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.
Last summer (July 17, 2021) we enjoyed celebrating the wedding of my daughter, Jessica, to John Hollandwith 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.
“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.
After 36 years of marriage, Joe and I have so many “remember when” moments, the makings of great stories to be told over and over. This last year of marriage we are the “something old” in the cliche and “something new” was celebrated by welcoming our new son-in-law, John, when our daughter, Jessica and he were married on July 17, 2021.
So on August 17, 2021 we celebrate 36 years; John and Jessica celebrate one month. Something old, something new.
A marriage is made of moments. When you string them all together, you get a picture of a life built together. A marriage isn’t made, once and for all, when the I-dos are exchanged. A marriage is constantly being recreated; it is always in the process of becoming. I shared this sentiment in a blessing at their wedding, see From This Day Forward, To Have and To Hold.
“We have gathered today to celebrate the union of Jessica Gehr and John Holland. Marriage is a sacred blessing and this morning we celebrate the love shared between two special individuals.”
–Joyce Schmeeckle, wedding officiant and dear friend
We gathered—John and Jessica’s community, their friends and family—to support and bless their marriage. A wedding day conjures images of hearts and flowers, vows and wedding rings, first kisses and champagne toasts. Marriage is a sacred commitment where two people commit to journey through life together, so it is appropriate that the focus of the day is on the bride and groom. It is their BIG DAY!!
My daughter, Jessica, had her fairytale, storybook, dream-come-true wedding on July 17, 2021, and yes, indeed, she married her Prince Charming—we absolutely love our new son-in-law, John, and are so grateful that he adores our daughter. I remember when my husband and I got married, there was very little choice in what the day would look like. Tradition said this, the parents said that, the Catholic Church said this…but what I loved about John and Jessica’s wedding is that they created their own ceremony and carefully planned what their first day as husband and wife would look like.
The wedding guests, John and Jessica’s community, were an integral part of their wedding day—from who the officiant was, to parts of the ceremony, to the events planned to celebrate after the wedding. As a Benedictine oblate, it reminds me that for St. Benedict, everything that is written in his Rule takes place within the context of community; whether giving instruction about prayer, relationships, or work, the monk is reminded he or she is a part of a community. It is through community, not just as monks or oblates but within families and our community of friends, that we grow in understanding of self and God and learn to love one another more deeply.
“Benedict’s genius was in recognizing the power of journeying together. There is power and empowerment, healing and strength in living together and recognizing our mutual interdependence.”
Judith Valente writes, “My friend Sister Thomasita Homan of Mount St. Scholastica once described a monastic community as ‘a place where people agree to link arms, support one another, and help each other grow’ (How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community).” The guests of John and Jessica’s wedding are linking arms with them, will support them, and as community does, will challenge them and help them grow.
When creating their wedding ceremony, John and Jessica carefully chose who would be part of the ceremony and the words that would be spoken. When they talked about who they wanted to marry them, they knew they wanted someone who shared their own spirituality and values and would deliver a message filled with insight and wisdom. They asked my own “anam cara,” soul friend, Joyce, who also hired Jessica for her first job in high school, quickly becoming a spiritual mentor to Jess as well. This is a newer phenomenon, to choose your own officiant, but my heart is full that they chose so wisely. (See script throughout this post.)
The ceremony also included a family blessing shared by each mother. I was deeply touched to be able to contribute some words about what I hoped John and Jessica’s marriage might hold for them. I shared the following blessing:
Blessing for John and Jessica Holland Wedding
When Jessica was just a toddler, I created a bedtime prayer that I blessed her with each night. Some nights, in a hurry, it was shortened to “God bless Jessica’s mind, body and spirit. Amen.” But the lengthier version has remained my prayer for Jessica as she has grown up.
This special prayer I say now includes BOTH Jessica and John as they join their life together in marriage.
God bless Jessica, and John’s minds, so that they make good decisions and choices.
God bless Jessica and John’s bodies so that they grow strong and healthy and safe.
God bless Jessica and John’s spirit so that they know the love of God and others. Amen.
It is said that the only thing that prepares you for marriage, is marriage. It will not always be easy, but more often it will be better than you could have imagined. Every day you will make choices about what kind of person you want to be and the kind of relationship you will continue to build with God and each other.
A marriage is made of moments. When you string them all together, you get a picture of a life built together. A marriage is not made, once and for all, when the I-dos are exchanged. A marriage is constantly being recreated; it is always in the process of becoming.
In your becoming, take time for solitude—pursuing your individual passions knowing you are always supported by the other. Listen with the ear of the heart, as St. Benedict writes, listening to each other’s words but also to what lies between the words, seeking to understand the silence too.
May you be patient with each other, keeping a sense of humor, apologizing, and forgetting quickly.
May you be a joyful giver and treat each hour as the rarest gift with gratitude for each other. May you build traditions and rituals that are uniquely yours as a couple.
May you have a marriage that embraces all seasons.
God Bless Jessica’s mind, body, and spirit.
God Bless John’s mind, body, and spirit.
God Bless the marriage of John and Jessica. Amen
A reading from Romans 12: 9-18, instruction for sharing love and hospitality both in marriage and in community, was followed by a message from Joyce. Friends and family were asked to participate in a community vow, agreeing to love and support John and Jessica in their marriage, offering them love and friendship.
This community vow mirrors the importance of The Rule of St. Benedict, written 1500 years ago as a guide for those who desired a spiritual life of prayer and work, learning to love others as Christ. It was not a guide for individual pursuits, but for living in community. It is a given that the community is important, an integral part of growing in holiness and happiness. John and Jessica see clearly that they have the support of friends and family, that they are part of a community that they will also share their gifts and hospitality with. This was followed by a moment of silent prayer for their marriage.
“The words community and communicate share the same Latin root. They are related by root to another word, compassion, which means to “suffer with”, or more loosely, to “walk beside.”
Judith Valente, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community.
John and Jessica have created a community that will walk beside them, people they have known all their life as well as those who they have met along the way. As a couple, they will continue to gather new friends as well. My husband gave a nod during his toast to all those in John and Jessica’s community who have helped them become who they are:
When you raise your kid, you hope to instill your hopes, dreams, and values in them and that when they go out into the world, they make all the right choices and remember the way they were raised. Lots of people have told Jodi and I what a great job we did in raising our daughter. That is partially true, but I think we learn and form who we are from those around us. Jessica and John have had many positive role models in their lives. They have taken a little bit of each one of those people to become who they are today. So, when people tell me, you did a great job in raising your daughter, it has as much to do with all the relationships she had with others. I want to thank everyone for helping me raise my daughter. Everyone here can take credit for the beautiful person she is today. Many can take credit for John being a kind, loving and caring person. They are who they are today because of all the people in their life.
“The Benedictine spirituality of community is based on life with other persons in the spirit of Christ: to support them, to empower them, and to learn from them.”
Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today
John and Jessica vow to journey through life together—to support and empower each other and to continue to learn and grow in their relationship. They are community to each other, first and foremost. I am so proud of and happy for them!
We are grateful that Jessica’s friend, Tarah, videotaped the wedding ceremony! You can watch the video HERE.
Being Jessica’s mother is the greatest gift and honor of a lifetime. I will never forget the moment she was born. “You got your girl,” my husband said. I had all but forgotten that the baby would have a gender while laboring. This excerpt from The Red Tent resonates about that moment:
“There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name that moment. Like every mother since the first mother, I was overcome and bereft, elated and ravaged. I had crossed over from girlhood. I beheld myself as an infant in my mother’s arms, and caught a glimpse of my own death. I wept without knowing whether I rejoiced or mourned.”
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
It’s been a few years since Jess and I have spent an official Mothers’ Day together. For the past five years, she has done some serious adulting—graduating from college, moving from Lincoln to Washington, DC. to Madison, Wisconsin, working full-time, going to graduate school, getting her first apartment on her own, and finding love.
2020 was a big year. Besides enduring a pandemic that abruptly ended her graduate studies sans proper graduation ceremony, Jessica started a new job with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as a Children’s Services Program and Policy Analyst. And on the third Sunday of Advent—called Gaudete Sunday, Latin for joy—John Holland asked Jessica to marry him on a hilltop in historic Galena, Illinois where more than 5,000 candlelit luminaries lined the streets, steps, sidewalks, and store windows. Jessica’s smile says it all — PURE JOY.
Mother Mary finds her way into many of my collage creations, but it is the story and image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I am especially drawn to. On December 12, the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated.
“Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego on Mount Tepayac, 1531
On the site of an ancient shrine to the Aztec mother goddess, near Mexico City on Tepeyac Hill, a young Christian Indian named Juan Diego had a vision of a young Indian woman. Speaking in his native tongue, she directed him to tell the bishop to construct a church on the hill. The bishop dismissed the story, but the young maiden appeared yet again to Diego identifying herself as the Mother of God. She instructed him to gather roses that grew at her feet, during the winter no less, and take them to the bishop. When Diego opened his coat, a colorful impression of Our Lady, with dark skin, was imprinted on the fabric.
This story has been told for five hundred years, standing as an “image of divine compassion for a demoralized people. Speaking to Juan Diego in his own language, she presented herself in terms of compassion and solidarity, not power and domination.” (Blessed Among Us, December 12, 2020) The image of Our Lady attracts millions of pilgrims each year at the basilica in Mexico City, one of the world’s most visited sacred sights.
Recently I gathered with some friends for a much-needed retreat, a “pause between labor contractions”—a metaphor that resonated with us. In such troubling times, we came together to be creative, soulful, compassionate listeners—to take, literally and prayerfully, a breath from the labor of a divisive political environment and necessary pandemic adjustments. Jana, Deb, Patsy, Sara, Julie, and I brought open hearts to celebrate a weekend filled with blessings—a full moon, the beauty of the woods, the insightful practice of SoulCollage® and the celebration of All Saints Day.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships lately–both old and new, those friends who are near and far, and those who have passed away.
In 2015, our Circle lost a dear sister. Judy passed away only a year or so after being diagnosed with a rare, incurable, fast-growing cancer. For the last several weeks of her life, Judy was unable to leave her bed and wanted few visitors, but it was important for our Circle to continue sending our love and prayers. Even if we weren’t physically present, we wanted her to feel that we held her in our heart. Each of us committed to a day of the week that we would send Judy some kind of card, note or greeting. In this time of pandemic, just as we did with Judy, we can stay connected with our loved ones.
Judy was a lover of SoulCollage®—she came to my first retreat at St. Benedict Center and fell in love with the process. She started meeting weekly to cut, paste and create with our friend, Beth. The practice became a form of expression and prayer for her and she even shared it with her daughters and grandchildren on one of their last vacations together on Captiva Island. Making and sending a SoulCollage® card to honor Judy and our Circle was a form of creative prayer for me.
I was drawn to images that represented the strong, hard-working, loving women that had met together monthly for several years. I hoped the card would make Judy smile, bring her a little joy and remind her of the bond we all shared. It also gave me the chance to put images and words to how I feel about our Circle.
Cleaning out some old papers, I stumbled upon a script from which I read a farewell greeting to my spiritual director and monk friend, Fr. Mauritius Wilde when he moved from Schuyler, Nebraska to Rome four years ago.
My message was one of gratitude for our shared experiences, but also sadness that we would not see each other regularly…since Rome is a bit more than a car drive away. I knew that we would continue to be in touch, and as luck would have it I was able to visit Rome one year later for the Benedictine World Congress and he has also visited Nebraska a few times to lead retreats. So, it was not a good-bye, but a see-ya-later.
As I read through what I had written four years ago, I realized this feeling of being separated, yet remaining deeply connected speaks to our current situation of pandemic. I feel this same nostalgic see-ya-later-sort-of-way as we hunker down, cancel trips, stay at home and physically distance to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. It is bittersweet—but it is what we must do. We will survive this liminal space where we are together in spirit, but not in person.
I experience this distance, and yet connectedness, with my daughter, who also moved from home—first to Washington DC four years ago (yikes, that 2016 was a doozy of a year) and then to Madison, Wisconsin. She is my child, so of course, we see each other as often as possible, but without the spontaneity of a quick lunch date or evening walk. I am grateful that we talk or text each other nearly every day and have been able to exchange visits nearly every other month.
But still, it is challenging to have your loved ones far away. As much as I love reading about the pioneer days, I was not cut out to be one. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to send your grown child off with her family in a covered wagon, perhaps never to be seen again.