are blessed with the ability to let go of old hurts, angers, fears, doubts, and all sorts of lesser needs. We are becoming unified and integrated. This is the truest and deepest meaning of simplicity. It is a long journey to arrive at this, and it takes a lifetime! But we can always begin.
We can always begin – and begin again and again and again. We can gently work at this process throughout our lives. Yet we can only begin; it is the gift of the Spirit to empower us to arrive, even for a moment, here and there, sporadically at first, and then more and more as we continue to follow the path of simplicity. Remember that song? “Tis a gift to be simple….” We do our part, as best we can, imperfectly, occasionally. It is the gift of God to bring us to true simplicity.
As Advent arrives, let us all open ourselves to prepare for the arrival of the Lord by making a simple, uncluttered, open and welcoming home for him in our hearts.
Recent events in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and elsewhere, have inspired and exhilarated the entire world. What an amazing and transformative outpouring of courage, tenacity and hope we have all witnessed on our TV, computer and cell phone screens! What an example of heroism, persistence, and patience. What a remarkable and incredibly peaceful revolution we’ve seen.
It reminded me a bit of the movements of peaceful resistance embraced and led by Mahatma Gandhi and later by Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways of course it was not at all like Gandhi’s blueprint for peaceful resistance and revolution. The uprisings in the Middle East do not seem to be building on his understanding of non-violent resistance. Gandhi spoke of satyagraha, which involves much more than passive protest, and is based on a positive training in all forms of non-violence. Its underlying discipline in ahimsa “precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty and lying, all of which he (Gandhi) saw as manifestations of violence.”
To live in such a way is a tall order. To engage in civil resistance that conforms only to these principles is an even higher standard. Rare indeed are the souls who meet this measure!
And yet are not we as Christians called to live out of these principles of peace? Many would perhaps disagree, and yet Jesus himself went to his death peacefully, without any form of violent resistance. Among his last words were “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And among his first words are the beatitudes, the series of sayings in which he declares blessed those who the world normally scorns and derides: the meek, the powerless, the poor, the persecuted, the sorrowing, and very definitely, the peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”
Children of God! Children usually inherit some of their parents’ characteristics, and here Jesus is letting us know that God is a peacemaker. In the long history of Christianity, and the even longer history of God, war after war after war has been fought in God’s name. Violence upon violence, atrocity upon atrocity has been perpetrated, and so often in God’s name. Yet Jesus tells us that God is a peacemaker, and we are called to be the same.
As Gandhi and King knew well, to be a peacemaker is a very hard thing. We know it too, when we try to make peace.
How hard it is, even to make peace within ourselves! As I write, I think of all the warring elements within my own life, and how hard it is to reconcile them. Then I think of my community, my family, my friends, my church, my country…the list goes on, in ever widening circles. All of us, in one way or another, are at war. All of us have tendencies to react violently when we are frustrated by others, crossed by others, antagonized by others, hurt by others. We may know better than to attempt the violence of actions, but we surely all know the violence of words. We lash out at hard words, and return them with interest. Or we sit in sullen silence. Columba Stewart, writing on the Benedictine virtue of restraint of speech notes, “Language is a gift that can be used thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, humbly or proudly. How very, very hard it is to speak with restraint, with love and compassion, with sensitivity and respect. Yet all of these are elements of peacemaking.
To be a peacemaker, I must first be at peace. How to undertake this challenging, lifelong task? Some partial, provisional answers come to mind.
To be a peacemaker, I must be able to let go, I must be willing to be detached from all my wants and wishes, large and small. Sooner or later, someone will want the opposite, or someone will thwart what I want. To respond with peace, I need to hold all things and all desires very, very lightly.
To be a peacemaker, I must work at trusting God in all things. Without an active, living trust in God, my horizon is too small, my life centered only in myself, and I focus only on my own needs and wants, not those of others, or of the greater good.
To be a peacemaker, I must try to be fair. Remember that famous slogan, “if you want peace, work for justice.” Peace arises naturally out of well ordered living, and well ordered living can only come into being if there is basic justice and fairness for all.
To be a peacemaker, I must strive to live with attentive awareness of God’s living presence in my life. Only this continual contact with the Spirit within can so guide my life that I am moved to act out of peacefulness of heart, and to discern what is right in each situation.
Finally, to be a peacemaker, I must try to live like Jesus, who himself lived and died true to his beliefs and true to his call from God. In this time of Lent, perhaps we are called not only to fast from sweets or chips or alcohol. Perhaps we are called to fast from violence, and to practice the loving attitudes of peacemaking.