I am always amazed at new understanding and insight that come through meditative reading and discussion. St. Benedict Center is hosting a five-week Zoom retreat called Lent: Lectio and Visio Divina led by Steven Blum, PhD. to provide an opportunity to gain new understanding of often-heard Scripture.
During the first week’s session, we connect with over 140 participants to learn about the ancient practices of Lectio Divina (sacred reading) and Visio Divina (sacred seeing) using the Gospel reading, Mark 4: 13–20 and the Sower illumination from The Saint John’s Bible.
There are four phases of Lectio Divina. The movement through the steps of these practices engages the heart, mind, and spirit, as we sit together in periods of silence, reading, gazing, reflecting, prayer, and contemplation. We seek to have the Lord awaken “the ears and eyes of our hearts.”
In practicing Lectio Divina, after reading the Scripture out loud, we contemplate, consider and reflect on what we have heard. The Scripture is read again, and perhaps again for a third time. After some time of silence, we are welcomed to share or journal a word or phrase that speaks to us.
I love the practice of asking for a word, allowing a word or phrase to bubble up to ponder for the new year. Words that have chosen me in the last few years include Mercy (2017), Cushion (2018), You Are Free (I needed more words that year) (2019), Carry On (2020), Truth (2021), and Consent (2022).
This tradition (for desert mothers and fathers) of asking for a word was a way of seeking something on which to ponder for many days, weeks, months, sometimes a whole lifetime. The “word” was often a short phrase to nourish and challenge the receiver. A word was meant to be wrestled with and slowly grown into.
Christine Valters Painter
WONDER opens our eyes to synchronicity.
The images in a recent SoulCollage card brought forth the word WONDER, and it settled comfortably in my soul. The title of my card, Sit A Spell, is an encouragement to be open and receptive to the wonders of the universe revealing themselves right where we are—comfortable on our perch, walking through the seasons of life, or, even, in our thoughts and imagination.
It is only with eyes open to wonder, holy surprises, and synchronicity that we experience the humbling and awesome fall to our knees. There we are uplifted by invisible forces and surrounded by angels seen and unseen. (Synchronicity and Holy Surprise)
WONDER makes us fall to our knees.
After the word WONDER rested in my awareness, it was providential how many words of wisdom, poems, and quotes I came across in my reading. The wisdom begins in wonder decoration (pictured above) hangs around an olive oil bottle in my kitchen. I pass by it many times every day, but I realize I wasn’t really SEEING it. Waking up to meaningful coincidences, C.J. Jung said, “could shift our thinking so we recognize a greater wholeness in all of creation…It could precipitate a spiritual awakening.”
“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”
Synchronicities may seem like a rarity, but especially on retreat, it feels like these holy surprises happen often. Someone shares a story that resonates with another; an image appears just when one is seeking it; a deeper meaning is discovered creating a SoulCollage®card. There is an inkling of something more, a sense of being very near to the “thin place,” buoyed and embraced by the Divine. I wonder, do these moments actually happen more often than we notice?
Marilyn, who has been to many retreats over the last several years (and is also my dad’s first cousin…another serendipitous story) was curious about the definition, so we looked it up:
Simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related, YES! But rather than events having “no discernible causal connection,” I think of synchronicities as connections seen with the inner eye. They are holy coincidences. Both mysterious and meaningful, these holy surprises open our eyes in new ways. The voice of synchronicity encourages us to be aware, to look and listen deeply. Throughout our retreat, we enjoyed identifying these many moments with an exuberant, “That’s synchronicity!”
A few days after our retreat, when we were all back to our daily life, I received a card in the mail from Marilyn. She had written, “I hope the picture on this card brings you a moment of serenity.”
Indeed, it did, and a giddy feeling of serendipity! I love the image on the card so much that some twenty years ago I purchased a signed and numbered canvas of it titled “Pages of Time” by Gene Roncka and it is hanging in my kitchen!
Smiling in amazement, and yet not as surprised anymore when synchronicities occur, I took a photo of both and sent a message to Marilyn. She responded, “This is absolutely surreal. And I think it may be synchronicity.
I forwarded the photo to our retreat group with the message— “Can you say synchronicity?”
C.J. Jung, who popularized the term synchronicity, believed that life was not just a series of random events. Waking up to meaningful coincidences, he said, “could shift our thinking so we recognize a greater wholeness in all of creation…It could precipitate a spiritual awakening.”
There are so many invisible forces and connections weaving a web that holds us in its grace. The more we look, the more we see. It is only with eyes open to wonder, holy surprises, and synchronicity that we experience the humbling and awesome fall to our knees. There we are uplifted by invisible forces and surrounded by angels who “walk among us in seen and unseen forms.” In these moments, we see new pathways and possibilities. I agree with Brian McLaren who said “The closest thing to God is when we say WOW!” Holding tight to this knowing sustains us when our faith is not as strong or challenges present themselves.
I used the Pages in Time card from Marilyn to create a SoulCollage card I titled “Sit A Spell.”
“You who sing among the angels, help us to feel their sheltering and guiding presence in our days. Reveal to us all the ways we are held, comforted, uplifted by invisible forces; remind us to call out for help when needed and to lean into the grace so freely offered to us. Let us see how angels walk among us in seen and unseen forms; encourage us to offer gratitude for moments of synchronicity and holy surprise when we are met with kindness and sacred possibility, when we see a new pathway where before was only bramble. Mary, Queen of Angels…help us to know you walk beside us always.” -Christine Valters Painter
Planning a retreat begins, not with brainstorming, but with a holy surprise. I have retreat dates scheduled years in advance including every Advent, but a theme unfolds only when the timing is just right. Usually, six months to a year before the retreat dates, I send out a signal to the Divine that I’m looking for an idea. In my spiritual reading, combined with following a variety of spiritual writers, religious leaders, poets, and musicians on social media, I look for synchronicities…sort of like “retreat radar.” It could be a profound quotation, an image, lyrics from a song, a blessing, or a prayer that grabs me—that’s when the ideas begin to flow, a pattern develops, a theme is revealed, and a retreat begins to take shape.
Several months before the 2022 Advent retreat, I spent more time than usual with my SoulCollage® cards—photographing and uploading each to a SoulCollage® app, considering archetypal energies that were expressed, contemplating the time of life the card was created, and how the meaning may have changed. I realized I had dozens of cards with images of Mary, or feminine and mothering energy, in them. Over the years, I read several books about the many sightings of Mary and sacred pilgrimages to Marian shrines, and my curiosity grew. Realizing the impact Mary had on so many of my cards, I felt the tug to take a deeper dive into what Mary might reveal in my spiritual journey. Time to read those books on my shelf that I hadn’t quite gotten to and, confession, I purchased several new books. I made Mary an all-out research project.
The book that initially inspired the Advent retreat “Pregnant with the Holy: Exploring Your Inner Mary” is Birthing the Holy: Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal by Christine Valters Painter, one of my favorite spiritual writers and abbess of the online Benedictine community, Abbey of the Arts. Each chapter focuses on a title given to Mary, providing the reader with a window into qualities we can call upon in ourselves. I chose to focus on several names for Mary including Queen, Mother, Virgin, Chosen, Theotokos, and Untier of Knots as well as the Annunciation, Mary’s response to a holy invitation, using poetry, music, art, icons, various articles, and excerpts from my reading.
Each school day during my 5th-period class, I stand with my students, hand over heart, pledging allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
This simple moment of national patriotism is a requirement in Nebraska, a rule passed by the Nebraska Board of Education in 2012 stating that all public schools must provide time each day to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in order to receive accreditation or state funding. Already common practice in elementary schools and many districts, it was new for most high school students.
When the rule passed ten years ago, I remember teachers taking inventory of classrooms that needed flags—many were old and torn, more had been discarded over the years, and with tight budgets, new ones hadn’t been purchased. The first several weeks, hand over heart, we stood facing an 8½ x 11 colored photocopy of the flag until generous alumni donated enough American flags for every classroom.
This school year, likely in response to a Tik-Tok challenge to steal things from schools, my American flag went missing. As my students stood to recite the pledge one morning, we shared shocked expressions, realizing there was NO flag where there had been the day before. We continued reciting the pledge and then a creative student quickly drew an image of the flag to post where the flag should have been. The kind gesture soothed my anger at having the flag stolen (along with every electric pencil sharpener in the room.) It still hangs beside a replacement flag.
“The artist speaks to that part of you which yearns for beauty and creativity. The inner artist invites you to participate in the great work of healing the world by lifting out of your senses creative images, words, and actions that inspire others to live lives of wonder and surprise.”
–Macrina Wiederkehr (The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom by Christine Valters Paintner)
Recently I led a retreat titled Becoming Ourselves: Exploring the Archetypes of Inner Monk & Artist. Our inner artist engages with the world through its senses, while our inner monk has a longing for connection with the Divine, seeing the sacred in the ordinary. We can be intentional about nurturing these energies within us, paying attention to the beauty around us, and bringing a sense of wonder and curiosity to our work. We can be intentional about nurturing these energies within us by seeing nature, people, and life circumstances in new ways, while creatively and prayerfully expressing ourselves through poetry, art, music, gardening, relationships, and more.
Practicing SoulCollage® is the perfect expression of the inner artist and monk archetypes. We creatively and prayerfully cut and paste images onto cards that eventually become a visual journal. It is a spiritual practice of seeking the Divine while learning about parts of yourself. With others, while “image bathing” and creating cards, there is a unique opportunity to share parts of our spiritual journey—why I love leading and participating in retreats!
On retreat, spiritual playmate*, Jana West, was particularly drawn to images of rainbows—they kept popping up in the images she was collecting and intuitively finding their way onto her collage cards.
*Don’t you just love the idea of a spiritual playmate?! Jana coined the term, and it has quickly become part of my post-retreat reflection vernacular.
So now I am seeing rainbows and the spectrum of colors in all kinds of ways. I saw, and accepted, this fun challenge on Facebook: to find the colors of the rainbow in nature.
Seeing the beauty in nature is the first step in taking action to protect it.Our planet needs all the love, prayer, and protection it can get. Celebrate creation this Earth Day by sending positive energy and intention into the universe through some creative and prayerful practices including contemplative photography, nature meditation, Visio Divina, Soul Collage® and Lectio Divina. There are many ways to pray!
Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all.
— Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude
Practice contemplative photography
Contemplative photography is a prayerful practice of seeing with new eyes. With camera in hand, I have learned to slow down, be more aware of details, and enjoy the beauty of simple things. Driving down a new country road is an adventure that brings deep joy in capturing a scene that will never quite be that same way again. It is less about arriving at a destination and more about enjoying the journey. It is when silence, solitude, creativity, and nature collide into a oneness that can only be received, not pursued.
The great Catholic writer Ernesto Cardenal in Abide in Love observes: “Everything in nature has a trademark, God’s trademark: the stripes on a shell and the stripes on a zebra; the grain of the wood and the veins of the dry leaf; the markings on the dragonfly’s wings and the pattern of stars on a photographic plate; the panther’s coat and the epidermal cells of the lily petal; the structure of atoms and galaxies. All bear God’s fingerprints.”
Visio Divina is like Lectio Divina, but instead of using the words from a page of Scripture to pray with, you use an icon, a sacred image, or a work of art (even your own!)
Create a card that represents the environment and/or how you feel about how humans interact with the environment. You may take the prompt in whatever direction you choose.Or use the card Earth Gratitude to write your own poem or “I am one who” statement.
I am one who believes in the Divine birthing of our planet and the life-force that is poured out for us by our mere existence in this dynamic, evolving, growing, breathing earth home.
I am one who exists as part of this environment, receiving the mysterious flow of energy and outpouring of nourishment with open hands. I bow my head at the splendor of shades and shapes, the rebirth of nature through the sacred spirals of the seasons, the purpose and patterns that are sometimes evident and always sought after. The waters of life flow through us—cleansing, renewing, blessing us with existence. Nature gives to us without hesitation.
I am one who receives with awe.
After you create a card, feel free to share in the comments section or email a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org with a few sentences that explain what your card means to you.
Pray in whatever ways and words work for you–whether you are holding space, sending positive energy, visualizing hope and peace overflowing, creating a collage, writing your own thoughts, or reciting the words of the prayer Pope Francis has intended for the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (shown below.)
There are no requirements to understand every word of the prayer, to be Catholic, or to believe in Mary’s Immaculate Heart, in order to grow in compassion and unite our intentions with others who pray, hold space, and send good energy. As I read (and prayed) Pope Francis’ prayer, I created bullet-prayers (not sure if that’s a thing, but it is for me now)–one-sentence intentions that I can offer up when I think of those suffering in Ukraine.
Turn our hearts towards love and peace. 🌻 May we hold space for those suffering.
Make visible our compassion. 🌻 May we remember what causes pain for others.
May we hold in our hearts the children, the hungry, the homeless, the fleeing, the mother, the father, the child, the beloved pet, the defenders, the truth-tellers, the fighters, the comforters. 🌻
May we ravage the earth with love. 🌻 Help me to think of others.
May we be, and follow, models of love and peace. 🌻 Help us remember that darkness can be overcome.
Untie the knots of our hearts. 🌻 Help us to forgive.
Water the dryness of our hearts. 🌻 Fill our hearts with peace. 🌻 Help us to pray.
O Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, in this time of trial we turn to you. As our Mother, you love us and know us: no concern of our hearts is hidden from you. Mother of mercy, how often we have experienced your watchful care and your peaceful presence! You never cease to guide us to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
“Friendship binds past and present and makes bearable the uncertainty of the future. Friendship is…always and everywhere eternal mystery, eternal desire. It is a grasp at the ultimate, the quest for human understanding.”
Joan Chittister, The Friendship of Women
Friendships, both old and new, are a treasure, a gift of hospitality, a welcoming of another into your life. Friendships create space for coming home to oneself, an opportunity to be fully seen as who we are and who we want to become. Friendships are an opportunity to accept the hospitality of another as well, to see ourselves through the eyes of our special friends. Friendships with women are all-at-once sistering, mothering, armchair counseling, and spiritual direction.
Friendship is sacramental, an “outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace,” as defined by St. Augustine. Friendship is an invisible grace, a soul connection, that lives on even when friends are not together, when time or distance separate, and even after a dear friend passes. It is a sacred gift to have an old friend, one who has seen you through decades of life. Beth and Judy, friends from “Circle” had that kind of friendship for fifty years.
A short “Circle” story (the longer version HERE) that inspired a new card and brought new insights about hospitality, humility, and friendship:
I met Beth through Katie and then Judy through Beth. Colleen shared her friend, Joyce, with me and she eventually introduced me to SoulCollage. I shared my love of SoulCollage® with Beth, Judy and our Circle through several retreats and social gatherings. Judy and Beth loved to create cardstogether—finding images, cutting them out, and when the time was right, pasting them into collages. They looked forward to weekly conversations and new insights. In 2016, their weekly ritual came to an end when Judy passed away. Recently Beth gifted me a bin of SoulCollage® supplies with folders of carefully trimmed images. SoulCollage® was an intimate memory she treasured with Judy, and not something she wanted to continue. Those images came with me on my last retreat.
Now I Become Myself
Sorting through Beth’s images, I came across a photo of Judy and Beth from some 50 years ago. I placed the photo on my table as inspiration, the younger Judy and Beth standing witness to our weekend creativity and to the conversations and insights of the ten women attending.
Several of the images I gathered came together in a special way to make a card titled “Another Kind of Hospitality.” I felt the essence of Beth and Judy that weekend and as I work with the meaning of my card. They were not at the retreat, but there were definitely present.
Reflection: Another Kind of Hospitality
Take off your shoes. Stay awhile.
Join me at the table, there is always an extra place. Break bread with me.
Or sit on the floor. Let’s play, watch, listen, create.
I see you, the One and the Many. I see you in all your many selves—your playfulness, your fear, your loneliness, your becoming. I see that you see me, too.
Welcoming you, I meet a part of myself that perhaps I didn’t see before.
Being with you teaches me about who I am, more of who I am becoming.
I take time to stand still, to be here, to look within. I see me and I see you.