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Holy Darkness: An Advent Meditation

As a child, the Advent season was musically frustrating for me. With so many beautiful Christmas carols and hymns, I just could not fathom any reason why Catholics must wait until Christmas Eve to sing them. Every department store was playing Christmas songs. Television stations were showing Christmas movies and special programs.

Why wait?  

I prefer not to wait in many situations. For example, I would rather get to the destination of a planned vacation immediately than endure the hours it takes to drive or make the airline transfers needed to get there. I much preferred nursing my infant daughter, playing with her and watching her sleep to the nine months of back-aching pregnancy. When I want to write or create, I often need to wait for the inspiration to strike. Waiting can be an inconvenience, even excruciating, but there is no denying that we must wait for many good things in life.

I understand now why we wait to sing Christmas carols.  We are meant to recognize and practice waiting because, well, life is full of it. Advent teaches us that it is okay not to always get what we want or to get it immediately. Likely God has something for us to learn in the waiting. 

The origins of the word “advent” indicate that there is an impending arrival—that something or someone is to come.

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We could make a meditation of the origin and synonyms of Advent—

Christ is coming.

Christ emerges.

Christ makes an appearance.

We experience an occurrence of Christ.

Jesus Christ is born.

Christ will rise.

During Advent, we practice waiting in darkness for the light of Christmas Day. As we journey through the weeks, we circle around the Advent wreath lighting a new candle each week. Each candle is a reminder that we are getting closer,  that our waiting will end, that what we are waiting for will, indeed, come.

desire for christ

The Advent wreath symbolizes the coming of the birth of Jesus, the light of Christmas drawing near and the anticipation of the Christ-light breaking into our life and world. With each passing week, the candle represents our hope that light will dispel the darkness. So it is with our own becoming. We circle around the same issues, questions and problems in our lives, struggling with the dark and light within us and around us. And we pray that God breaks in, that the light will prevail. We wait in faith. We wait with hope.

Advent is the hope-filled longing for our Creator to be incarnated in the most perfect way. Advent embodies the concept of “vorfreude”, a German word meaning “anticipatory joy.” It captures that bursting-with-excitement, overflowing-with-enthusiasm, I-can-hardly-wait feeling. The Germans have a saying, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude!” which means “The greatest joy lies in the anticipation.” This is exactly how a child might look forward to Christmas Day—the waiting is both suspenseful and exciting.

But waiting is not always filled with “vorfreude.” Sometimes we wait in darkness—wondering when it will be over, worrying that it may never be or, even, giving up hope. It is the ritual of the Advent wreath that reminds us that darkness has an end. As we light the candles of the Advent we make our way around the circle, knowing that there is completion, that there is fullness in Christ. Advent is about hope even in the darkness.

darkness

A waiting person is a patient person. The word “patience” means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere….Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb.  Henri Nouwen, Eternal Seasons

Consider practicing lectio divina with the song “Holy Darkness”, composed by Dan Schutte (1988), inspired by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and sung by Susay Valdez. Meditate on the lyrics while listening. Allow the questions for reflection to guide your journaling or creativity.

“In the barren soil of your loneliness, there I will plant my seed.” 

“When the silence stills your spirit, will my riches fill your soul.”

“Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight. As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.”

  1. Holy Darkness is often a song at funerals. It speaks of desolation, grief, darkness. What needs to die in your life? What needs to be grieved?
  2. What is growing within you? What seed planted within is growing despite your affliction, grief or loneliness? How do you know God is still there in the darkness?
  3. What images in nature give you the blessed assurance of God?
  4. What do you consider God’s wealth or riches? What do you want you soul filled with?
  5. What image comes to mind when you consider resting in God, waiting during the darkness for the light to come?
  6. Read and reflect on other posts about darkness.

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Listen to Holy Darkness 

“When we come to understand that everything in our world, including its darker aspects, derives from God, we begin to realize that much of what we perceive as “bad” is, from the divine perspective, simply another piece of the sacred whole…that which appears as darkness to us may very well be the beacon to our redemption.” -Niles Elliot Goldstein, God at the Edge

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Thanksgiving: A Ritual of Gratitude

Preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday can be a sacred ritual. Weeks in advance several family members begin planning the menu for our Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, there is little variation from year to year—turkey, dressing, dumplings, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, pies, dinner rolls, and so on—but an afternoon of list-making, guest-counting, and recipe-searching ensues. Some years, even a second planning session is required—to count plates and chairs, to create a map of the food line, or to scour advertisements for butter sales. The planning sessions have become part of the practice of Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving planning sessions and meals that immediately followed the passing of each of Joe’s parents was bittersweet. We missed their presence. But the ritual itself, while grounding us in the present, was a reminder to be grateful even in our sadness and grief.

gratitude soul

History tells us that the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, commemorates the gratitude Pilgrims had for a bountiful harvest. This is a simplistic, and perhaps, mythical snapshot, but it is where the ritual begins for Americans.  Thanksgiving is celebrated in many other countries as well for a variety of historical, religious and secular reasons. Primarily Thanksgiving is about just that—giving thanks. Thanksgiving is a ritual of planning and remembering to be grateful—even in times of division and darkness.

Thanksgiving, as a legally observed holiday in the United States, was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale (October 24, 1788 – April 30, 1879), an American writer and author of the infamous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb“. Sarah, fortunate that her parents believed in education for girls, was home-schooled and eventually became a teacher herself and, later, an advocate of higher education and workplace rights for women. When Sarah was 34 years old, her husband died of a stroke—her oldest child was 7 and the youngest was born two weeks after her husband’s death.

It’s hard to imagine the sadness, grief and dark days that Sarah Josepha Hale endured. And, yet, Sarah believed in Thanksgiving. She wrote: “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature…because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.”

Sarah wrote many letters, working tirelessly over three decades, to convince American presidents, from Taylor to Lincoln, to acknowledge Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She was adamantly opposed to slavery, yet desperately desired a healing between the north and the south. She wrote, “We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law?”

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Letter to Abraham Lincoln; Sarah Josepha Hale

Finally Abraham Lincoln, with the turmoil of the Civil War in mind, agreed to make Thanksgiving a holiday that both the north and south would celebrate, hoping to unify a deeply divided country. It was in the darkest days that gratitude was encouraged.

Thanksgiving isn’t just one day. Thanksgiving is a practice. It is a plan to be grateful. It is gratitude rather than grumbling. “Do not grumble or speak ill of others. Place your hope in God alone.”- Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 4:39-41

Thanksgiving is a reminder that we can, and must, practice gratitude even in the darkest of days—in the midst of a deeply divided nation, in the woundedness of a broken heart, in the storms of a conflicted relationship.

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Our Thanksgiving table may not have the same faces around it that have always been there, but it is possible to hold those loved ones who have passed on, or moved on, in our hearts. May you have a Thanksgiving day of gratitude, a day to remember that there is room at the table, or in your heart, for everyone.

Carrie Newcomer, Room at the Table—

Let our hearts not be hardened to those living on the margin
There is room at the table for everyone
This is where it all begins, this is how we gather in
There is room at the table for everyone

Too long we have wandered, burdened and undone
But there is room at the table for everyone
Let us sing the new world in, this is how is all begins
There is room at the table for everyone

There is room for us all
And no gift is too small
There is room at the table for everyone
There’s enough if we share
Come on pull up a chair
There room at the table for everyone

Norwood, Arlisha. “Sarah Hale.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2017. Date accessed.

Baker, Peggy M. “THE GODMOTHER OF THANKSGIVING: the story of Sarah Josepha Hale” Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum 2007.

Maranzani, Barbara. “Abraham Lincoln and the “Mother of Thanksgiving”, October 3, 2013.

Flood the World with Love

Weekend mornings are made for slowing down—for sipping coffee crowned in frothy milk, catching up on reading, and listening to some of my favorite music. This morning my meditation consisted of listening countless times to “I Heard an Owl” by Carrie Newcomer, much-loved folk singer and spiritual teacher, and accidentally reading 1 Corinthians 13:4-6.

Both song and scripture are a meditation of love, peace and courage—and a good reminder of how to be a living light in the world. As the antidote to confusion, fear, hatred, and darkness, we must flood the world with love.

flood the world with love

I practice lectio divina, contemplating the words of the song—

I heard an owl call last night
Homeless and confused
I stood naked and bewildered
By the evil people do

Up upon a hill there is a terrible sign
That tells the story of what darkness waits
When we leave the light behind.

Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
Those are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.

I am a voice calling out
Across the great divide
I am only one person
That feels they have to try
The questions fall like trees or dust
Rise like prayers above
But the only word is “Courage”
And the only answer “Love”

Light every candle that you can
For we need some light to see
In the face of deepest loss,
Treat each other tenderly
The arms of God will gather in
Every sparrow that falls
And makes no separation
Just fiercely loves us all.

(Carrie Newcomer, The Gathering of Spirits, 2001)

My heart is heavy with the darkness of the world, of “the evil people do” in the name of our own opinion, religion, political party, racial or economic privilege. Our collective anxiety, fear, anger, and hostility have led to so much division and violence—in our spirits and in relationships. We experience discriminating language and behavior; we watch public opinion, policy, and executive orders further victimize our most vulnerable; and we witness “the face of deepest loss” in the profound suffering and death of those close to us and in one tragedy after another. I stand confused and bewildered by what we say and do to each other—“The whole world weeps and is weeping still.”

I read, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” 

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Have I chosen love? I admit I can be impatient. I have been unkind, rude and short-tempered. I much prefer to have my own way and can be irritable and resentful when that doesn’t happen. Sometimes I choose darkness, not light. Lately, I have let disappointment and anger overcome me, rather than practicing or resting in love. Surely, “darkness waits” if I fail to practice keeping the light in front of me, if I “leave the light behind.” Choosing love and light must be an intentional decision, a part of my spiritual practice, even when it isn’t easy.

The only peace this world will know can only come from love.” I’m beginning to believe that love is the antidote for all that ails us (perhaps, I’m catching up with what all the great spiritual traditions teach), that only love can bring us peace. With so much darkness, “the best of what we all can be” is to flood the world with love.

love newcomer

I read about the Jewish trauma nurse, Ari Mahler, RN, treating the suspect who killed eleven worshippers in the Tree of Life massacre, who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the hospital. People wonder about how he could have treated this man. He writes, “Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish (to) instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

Yes, love means everything. In my deepest self, I want to flood the world with love, to “fiercely love,” to build others up, to “treat each other tenderly,” to ease another’s suffering, to remind others of their divine spark, to err on the side of compassion. I want to be a light in this world. We are creators, too—with our thoughts, actions, and energy. We can either live in love or live in fear. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” 

peace st. ben

St. Benedict instructs, “Let peace be your quest and aim.” (RB, Prologue 18) We cannot accept hate as the new normal. It can feel overwhelming at times—“I am only one person,” but we must, at least, try. We must “light every candle” that we can. I draw strength and courage from Mahler and so many who face unfathomable suffering and pain at the hands of hatred, and yet choose love. Ann Frank writes, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define darkness.” We must call upon our inner light to defy, not define, the darkness.

The only word is “Courage”/ And the only answer “Love.” I cannot deny my feelings—hurt, disappointment, anger—or my beliefs, or my opinions about the wounds of the world, but I place alongside these feelings, hope. I pray for the courage to bring more light and less darkness in the world. And as I wait for the ultimate display of love that “The arms of God will gather in / Every sparrow that falls / And makes no separation / Just fiercely loves us all”,  I choose, in all my imperfection, to flood the world with love.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Light and Rumi

 

The Future Is The Spirit’s Work

Benedictine Oblates have a commitment to a specific monastery to live out their spirituality in the world according to the Rule of St. Benedict. But what is the future of Benedictine monasticism?  As monastic vocations decrease, monasteries have been forced to consider their future, either merging with other monasteries or closing altogether. How might Oblates respond to this uncertain future?

future of the order.jpg

Sister Joan Chittister addressed this theme at the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates in Rome in November 2017. She asks, “The question of the day is a simple one but potentially life-changing one: the question is why would anyone even bother to get attached to a Benedictine monastery?”

Fr. Joel Macul, Prior of Christ the King Priory, also addressed the future of Benedictine Oblates at the Benedictine Oblates Regional Conference at St. Benedict Center held in September 2018.

He begins: “We can ask ourselves why we are raising this question or topic in the first place. What prompts us to raise it? It is certainly not because the Oblate community is diminishing! Is it because the some of the communities to which Oblates belong are diminishing and Oblates might be left high and dry? Or perhaps it is a concern about Oblate communities in lands where Benedictine life is new, communities are young and the Oblate experience has no precedence? Or is there something about our culture, our American culture that makes the question of the future so important?

Joels message spirit.JPG

While I do not consider myself a prophet in the sense of predicting a future for Benedictine life let alone Oblate life, I can fall back on the Prophet Joel.  The best future I can invite you to consider is to listen to the word of God through the prophet Joel who simply says: “It shall come to pass (code words for the future) I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…” It is clear enough. The future lies with the Spirit and our willingness and readiness to recognize its presence. According to the prophet, old and young, sons and daughters, male and female, servants and slaves will receive this gift of the spirit. The Spirit is God’s future or plan. When we can trust that Spirit, we are standing in God. And being in God is the future for ourselves, as well as humanity and our created world. If we co-opt God’s Spirit or start writing God’s plan, then theologically, we have no future. Any threads of the future will have to have the deep and inexhaustible richness of color of the Spirit. The future of anything Christian, including the Benedictine monastic way, lies with the Spirit. It is assumed that the Benedictine way is itself a gift of the Spirit and so holds within it the Spirit’s creative power. Continue reading “The Future Is The Spirit’s Work”

Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?

Where were you when the world stopped turnin’
That September day?­
Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
Or drivin’ on some cold interstate?

We remember when the world stopped turning because, for most of us, it felt as if it did. Time stood still. We remember where we were, who we were with, and how we felt. And, since then, we feel compelled to share our experience with others. I don’t think it’s about reliving tragedy, working through stages of grief or some kind of talk therapy, I think it’s more about remembering the connectedness we felt with the people we were with. We felt something together, a soul experience that goes beyond words—perhaps fear and despair, likely sadness and shock, but also a collective yearning for faith, hope, and love.

faith hope and love

Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
As a high school teacher, I sometimes forget that my students are really children, but there was never a day when I felt that more than September 11, 2001. Together, we witnessed the second hijacked airplane fly into the World Trade Center, watching both buildings crumble to the ground. The day the world stopped turning, I was profoundly aware that I was the adult and responsible for the children in my classroom. I felt an obligation to hold it together, to remain calm, to comfort, to help them process difficult feelings and to find a reflective, intelligent way to answer their questions with as much of a knowing “I don’t know” that I could muster. Continue reading “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?”

You Say I am Loved and That Is Enough

A few years ago, in an attempt to downsize and declutter, I attacked the hundreds of books I own with an attitude of discernment. Where should this book reside? Where would it’s best home be? Shall I keep it to read again or send it along to be enjoyed by another?

I was particularly torn about one book, Made for Goodness by Desmond Tutu. It was a book my Circle had read and discussed together. When I thumbed through the book,  I decided to take a few photos of the pages that had truly made an impression on me and send the book on to where it could be loved by another.

Recently, I came across the photos from this book, a poem written by Tutu for his daughter as seen through the eyes of God. I immediately thought of a friend who could use the comfort and encouragement of this message and started drafting an email to forward the image.

After reading the poem, I thought, “This is such a comforting message. I wish every child, every person, knew how loved and special they are; that they need not be so hard on themselves.” After reading the poem a number of times, it finally hit me that this message was meant for me too. Continue reading “You Say I am Loved and That Is Enough”

Benediction of the Trees

Profoundly impacted by the lyrics and vocals of “Benediction of the Trees”,  written and performed by Derek Dibbern, I share his music and also images of trees I’ve taken through the years in different seasons and from various states and countries.

cali

Derek and I met at St. Benedict Center several years ago and our paths continue to cross–we’ve been in the same space for Zen meditation, Catholic Mass, my school classroom, as well as local bars and coffee shops where he has performed. Deeply spiritual and always seeking, Derek is a student of inspirational and recreational tree climbing at Tree Climbing Planet in Oregon. He dedicates the song to his teacher, Tim Kovar, and “the many woodland creatures that have held us aloft in our arboreal adventures.”

This song is a prayer. It is recognition that Nature blesses us with trees for our healing, enjoyment, leisure, and protection. Our very breath is dependent on the Benediction of the Trees.

Benediction of the Trees

Continue reading “Benediction of the Trees”

Foolish Fears of The Night Before The First Day of School

It’s the night before the first day of school and it is debatable who might be more nervous—my freshman students beginning their high school experience tomorrow or me, a 21-year veteran teacher.

I love starting a school year for lots of reasons—“Every day is an opportunity to embrace “newness”—new technology, new family and social dynamics, new attitudes, new behaviors, new teaching strategies, new curriculum. I am a teacher with experience, and yet I still have so much to learn. I dance between both realms.” (excerpt from “Why I Teach”)

SoulFul Teaching
SoulCollage® card: My vision of what teaching would be like, in my idealistic naiveté, is represented by the black and white, old-fashioned image—students with smiles on their faces, eagerly waiting to learn; happy, compliant, and respectful, mesmerized by every word I said.
The reality is that teaching is a more “colorful” role than I had expected.

It’s the “so much to learn” part that makes me anxious. Each school year, there is the nervousness that goes with meeting new students. But this school year, I move into a new classroom with brand-spanking new computers to teach a new Digital Design class. I will need to learn Adobe software programs throughout the semester, often just a day or two before I teach my students. I am also cooperating with a new student teacher as she begins a career in education.

“Embracing newness” feels a little scary right now and, truth be told, I’m afraid that I won’t be able to answer student questions, that there will be problems I cannot solve, that I won’t be knowledgeable enough, that I won’t look and feel like a good teacher. Continue reading “Foolish Fears of The Night Before The First Day of School”

2019 Benedictine Pilgrimage Opportunity: Germany, Austria and Switzerland!

WHAT: 2019 Benedictine Pilgrimage with Fr. Volker Futter and Benedictine Oblates of Christ the King Priory

WHO: Open to Oblates, Friends of St. Benedict Center, Anyone! Feel free to share this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with your friends and family!

WHERE: GERMANY, AUSTRIA AND SWITZERLAND including Münsterschwarzach, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Chiemsee, Stams, Einsiedeln, Lake Constance, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Rüdesheim, Cologne, Neuss, Düsseldorf, and more.

DATE: June 16– July 1, 2019

COST: $4989 per person, double occupancy, (single supplement: $400.00) Required deposit: $500  See brochure for more info.

Footsteps of St Benedict and Scholastica pilgrimage 2019

Continue reading “2019 Benedictine Pilgrimage Opportunity: Germany, Austria and Switzerland!”

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