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Being Benedictine

Living the Rule of St. Benedict in Daily Life

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Spiritual Journey

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

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.

Continue reading “Now I Become Myself: Stand Still”

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”

Every Day is Happy Mothers’ Day!

Today my child should be walking across the stage at her graduation ceremony to receive her Masters in Public Affairs diploma. I should be there, applauding and celebrating her achievements. But, you know…. the pandemic and all. It would have been a beautiful way to spend Mothers’ Day.

Although I would love to be with Jessica on this day, to have recognized her achievements with ceremony, what makes this Mothers’ Day truly happy (and my heart full on ordinary days as well), is having a child who lives a life of joy and purpose.

This is all a mother desires—to know that her child is happy, at peace, learning, growing, working hard, loving well, and always becoming. 

Jessica becoming
Jessica Becoming, a special card for all the phases of Jessica’s life through high school, 2012.

It’s been a few years since Jess and I have spent an official Mothers’ Day together. In 2016, after graduating from college, Jessica moved to Washington, DC. to work as a full-time research assistant. And in 2018, Jessica moved to Madison, Wisconsin, earning a fellowship to study public policy at the LaFollette School of Public Affairs. Continue reading “Every Day is Happy Mothers’ Day!”

Home Is The Nicest Word There Is

Home is where the heart is.

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling.

A house is made of walls and beams, a home is built with love and dreams.

(And, of course) Home sweet home.

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Platitudes? Perhaps. But what may seem overly sentimental is what we yearn for in a home—a place of comfort, expression, warmth, understanding, love, hope, and shelter. An ideal home is a refuge, a haven, a sanctuary that provides safety and protection, a shelter in more ways than one. Our home can be an expression of our personality and values. We bring our whole self into a house and make it a home.

On day 50-something of “sheltering at home,” I am grateful for the roof over our head and all that our home provides us. Our current home is the result of “packing lightly” and “crossing the threshold”, themes from The Soul of a Pilgrim by Christine Valters Paintner.

“The journey of pilgrimage is about returning home with a new awareness of what home really means.”—The Soul of a Pilgrim

The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within ...

Five years ago, my husband and I put our house up for sale with no idea what we were going to do when it sold. It was an adventure—kind of exciting, a little scary, but certainly a threshold opportunity to see what our next step would be. We went through a process of considering what we really needed, what we would keep, what would be given away or sold, what might be tucked away in storage until we knew more decisively what we would do.

Some essential questions to consider in “The Practice of Packing Lightly” are: What would create more lightness in your life? What can you let go of to pack more lightly?

We knew the home we had lived in for nine years was not the place we wanted to be forever. Coming to that decision did not happen overnight. We had tossed it around, tabled it, brought it back up…but finally decided that we had been standing at the threshold of this decision for far too long. For us it came down to two issues: we did not need as much space or stuff and we wanted to have more free time to spend on things we loved, not just working on, or thinking about, household projects.

It felt right to let go of an attachment to our house and our things to see what might be in store for us. We were brought to a threshold, a clearing out of the old, and were ready to move into the uncertainty that lied ahead.

A voice comes to your soul saying,

Lift your foot. Cross over.

Move into emptiness of question and answer and question.

—Rumi, The Glance

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Card Name: Witness    I am one who is Witness to self.
I am one who stands tall
Upright, resilient, longsuffering
Despite winds of change.
I am one who, with the pace of a praying monk,
Glides gently through breeze and shadow, clouds and sea.
I stand centered
I move with purpose
I am one who is Witness to self
It is time
The door is open.

“The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I WILL show you. I WILL make of you a great nation, and I WILL bless you; I WILL make your name great, so that you WILL be a blessing.”—Genesis 12:1-3

In the story of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12:1-9; The Soul of a Pilgrim, Chapter 2), they are guided to a new life in an unknown and distant land. When practicing Lectio Divina with this story, I imagine the couple had a sense of loss at leaving their familiar home, but that they also desired an adventure, something new. Despite mixed feelings, they were open to hearing the blessings God promised, they trusted God’s will. Continue reading “Home Is The Nicest Word There Is”

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