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.