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Being Benedictine

Jodi Blazek Gehr, Oblate of St. Benedict

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Benedictine Spirituality

Wonder: The Dance and The Sweet Spot

On my country road drives to and from St. Benedict Center, I often listen to an audiobook or podcast, but on my way home from an oblate weekend of beautiful sunrises and special monk moments, listening to some Carrie Newcomer music called to my spirit. I cued up Carrie Newcomer on my iPhone.

The Music Will Play On” caught my eye. Sweet memories of meeting Parker Palmer, one of my favorite writers and thinkers, and Carrie Newcomer, one of my favorite musicians, at a 2019 Growing Edge retreat flooded my memories. Parker shared that he wanted to learn how to write a song, specifically about his own mortality. He asked Carrie to help him with some song-writing tips.

Parker writes, “I messed with metaphors, and began thinking about living and dying as part of what Thomas Merton, in a classic meditation, called “the general dance.” I’ve always loved dancing, so the metaphor felt just right. One morning, I woke up with a line running through my mind— “If I could, I’d dance this way forever”—and I knew I had the start of a song.”

It was such a special experience to witness the first performance of their song on retreat and to sing it along with them (saved in my personal video archives.) Here is a beautifully produced video of “The Music Will Play On” with lyrics:

No one knows for certain when their time will come, But life does not go silent once our dancing’s done. These harmonies will always call from beyond the years, The heavens dance forever to the music of the spheres.

If I could, I’d dance this way forever, But some soon day my dancing here will end. The music will play on, then one day I’ll be gone. I’ll dance into the darkness as new life dances in. Into the holy darkness where new life begins.

© 2020 by Carrie Newcomer and Parker J. Palmer ©2020 Carrie Newcomer Music (BMI), Administered by BMG Chrysalis

Indeed, our days are finite. We are inevitably “heading home to the music’s source.” As St. Benedict advises, “Keep death daily before your eyes.” Perhaps this sounds morbid, but this message encourages me to live each moment with wonder and gratitude.

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2023 Word of the Year: Wonder

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).

My 2023 Word of the Year is WONDER.

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)

A card I created using images gathered on retreat and from a greeting card that screamed synchronicity!

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.”

Gregory of Nyssa
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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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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:

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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.

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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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