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.
As winter approaches, nights are longer and days are shorter, colder, and darker. In late October the leaves begin to fall. In the perennial border, leaves and stems begin to die back. The grass turns yellowish green before going brown and dead. Annual plants die completely. Winter is a stripped down time for trees and plants; a time of bareness, a lean time.
It is a lean time in our country and our world right now, and in our lives as well. Times are hard everywhere. Our lives and our world seem to be headed toward winter.
In the church it is a wintry season too. The abuse scandals that have rocked the church in America are now shaking Europe. Here in Maine, as elsewhere, dwindling numbers of priests mean fewer masses, churches merging, and even churches closing. Mass attendance is often down, people seem to drift away to other faiths, or to no faith at all. Even in the church, winter is approaching.
Yet winter in the natural world does not mean the end of life. While we need to be prepared for it, it is not in itself something to be feared and dreaded.
In the natural world of God’s creation, plants and trees simply let go of all that is unnecessary. Even as vegetation adapts to the changing seasons, so we too need to learn to adapt.
Through photosynthesis, leaves and green growing things are the source of all life on this planet. Yet when winter approaches, they change color, let go and die. Trees let go of those same leaves that once provided them with life in order to survive through the cold months ahead. Flowers and grasses die off, right down to the ground. But the roots are digging deep, alive and well underground, waiting for springtime’s sun and warmth to send up new growth.
Could there be a lesson for us here? Can we let go as the leaves do?
It is so hard for us to let go! It seems such a negative thing, such a hard thing. Yet if the trees didn’t let go of their leaves, they wouldn’t survive the winter. When we lived a bit farther north in Maine, we once had a few inches of snow early in October. Trees and branches, still in full leaf, came crashing down. They couldn’t carry the burden of snow on their leaves. As with the trees, so with us: letting go can be a positive thing, an important and necessary thing.
Letting go is sometimes known as renunciation. It has two different aspects, one positive and energetic, and the other more receptive. In the active mode, we work at the discipline of letting go. This can include the traditional ascetic discipline of fasting, a way of letting go of either quality or quantity in food.
But there are other, more subtle forms of letting go as well. For example, we might ask ourselves these questions:
Can we let go of our need to always be right?
Can we let go of our need to look good?
Can we let go of the way things always were, or the way we wish things were, and accept that which actually is?
Can we let go of our anger and impatience? Or our need to criticize? Even our need to criticize ourselves!
From a more positive perspective, we might ask ourselves, ‘Can we practice restraint?’
Can we restrain our anger, our criticism, our need to be right, or to look good, or to want things to be different? These are all vitally important but often overlooked practices of renunciation.
The other side of letting go is receptive rather than active. When things happen to us, especially change of any sort, are we able to roll with it? Can we allow changes to happen, especially changes over which we have no control. This is especially difficult when the changes happen to people or institutions that we love very much! Changes, for instance, in our schools or towns or churches. Here it is very important to differentiate between the superficial changes (such as the clustering of the churches) and the depths of our faith.
Sometimes there is not nearly as much change as we wish, and we need to let go of our need for greater, quicker, more profound change.
From either side of this issue, there is often a call to let go: of the old ways, or of our own personal vision of the future.
This leaves us with yet another very important question. We need to ask ourselves when it is right to let go, and when we should hold on. After all, the trees gracefully let go of their leaves in late autumn – but they hold on tight to trunks and branches and twigs! We need to let go when and as God wishes.
And here’s a final important point. We let go only when it is time. This is what happens in nature: the days shorten and grow colder, the light fails. All of this signals the leaves that it is time to go. So also in our lives. Sometimes we can’t let go until suddenly, finally, it is God’s time and we are released from whatever we have been holding so tightly.
As winter approaches, let us ask God to help us let go of all that binds us and of all that keeps us from God and from each other. With liberated hearts we can then enter into Advent and Christmas to give praise to the Christ child for his great and loving mercy. In spaciousness and freedom we can then embrace ourselves, one another, and all of creation with the blessed warmth of God’s own love.
I was raised Protestant, in the United Church of Christ, but in high school I met a teacher who lent me a biography of St. Teresa of Avila. It was love at first sight, and I knew what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” But it wasn’t that easy! Not only was I not Catholic, but I wasn’t at all sure I believed in God. It was several years later before I realized that it wasn’t a question of belief in an intellectual sense, but a relationship of trust and love to the God I so desperately needed.
It has been a long, meandering journey since then: into the Catholic Church, into contemplative life, into the hermit life and the Rule of St. Benedict, and finally here with Sr. Bernadette to begin Transfiguration Hermitage, where we live a contemplative life of prayer that contains elements of solitude as well as community. It has been a journey of growth; and growth is wonderful but it is sometimes difficult and always challenging. Along the way I have been blessed with friends I’d never dreamed of meeting, places I’d never dreamed of going, and found resources in myself and others that I never knew existed.
As with Abraham, God leads us beyond ourselves in a desert journey to a place “which he will show us.” There is no road map except our faith and our trust in the Spirit’s action in our lives. To walk in this journey is to learn that our strength comes from God, and not from ourselves. Yet to follow this journey is also to find our deepest self in God and along the way to be blessed with people, places, and experiences, and to be enriched beyond all that we could ever have dreamed.
RCIA is the reason why I am a contemplative nun.
When one is baptised as an adult, one cannot help but come to the realisation that one’s life has been very uneventful, and also of many previous unruly and false conceptions. Letting the Saviour into my life made for a complete turnover and drastic changes, changes sometimes difficult and having even unhappy consequences.
After my conversion, I would find a place in the parish church where I could sit for hours and talk to HIM about the past and how to improve the present. It was no easy task but I found myself drawn to prayer and silence and solitude. I found myself mellowing down, letting go the fears that overcame me at each phase of renewal, and finally took up the cross to follow HIM in contemplative life, where I am now at the Hermitage.
Yes, I did mention some changes with unhappy consequences. I come from Singapore, and leaving my family (brothers and sisters and new born nieces and nephews behind, which was difficult) and the final stage when I gave up my citizenship of my beloved country. I felt myself orphaned, cut-off. It was one hurdle which I didn’t want to jump over but for HIM who constantly shows his countenance and showers me with his gazes and love in the Psalms, readings, Mass, prayer, silence and finally through the loving friends and supporters of our life and ministry.
Life as a religious is not a bed of roses and sweet cream frosting, but a mixture of ups and downs; groaning and grumbling, anger and fear – and also surrendering and peace, unity and love, prayer, work and play and most importantly the fact that we are not alone – HE is with us!