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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.

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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.

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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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Easter of Light… and Darkness

“We love to think of Easter as the feast of dazzling light. We get up on Easter Sunday morning knowing that the sorrow of Good Friday is finally ended… that Jesus is vindicated, that the faith of the disciples is confirmed for all to see, and that everyone lived happily ever after. We love fairy tales. Unfortunately, Easter is not one of them.” (Joan Chittister)

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During the Holy Triduum, we remember the events leading up to Easter. Each Holy Day is significant to the fullness of Jesus’ story—his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ life was full of joy—learning, teaching, helping others, growing in his authentic identity, and embracing his essence—but, also, as the Gospel of John poignantly states, “Jesus wept.” Even Jesus could not escape his own suffering—the death of a friend, concern for political and religious corruption, the betrayal of his disciples, his own physical persecution, and, finally, his fear of abandonment, that he had been forgotten by God and everyone. No doubt about it, Jesus experienced both joy and suffering.

Jesus’ life is an archetype for our own spiritual journey. There is nothing that happens in our lives that Jesus didn’t also experience. When we live out our own Good Fridays, mini-deaths that bring us face to face with darkness, we know we are not alone. We may feel betrayed by loved ones, blamed for problems we didn’t create, forsaken by those we trust. We grieve the loss of loved ones and lament our own mistakes. We are depressed or sad.

Our Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, enduring or resting, perhaps a respite from problems, a time when we can separate from our pain for moments, even days at a time. In the tomb, we wait for healing. Perhaps, we allow others to mourn with us and wait with us in hope. Our waiting is a gray space of in-between.

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This darkness is not what we want—and anytime we experience something unwanted, or conversely don’t get what we do want, we live in some shade of darkness. Truth be told, we simply want peace and joy. We don’t want to be patient, to feel bad, to hurt. There are times when we cling to the darkness and choose to stay in a place of suffering, but we can both honor the darkness while looking towards a glimmer of light, to Easter. Continue reading “Easter of Light… and Darkness”

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.

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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

 

You Will Be With Me Wherever I Go

“Wherever you send me
There will I find you
Wherever you lead me
There will I go
Into all nations
All situations
You will be with me wherever I go.”
-Patrick on the Water, Garrison Doles

I stumbled upon a special song today called “Patrick on the Water”. The writer, Garrison Doles, was inspired by the life of St. Patrick—born in Britain, kidnapped by raiders, and enslaved in Ireland. Years later, after escaping, he felt called by the land where he had been held captive to travel back. The song tells this story while incorporating “The Deer’s Cry” or “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a prayer attributed to St. Patrick.

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What does it mean to follow God’s call wherever it may lead, “into all nations/all situations”? How can I trust that God “will be with me wherever I go”? Continue reading “You Will Be With Me Wherever I Go”

Stability and Wintry Weather

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Winter weather gives us the opportunity to practice stability. The Benedictine vow of stability provides for our need to be rooted in Christ, to be grounded in the present moment, and practicing gratitude regardless of our circumstances and of the uncertain future.

Seasons come and go, “but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) We learn from the seasons that they, as all things do, indeed, pass. The icy, chilly weather prevents us from traveling too swiftly; there is something to learn from this staying put. This paradox, that we must stay grounded while the seasons change, encourages us to move a little slower and to learn from the present moment.

The cold and icy weather give us no choice but to stay put. Perhaps when we are going through “icy” relationships or experiences, we can apply the Benedictine principle of stability as well.  Continue reading “Stability and Wintry Weather”

Lord, You Know Me: Friendships and Loneliness

A new blog post from Fr. Mauritius Wilde, Prior of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, that honors both friendship, which God touches, and loneliness, which can only be filled with God. It captures the essence of the book Anam Cara, by John O’Donohue, which I treasure. He writes, “You should never belong to something that is outside yourself…(it is) important to find a balance in your belonging.” Read the rest of Fr. Mauritius’ blog HERE.

He refers to the friendship of God, who is with us from the beginning as our “secret companion”, our truest friend. Christ is our true companion, nearer to us than any other. There is a danger to become too attached to our friendships, but we must not forget the Source of all friendships, our friendship in Christ. It is too easy to forget that God is our great love, our best friend.

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Lord, You Know Me

It is wonderful to have a friend who knows you well, with whom you have walked for many years. With whom you can share everything; who knows your story. With whom a conversation does not start at zero, you can just jump into it. To have a person who understands and who knows you, is a great gift of God.

However, sometimes not even a friend can reach my heart. This is an odd experience. Sometimes we are just left with ourselves, left alone. We cannot find a partner that adequately responds to our feelings, our story, our thoughts, situation or needs. But these moments that can be filled with darkness and sadness can also turn into a very precious experience. The situation breaks us open to realize that our loneliness is not an accident, but the reflection of our deepest call as human beings that goes beyond what another human being can grasp or understand. We realize that our loneliness touches the dimension of God; it is a result of the fact that we are immediate to God. This is the monk’s moment. The term monk stems from the Greek word “monachos” which means “single, solitary”.

Through God’s grace, we are able in these moments of aloneness to talk to Christ or to God and find his ear. And his response is always exactly what we need. We realize: HE understands, HE knows. His presence resonates with everything I utter and express. I feel understood, appreciated, loved. I feel liked by him as by a good friend. But even better, and in a perfect way. Nothing is missing.  Read more at WildeMonk. 

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The Lord is Our Shepherd: New Meaning, Ancient Words

May 2017 Oblate Reflections and Lectio Divina

Topic:  Psalm 23, God is Our Shepherd and Guide

Psalm 23 is the most commonly known Psalm—simple, familiar and full of richness. In lectio divina we ask, “What does this Psalm mean for me?”  We dwell in the words to make personal the promises of God to the people of Israel–promises of renewal, healing, peace, protection, encouragement, and guidance.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

After reading through the text together and then quietly, we share the words and phrases that come to mind. These words should ultimately lead to personal prayer.

Psalm 23 lectio

Oblates share the words that have settled on their hearts, continuing to listen deeply to what God is saying.

“I remind myself every morning that no matter what the day may bring, I gather strength from God. If I forget this, then other thoughts come into my mind and the day doesn’t go very well.”

“I realize that I lack nothing.  When I pray the “Our Father”, I am praying for my daily bread, not for yesterday or for tomorrow or when I retire, but for my daily bread.  When I realize I lack for nothing in this present moment, my cup overflows. Even when it’s cold, rainy, dreary, or my coworkers are a pain, my cup still overflows. I need to remember the gifts rather than the stuff going on around me.”

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“It can be comforting to substitute the name of a loved one who has died when reading Psalm 23. The Lord is John’s shepherd, He shall not want. He makes John lie down in green pastures; he leads him beside still waters; he restores his soul.

“In grief and hard times, we can believe that our happiness will return soon and our spirit will be renewed. If you substitute happiness for spirit, the Psalm can read as prayer and affirmation. Lord, renew my spirit.” Continue reading “The Lord is Our Shepherd: New Meaning, Ancient Words”

Earthquake and Easter go together

Homily for the Easter Vigil 2017 at Christ the King Priory/St. Benedict Center, Prior Fr. Joel Macul OSB

Vigil readings: Gn 1:–2:2 • Gn 22:1–18 • Ex 14:15–15:1 • Is 54:5–14 • Is 55:1–11 • Bar 3:9–15 • Ez 36:16–28 • Rom 6:3–11 • Mt 28:1–10

Earthquake! Earthquake and Easter go together today. Most of us could probably use a little earthquake right now to wake us up and get our attention. We have been sitting and listening for a long time. ….God is so full of surprises. Dawn comes, a new day and Fr. Joel Macul, O.S.B.what do we feel? An earthquake. Everything is splitting open, the old is collapsing, and the new is stepping out. The sound of the earthquake and stones rolling away, that is the announcement of Easter this year. But it is a new day, a new creation, the old has passed. After the earthquake, we cannot go back. Life is not the same, for Jesus, for the women, for disciples. Dare I say, for us also?

The readings we have just heard are like photos in a family or community album. Each year on this night we gather to sit down and look at these pictures. We gather here to listen to the stories and poems about God’s ways in our faith community’s story. We sit and listen to the stories and words of the prophets and apostles. Every time we look at a family or community photo album, the pictures remind someone of another story, of another member of the family and community. Sometimes the stories are the same, sometimes they are not. A new memory is added. It is like that with the words and rituals of this Easter Vigil. Each year the same words are read but each year they sound new and different. Something in them is heard for the first time. Why? Because each year we have grown and experienced another piece of life since the hearing last Easter. This year a particular word hits us; it makes sense, more sense than ever before. God is penetrating into our hearts ever more deeply. Each year we hear these words and each year we become these words more and more. Or so we hope.

Continue reading “Earthquake and Easter go together”

Frost and chill, bless the Lord ~Daniel 3:69

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Today I enjoyed the stability of an icy day. The Benedictine vow of stability provides for our need to be rooted in Christ, to be grounded in the present moment, and practicing gratitude regardless of our circumstances and of the uncertain future.  Seasons come and go, “but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) We learn from the seasons that they and all things do, indeed, pass. The icy, chilly weather prevents us from traveling too swiftly; there is something to learn from this staying put. This paradox, that we must stay grounded during the changing seasons, encourages us to move a little slower and to learn from the present moment. The icy weather gives us no choice but to stay put. Perhaps when we are going through “icy” relationships or experiences, we can apply the Benedictine principle of stability.  Continue reading “Frost and chill, bless the Lord ~Daniel 3:69”

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