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Being Benedictine

Living the Rule of St. Benedict in Daily Life

Author

Jodi Blazek Gehr

SoulCollage® Facilitator, Benedictine Oblate of Christ the King Priory, Retreat Leader at St. Benedict Center, Blogger at Being Benedictine and SoulFully You, Teacher, Mother, Wife, Friend, Lover of learning, reading, creativity and spirituality.

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe is a ten-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and concludes with the observance of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). I learned about this Jewish tradition that dates back to the third century BCE from my sister-in-law, Rachel Pred Gehr.

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Rachel and me, grateful we both married into the Gehr family.

Rachel wrote about celebrating Rosh Hashanah several years ago on her blog, and it continues to make an impression on my own spirituality (I thought she wrote it just last year—lol, time flies.) I was touched by the ritual of “tashlich” that she described—“the congregation gathers at the creek for a ritual of tossing our sins into the moving stream, signaling a fresh start to the new year.”

She quotes,The custom of going to a body of water on Rosh Hashanah is a symbolic allusion, for the waters which now seem to be at this place were not here before and will not remain afterward. So, if the sinner says to himself or herself: “I will not repeat my sin; my behavior will change”, the sin, like the waters, will move on.” (A Feminist Tashlich, Rachel KastenOur sins are washed away….sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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Torah at Temple Israel

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Most of what I know about the Jewish faith I learned in patchwork fashion—from a few friends, “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith and Google. In elementary school, I had a friend who invited me to her Bat Mitzvah, a ceremony she explained as similar to Confirmation in the Christian church. But it seemed a lot different to this 12-year-old Catholic girl—it spanned two days, a lot of prayers that I didn’t understand, the carrying of a large package through the sanctuary and ending at a party with the fanciest finger food I’d ever eaten.

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I am grateful for that early introduction, though, even if I didn’t understand much. It provided me with a foundation of acceptance and a desire to learn more about all faiths…and a realization that wisdom and truth are found in all faith traditions.

Recently my Spirit Circle and I had the opportunity to visit the Tri-Faith Initiative, a sacred space that brings together a synagogue, church, mosque, and interfaith center on one 38-acre campus in Omaha. The Tri-Faith Initiative started over 20 years ago with a vision to encourage relationships in the three Abrahamic faith groups—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. But it is just in the last year that Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church (UCC), and The American Muslim Institute, opened their new buildings, all connected by bridges and within view of each other.

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A view of the temple from the mosque.
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Temple Israel as seen from the mosque.

It was a profound experience to see all of the prayer centers, but I was most impacted by the temple. Since childhood, I have had a chance to experience and learn more about Judaism. The Bat and Bar Mitzvahs of my niece and nephew, Alice and Mike, were special religious experiences that go beyond the boundaries of the faith I grew up in. Perhaps my fascination with Jewish tradition is because it feels new(ish) to me, but I find it peculiar that Christianity, a religion rooted in Judaism, doesn’t continue to celebrate many Jewish rituals and holidays including The Days of Awe. For 2400 years, Jewish people, likely Jesus too,  have reflected on their past year and repented for their sins with a spirit of beginning again.

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Rachel continues in her post, “And with the new year comes reflection on the past year, and commitments to improve ourselves and the community and the ripple effect continues…whether you celebrate Rosh Hashanah or not – a year can start any time.”

The essence of making resolutions at the new year, whether one follows the Gregorian or Jewish calendar, is that we desperately seek the chance to “do-over.” Celebrating the beginning of a new year is a reminder of our opportunity to “always begin again”—the embodiment of Being Benedictine. It’s not as simple as a “do-over” but Rosh Hashanah or New Year’s Day gives us a definitive time and space to honor our deepest longing to begin again. As St. Benedict proclaimed, “Always we begin again.”

These next days, no matter your faith tradition, can be a time for reflecting on the past, making amends and setting intentions for a hopeful future.

These next days, I shall get me to a river, practice some forgiveness of self and others….and begin again.

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Countryside Community Church
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The American Muslim Institute as seen from Temple Israel 

A lovely prayer to use for washing those “sins” away:

Here I am again
ready to let go of my mistakes.
Help me to release myself
from all the ways I’ve missed the mark.
Help me to stop carrying
the karmic baggage of my poor choices.
As I cast this bread upon the waters
lift my troubles off my shoulders.
Help me to know that last year is over,
washed away like crumbs in the current.
Open my heart to blessing and gratitude.
Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses.
– Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

See Rachel’s full post here. And another one about “tashlich” here.

A few of my posts on beginning again—
Begin Again: New and Improved!
Always, we begin again.

All photos taken at Tri-Faith Initiative. always we begin

Hospitality: Welcoming the Stranger

Hospitality is the foundation of Benedictine spirituality. St. Benedict insisted that hospitality be one of the highest values for monasteries, writing:

“Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ.”

Rule of St. Benedict 53:1

The “guest” may be a stranger, a friend in the making, those in our community who are marginalized, or our closest friends and family. Hospitality includes being truly present to others, becoming aware of their needs and challenges, and respectfully responding to them as much as one is able. For those close to us, we must welcome each other over and again, forgiving each other as we grow together or apart, giving each other grace and space as we become.

Recent news has caused me to reflect on how essential extending hospitality is to the health of our spirit and to the soul of organizations, communities, states, and countries; to consider how I have given and received hospitality, and how it has been withheld by myself or others.

Inadvertently or intentionally, we often do not extend welcome to others. We are human—busy, thoughtless, unaware—this is forgivable, but what we have witnessed—immigrants being lured to an undisclosed location with the promise of shelter and work—goes beyond withholding hospitality.

Diana Butler Bass writes about Radical Hospitality in her Cottage Sunday Musings, with commentary on the appalling news of “immigrants being lured from a shelter in San Antonio by the governor of Florida and shipped off to Massachusetts as a kind of political stunt is a profoundly cruel use of distressed people for political purposes. And the mirth and amusement that this episode inspired among self-declared “Christian” politicians has been nauseating… A church on Martha’s Vineyard sheltered unexpected arrivals, “angels unaware,” as guests worthy of dignified treatment, is a testimony to goodness and generosity, a vision of the world as God intends it to be — practicing hospitality toward strangers.”

I encourage you to read her letter which includes an excerpt adapted from her book, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (2004).

She “makes the point that NO ONE can call themselves Christian unless they practice hospitality to strangers…Would that every faith community was like a swarm of bees, running out to meet the displaced, the lost, and the unexpected strangers with the same delight, zeal, and alacrity as the earliest Christians. Theologian Letty Russell once noted, “The word for hospitality in the Greek New Testament is philoxenia, love of the stranger. Its opposite is xenophobia, hatred of the stranger.” Philoxenia turns strangers into friends.

What a difference philoxenia would make a difference in our world — and in our politics — right now.

I also offer excerpts and links to other reflections I have written on hospitality:

Continue reading “Hospitality: Welcoming the Stranger”

Mindfulness and a Blue Heron

What is good medication for this time of conflict and anxiety? This question was posed by Fr. Mauritius Wilde, OSB, Ph.D. at a retreat he led called “Sober and Merciful: St. Benedict’s Journey of Mindfulness.”

Fr. Mauritius suggests we can learn how to approach the tensions in our lives and the conflicts in our family, community, and world by looking at the recommendations for selecting a leader of a monastic community in The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64.  This chapter suggests that good leadership requires living the values of sound judgment, wisdom in teaching, pure motives, moderation, prudence, loving behavior, discernment, and as the retreat title suggests, soberness and mercy, among others.

Leadership starts with leading oneself. Cultivating the values of being sober and merciful can help us be our better selves in tough times. So often we want to escape or numb ourselves to any pain we may feel—to simply run away from our feelings, people, or situations. At other times we might become overwhelmed by distress or completely absorbed by worries. Neither of these approaches is effective to deal with conflict and anxiety but practicing soberness can provide a middle way—a more balanced, Benedictine way to help us accept our reality as it is, yet not becoming attached to it.

To be sober (Latin: sobrium) is to have an attitude of acceptance, to be temperate, and to take people, things, and activities just as they are. We can become “drunk with anxieties” of daily life, but as one who can compulsively think, ponder, wonder and what-if, this tendency can block one from seeing the truth of the way things truly are. It’s as if an alternate reality is created, one that takes us far away from the present moment.

Emotions can make us drunk; they can completely absorb us. Being sober and vigilant (1 Peter 5:8) is the absence of being drunk on emotion or being overcome with anxiety. By practicing mindfulness, we learn soberness tastes better—the purity and truth of circumstances are clear. One begins to sense when something is just too much—emotions, noise, activity, food, or drink—and is more able to set boundaries for what disturbs. Wanting more of this sobriety is craving what is real—the present moment, an ecstatic peace for only God can fill us with. To be sober is to be free. We must remain vigilant, alert, and open, for what God fills us with, for moments when Christ is revealed in our daily lives.

This retreat weekend is one of the last before I begin a new school year, so there is no shortage of uncertainty or anxiety. What I have learned about soberness is wisdom I will carry with me, a reminder to be gentle with myself while also being watchful and mindful of my tendency to be absorbed in emotion and the circumstances of a school day, whether it is a conflict with a student or colleague, disappointments of unmet expectations, or a frantic pace and frequent interruptions.

Continue reading “Mindfulness and a Blue Heron”

Walk With Me: A Wedding Promise of Stability

Last summer (July 17, 2021) we enjoyed celebrating the wedding of my daughter, Jessica, to John Holland with a beautiful ceremony officiated by my dear friend, Joyce.

This summer (June 25, 2022) I was so honored to be the officiant for the wedding of Travis and Sam, one of Jessica’s college friends. It was such a joy to walk with them in creating their ceremony and so humbling to be a part of their special day with family and dear friends.

It was a spiritual experience for me to consider again, after 37 years of marriage, what it means to make a marriage commitment—to promise “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death does us part” (Sam and Travis’ vows to each other) and to walk together on life’s journey.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the famous French author of The Little Prince, wrote in Wind, Sand and Stars:

“Love is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.”

I shared these words during the wedding ceremony:

“Walking together, in the same direction, is what your marriage commitment will require. The primary reason we commit to relationships, to promise stability, is to be there for the other. In a consumer-driven society, we are encouraged to buy new, better, more but the ancient monastic practice of stability encourages us to stay put. Nathan Oates writes, “Stability doesn’t mean you’re not trying to improve or that you don’t work on the problems. Just the opposite. It means you’re going to work hard, and you expect problems. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is learning how to love.”

Promising to stay, to walk together in all of life’s joys and challenges, is the vow of stability. One’s relationship can grow deep roots, in great love, by understanding that the other will always be there for you.

Selfies with the bride and groom!
Continue reading “Walk With Me: A Wedding Promise of Stability”

A Quarter-Century of Hospitality and the Saint John’s Bible

A quarter-century of hospitality offered in the cornfields of Nebraska now includes a permanent, interactive exhibit of the Saint John’s Bible (SJB) Heritage Edition, one of the most impressive and accessible displays in the country.

In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, Saint Benedict Center was established in 1997 on behalf of Christ the King Priory of Schuyler, Nebraska to welcome all guests as Christ, offering a place of peace for people of many faiths who seek God.

On Sunday, July 17, 2022, the 25th anniversary of Saint Benedict Center was celebrated with the Grand Opening of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition Display, set #150 out of a limited edition of #299, gifted during the year Nebraska observed its 150th Anniversary of Statehood.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. The Heritage Edition is a special leather-bound version, inspired by the original, printed on 100 percent cotton paper. In this state-of-the-art display, visitors can learn how The Saint John’s Bible was made using traditional materials like vellum (calfskin), ancient inks, and quills. They can see each of the Heritage Edition’s volumes in a separate display case and browse through the pages using an interactive kiosk. There is ample space for prayer and meditation using the texts and images.

Continue reading “A Quarter-Century of Hospitality and the Saint John’s Bible”

July 11: A Big Day for Being Benedictine

St. Benedict is special to me for a few reasons. First, we share a birthday. I admit I was disappointed when I first discovered this. My parents had given me an illustrated book of the “Lives of the Saints” to commemorate my Confirmation. As any nine-year-old would do, I immediately looked to see who the saint was for July 11, my birthday. Perhaps Elizabeth, Mary, or Theresa would be my special saint.

Instead, I see an illustration of a man with a dark hood, a scary-looking bird, a crooked cane, and an unusual name I had only associated with Benedict Arnold. July 11, St. Benedict, Abbot, it said. I had never heard of him and surely did not know what an Abbot was. Through the years, I returned to this image of St. Benedict, thinking that I should have some connection with my patron saint.

Fast forward 26 years. With a full and busy life—married with a young daughter, a career as a high school teacher and club sponsor—I felt a deep longing for times of silence. I answered the call of my heart and responded to an advertisement for a silent contemplative prayer retreat. I discovered an oasis of peace just a few hours from home in the cornfields of Nebraska…called St. Benedict Center.

Continue reading “July 11: A Big Day for Being Benedictine”

A Mother’s Blessing

Written May 2016; Published on SoulFully You. 

I thought it would be a little tacky to take a photo of a mother and child I didn’t know this morning in church. I was so tempted to sneak a cell phone shot and apologize later if caught.  It was a tender, intimate moment that I wish could have been captured. But I hold it in my heart instead.

Imagine this: an expectant mother (I would say about 34 weeks into her pregnancy if I were a betting woman) and her 7-ish-year-old daughter. The young girl, head resting on her mother’s belly, was tenderly caressing and then, curiously poking at the outline of a baby foot or hand in her mother’s tummy. This simple gesture was a blessing for her sibling, the unborn baby—a welcoming, communication of love and hope.

Blessing my unborn baby

It is an awesome responsibility for expectant parents to consider bringing a new life into the world.  An avid reader, I couldn’t get my hands on enough books about parenting—parenting an infant, a toddler, a teenager.  I wanted to be the best and most prepared mother I could be, but I experienced an information overload, even without the not-invented-yet, scary, paranoid, hypochondriac rabbit-hole called the Internet, and I started to freak myself out, thinking about all that could go wrong and the weight of this responsibility. 

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So I scaled it back a notch, deciding to focus only on the moment, on welcoming the life of my unborn baby. In the womb, a baby hears, feels, moves and senses. Despite the 1980’s new agey-ness of the title, I read a book when I was pregnant with Jessica called “Communing with the Spirit of Your Unborn Child”.  I believed that “Every parent has an unceasing responsibility to the child to be the light, to represent the light.” I prayerfully welcomed the baby we had so desired, sending her light and blessings while she was still in my womb. Throughout my pregnancy, I documented my thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, and prayed that we would be good parents.

pregnancy collage

When Jessica was a toddler, I read “The Blessings” by Gary Smalley and John Trent, about the value of blessing a child with words, touch, visions of a positive future, and more. Blessing a child doesn’t just happen once; blessing a child continues through their life in a variety of ways.

In 2016, Jessica asked her dad and me for a blessing.  While visiting Jessica in Washington DC during her senior internship, she broke it to us, ever so gently, that she had fallen in love with DC. She said she really wanted to pursue working there after college graduation.

And then she said, “Do I have your blessing?” My 21-year-old confident, brilliant, talented, highly employable daughter wanted her mom and dad to say it was okay for her to move away from our hometown and follow her dream.

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It was a touching, respectful-of-her-parents-kind-of-request, but she must not have realized that she already had our blessing. Our blessing has always been for her to pursue her dreams, find her place in the world, and become a joy-filled, independent adult.

SoulCollage® has become an intuitive, yet intentional, way for me to pray, so when my daughter asked for a blessing, I created an image, a blessing card, that could be a visual way to pray for her—to pray that she listens to her intuition, follow her dreams, and know that she would always have our blessing.

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I’ve been praying with the blessing card for several months but recently decided to share it with Jessica for an end-of-year celebration at her sorority house. The images I had used to create the collage helped me capture a mother’s blessing, but I added these words to share with Jessica. With her permission, I share them here:

As we said your nighttime prayer as a child, our hand on your head, we gave you our blessing. God bless Jessica’s mind, body, and spirit. We give you our blessing now for your journey, wherever it takes you. The bond between a baby elephant and its mother is the closest of any animal on earth—this image represents our connectedness as family, no matter the distance between us. In an African village near a Benedictine monastery, it is tradition for a mother to paint her face when her children are growing into adulthood.  She hides her emotions and opinions so her children will forge their own paths and make their own decisions without the influence or bias of their parents. Our blessing for you is that you bloom into the Jessica you are meant to be. You have been more precious than jewels to us and we look forward to seeing you become a jewel to the world. We love you and give you our blessing as you fly into your becoming.

Blessing Jessica, as my grown-up child, is a journey of becoming comfortable with the uncertainty and the many possibilities for her future, letting go slowly, surely, and courageously. The blessing card is as much a reminder for me as it is for Jessica.

This morning, watching the young girl tenderly embrace her unborn sibling, reminded me of the vision we had for Jessica before she was even born-that she becomes fully who God intends her to be.  It is a prayerful process, a standing witness to the becoming of this young woman, who as an unborn child was welcomed and blessed into this universe so that she could become who she is meant to be. She has our blessing, then and now.

 “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.    -e. e. cummings

Continue reading “A Mother’s Blessing”

Both Life and Choice

March for Life, 1978

Earlier than I would get up for school and before the snowy roads were cleared, an eager catechism teacher drove me and a friend through a snowstorm to walk in the March for Life, an annual event opposing both the practice and legality of abortion, culminating with a rally at our State Capitol. In my sixth-grade CCD class (circa 1978), I had recently learned about abortion and was taught that unequivocally, it was wrong.

I learned that morning that not everyone sees abortion, or pro-life issues, the same way. I was stunned as we entered the Capitol that there were women already positioned on the balconies, holding signs and shouting at marchers about having rights to their own bodies. It left me very confused—a woman’s body is different than an unborn baby, I thought, and yet there was such passion, so much anger. (Photo credit: Lincoln Journal Star, NE State Capitol, 2019)

As an outspoken pro-life teenager, I was so sure of what I understood about abortion that in 1984 I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Nebraskan, my college newspaper. I pulled that old newspaper out of storage a few days after Roe vs. Wade was overturned. Nearly four decades later, I am uneasy with what I wrote. What I used to be so sure of, I am now less certain of and often, in complete disagreement with my younger self.

What I have learned since then about life and choice.

Two things can be true at the same time. I believe BOTH that human life is sacred from the time of conception AND that we are created to have free will. We have agency over our own bodies, choosing whether our life continues and/or whether we will bring life forth. Embracing a culture of life is respecting not just the unborn child, but also the pregnant woman while advocating for issues including prenatal care, childcare, gender equality, trafficking, healthcare reform, gun safety, racism, climate change, LGBT rights, capital punishment, and so much more.

We are BOTH created in the image of God AND given a life of choice, of free will, from the beginning. As the story goes, Adam and Eve were gifted with a beautiful garden and the choice to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or not. They were given agency over their bodies, and from the beginning were able to choose their actions. Humans make both good and bad choices—and we suffer the consequences. Further, Christian tradition holds that the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a child who will be named Jesus, the Incarnation (Luke 1:26–38.) In her “fiat,” Mary consented; she said yes.

Continue reading “Both Life and Choice”

Being Benedictine: Beginning the Journey

Some things change your life forever—getting married, having a baby, getting a new job, or a promotion. Finding St. Benedict Center in June 2002, twenty years ago, makes my “forever” list. It was the beginning of a connection that has changed my life in countless ways. It started my journey of Being Benedictine.

As a busy mom, wife, and teacher, I had a desire for silence and prayer. I learned about a four-day silent contemplative prayer retreat at St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Nebraska from an advertisement in our local newspaper. I loved the silence; although the twenty-minute meditation sittings throughout the day were a little more challenging, I knew I would come back to this oasis of peace.

St. Benedict Center sponsors many retreats each year—these opportunities have nurtured my spiritual longing and love of learning. I wasn’t sure if I would come back for a silent retreat, but I knew I would return to this sacred getaway soon. It started out that I came two or three times a year….and it gradually increased over time to be once or twice a month. There was one summer that I came every week, and it was suggested that I build a little cabin out back. I’ve particularly enjoyed attending retreats given by the monks of Christ the King Priory, visiting monks, and by authors like Macrina Weiderkehr (who became a dear friend), Joyce Rupp, Anselm Gruen, Helen Prejean, and Michael Casey. I have even come back for more silent retreats too, and I eagerly look forward to them now.

Continue reading “Being Benedictine: Beginning the Journey”

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