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Being Benedictine

Jodi Blazek Gehr, Oblate of St. Benedict

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Spiritual Journey

A Winter WONDERland

“A snow day literally and figuratively falls from the sky, unbidden, and seems like a thing of wonder.”

-Susan Orlean

For students and teachers alike, there is nothing quite like getting a “snow day,” no matter if it is actually snowy or whether it is sleet, ice, or high winds— especially if we learn of our impending day off BEFORE we go to bed. I usually stay up a little later, sleep in a little later, binge-watch some TV, catch up on some reading or writing, and gaze out the window (or if it isn’t too awful out, take photos in my yard.) It is a gift of time, a free day.

This week we had one of those snow days. We were forecasted to get 8 to 12 inches of snow. We didn’t—but we did get a lot of sleet and ice. It was a challenge to get little Bailey, my 14-year-old dachshund poodle to go potty. Her little paws stuck to the stiff, sticky, icy grass, so it was one of those snow days to enjoy from the inside.

“They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

Jeanette Winterson

Only one snow day, so I was off to school the next day. The morning drive took a bit longer (no time for gazing in the morning; every minute matters when you’re not a morning person), but the intentionally-circuitous drive home from school was an opportunity to gaze at icicles, glistening like crystals, full of the drop-to-your-knees kind of wonder. (I was driving, so I saved my knees). I am so grateful that the temperature stayed chilly enough to preserve the false-alarm-blizzard-sleet-and-ice storm icicles.

Continue reading “A Winter WONDERland”

A Child in a Straw Hat

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.

Continue reading “A Child in a Straw Hat”

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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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”

Now I Become Myself: Stand Still

In the past few months, I have become smitten with the PBS series, Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a midwife in 1950’s London. I have heard of the show for years, but, late to the game, I just started Season 1 in September 2021. (I will likely be through Season 6 by year’s end, so I am unstoppable now.) In Season 3, Nurse Jenny Lee, one of the midwives of Nonnatus House, was grieving the sudden death of her boyfriend. Sister Julienne, recognizing Jenny Lee’s need to acknowledge her grief, suggests that she “take compassionate leave.”

Take compassionate leave.

Such powerful words.

How compassionate that Sr. Julienne understands that going through the motions of “normal” will not be helpful or healing. One must honor the soul’s need for being still with our grief and our many other emotions or experiences. We heal only when we take time to “stand still, to be here”, as May Sarton (1912-1995), American poet, novelist, and memoirist, pens in her poem, “Now I Become Myself.”

As we journey through the many deaths we experience throughout our life, even the little ones where we must let go of our expectations, we must “take compassionate leave” to listen to our soul speak. It is self-compassionate to take time to listen deeply to the soul, to process through, to understand, and make meaning of the experiences of our lives—both the grief and the joy, the transitions from one life stage to another—to just be with our emotions and the response in our body. Sometimes that can be done in our ordinary lives, but other times we may literally need to take leave by going away or on retreat.

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Something Old, Something New

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.

Joe and I on August 17, 1985 drinking fake champagne from glasses labeled Bride and Groom. We saved them for a “something new” moment.
Joe and I at John and Jessica’s wedding. July 17, 2021
And the “something new” couple using the same champagne glasses that Joe and used in 1985. We were honored to share them with the newlyweds.

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.

Continue reading “Something Old, Something New”

Our (Piano Teacher) Family Tree Includes Beethoven!

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in December 1770—250 years ago. A long-awaited celebration for music aficionados, over 300 concerts and other projects had been planned in Germany, and many others around the world, to celebrate one of the most performed of all classical music composers. Unfortunately, the pandemic resulted in events being postponed or adapted for a virtual audience.

This significant date, 250th birthday of Beethoven, was the nudge I needed to write the story of the family tree that includes my daughter, Jessica, as a direct descendent of Beethoven—as a piano player.

Jessica played piano from her Kindergarten year until she entered high school under the tutelage of Ceil Brown, 1953- 2010. Ceil learned to play piano from Marie Ducey, who she spoke of so highly. Marie Ducey took piano lessons from James Madison Tracy, 1837-1928.  Tracy and his wife established the Liszt School of Music in Denver in 1910, named in honor of his piano teacher, Franz Liszt.

Franz Liszt, 1811-1886, one of the greatest pianists of all time, a Franciscan lay associate, was known to have never charged his students for piano lessons. Liszt learned from Carl Czerny, 1791-1857, an Austrian composer, teacher, and pianist of Czech origin whose vast musical production amounted to over a thousand works. His study books are still widely used in piano teaching. And….drumroll, please….Czerny was trained by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Our family is proud to be in this distinguished family tree of musicians and lovers of music.

Jessica describes Ceil, her piano teacher, as patient, gracious and calm. Ceil was an extraordinary teacher who appreciated individual student strengths and abilities. I delighted in hearing the conversations between her and Jessica. Ceil treated her as person, not like a kid as so many adults can do. When Jessica did not like a piece of music Ceil had selected for her to learn, Jessica was not afraid to say it. Ceil would go to her bookcase and look for another piece. I remember one occasion when Ceil looked three or four times for music that would suit Jessica’s style and interest (in a 45-minute lesson!)

Continue reading “Our (Piano Teacher) Family Tree Includes Beethoven!”

Our Coral Anniversary: 35 Years of Marriage

Jodi Blazek ❤️ Joseph Gehr, August 17, 1985

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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.

A marriage goes through seasons: the spring of new life and hope, the summer of comfort and security, the autumn of changes and letting go, the winter of sadness and despair. A marriage will not survive without adapting to, enduring and celebrating the change of seasons. A marriage embraces all seasons.

A marriage provides a safe place to fall, a form of protection from the stresses of everyday life and also from more extreme challenges, like the pandemic we now face.  The traditional symbol for a 35th anniversary is coral, an organic material found in warm seas. Coral takes many years to form—much like the strength of a marriage made of moments. Coral is a symbol of protection—providing essential habitat structure and energy for 25% of the world’s ocean life, including young fish. How fitting that coral is the symbol of our 35th year of marriage, a year where we have found much safety in each other’s company.

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Visiting Jessica in Madison during the summer, 2020.

Marriage includes the necessary and mundane—doing laundry, taking out the trash, paying bills, fixing, washing, mowing, checking things off the list of things to do, arguing about checking things off, thanking each other for checking things off.

After 35 years of marriage, Joe and I have so many “remember when” moments, the makings of great storytelling or one-liners that no one else understands but us. Funny, sad, silly, stupid, poignant, heartwarming, memorable moments. Moments we’d like to forget and moments we have to forgive. But, mostly, moments that have helped us become who we are.

A marriage is made of moments. Some of our earlier moments: Continue reading “Our Coral Anniversary: 35 Years of Marriage”

A Divine Encounter: Trusting the Journey

My cup was running empty. Six surreal months of the pandemic, political turmoil, and feelings of anxiety facing an uncertain and challenging school year has taken its toll on my mind, body, and spirit. Finally, the timing was right this weekend, and it felt safe to return to my spiritual home, St. Benedict Center. It takes just moments for a deep peace to settle in as I take my overnight bag to my room and head outside to enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

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Wandering the path around the lake, I see Ellen, a fellow pilgrim from last summer—which feels like a warm bath of blessings. I had been looking forward all week to reconnecting, knowing she would be there.

Suddenly I hear a shout, “Surprise!”  Sara, a special friend, Oblate and SoulCollage® companion, is running towards me with open arms despite all COVID caution.  I exclaim, “I didn’t know you were going to be here!” Sara repeats “I didn’t know you were going to be here!” There may have been more exclamations of “I can’t believe this!”, “Oh, my God!” and finally, “Did you bring some of your SoulCollage® cards?” We decide to meet later to share some of our cards and seek them for guidance—what we call “a reading.” Continue reading “A Divine Encounter: Trusting the Journey”

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