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.
Stability “is the commitment to a purpose, a place, and a people…At its root, stability is the blend of two biblical concepts: patient endurance and standing firm.” (Stability, Nathan Oates) After reflecting on Matthew 26: 20-50, we consider:
How is the virtue of stability present in the gospel story? Are there similarities between what happened to Jesus in Gethsemane and what is happening in Ukraine?
Many people of Ukraine will not flee their country. “This is my home,” they say. Despite the many risks, they stay. They are rooted in their homeplace, their land. Jesus also stayed; despite knowing he was to be betrayed, despite the possibilities the next day would bring. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong for Jesus. Everyone betrays him, even the best of friends. It would have been much easier to give up when left alone.
“My soul is very sorrowful even to death.” We all struggle with the virtue of stability, but Jesus stayed IN HIS sorrow; he could have fled. Despite our difficulties, we need to die before we die as Jesus did. Jesus’ steadfastness, his stability, was rooted in doing the will of God. “Your will be done” is an exclamation of surrender that gave Jesus the courage to stay. He died before his own death; he surrendered his will. He was able to face his suffering because he had consented to let God work out what would happen next. As St. Benedict said, “keep death daily before our eyes.”
“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.
“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.
“Friendship is the linking of spirits. It is a spiritual act, not a social one. It is the finding of the remainder of the self. It is knowing a person before you even meet them.”
St. Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate on February 10, is the twin sister of my patron saint, St. Benedict. Legend holds that Scholastica and Benedict had a close relationship and were both deeply committed to God, despite not being able to spend much time together.
The story of St. Scholastica, from the books of Dialogues by Saint Gregory the Great, shows the commitment they shared to God and each other:
“Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, had been consecrated to God from her earliest years. She was accustomed to visiting her brother once a year. He would come down to meet her at a place on the monastery property, not far outside the gate.
One day she came as usual and her saintly brother went with some of his disciples; they spent the whole day praising God and talking of sacred things. As night fell they had supper together.
Their spiritual conversation went on and the hour grew late. The holy nun said to her brother: “Please do not leave me tonight; let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life.” “Sister,” he replied, “what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell.”
When she heard her brother refuse her request, the holy woman joined her hands on the table, laid her head on them and began to pray. As she raised her head from the table, there were such brilliant flashes of lightning, such great peals of thunder and such a heavy downpour of rain that neither Benedict nor his brethren could stir across the threshold of the place where they had been seated. Sadly he began to complain: “May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” “Well,” she answered, “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.”
Reluctant as he was to stay of his own will, he remained against his will. So it came about that they stayed awake the whole night, engrossed in their conversation about the spiritual life.
It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.
Three days later, Benedict was in his cell. Looking up to the sky, he saw his sister’s soul leave her body in the form of a dove, and fly up to the secret places of heaven. Rejoicing in her great glory, he thanked almighty God with hymns and words of praise. He then sent his brethren to bring her body to the monastery and lay it in the tomb he had prepared for himself.
Their minds had always been united in God; their bodies were to share a common grave.”
On the Feast of St. Scholastica, I remember my dear friend, Colleen, whose birthday was on this day. It is such a special connection to know that Colleen and I were spiritual twins (since my birthday is July 11, the feast day of St. Benedict.) In 2002, Colleen and I met at St. Benedict Center, both of us seeking a contemplative prayer practice. We quickly became “anam caras,” soul companions–we read spiritual books and prayed together and could talk for hours about our spiritual journeys. I was blessed by my friendship with Colleen, Joyce and so many other soul friends in the years since then.
The lessons I have learned from my spiritual friendships, and the lives of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica are many:
Spiritual friendships never end. ♥ Neither death nor distance can separate us from the love of another. ♥ There is no such thing as loving too much. ♥ Spiritual friendships are a gift from God. ♥ We support each other in living out God’s purpose in our life. ♥ Spiritual connections with friends enrich one’s prayer life and guide the other back to God when one is temporarily lost. ♥ Spending time together is important, but friendship resides in the heart. ♥ We pray for and with each other. ♥ We cry with each other. ♥ We laugh together. ♥ We listen to, plan with, comfort and challenge each other. ♥ We are grateful for each other and we say it. ♥ “Our minds are united in God.”
The Red Shoes
Colleen, loved red shoes. But I didn’t know this about her until her Aunt Bea shared a story at her funeral. What a silly thing to say at a funeral! But for “some reason” I told Aunt Bea that I loved the beautiful red shoes she had on. Sometimes words fly out of my mouth without thinking how they might sound—and today was no exception. But, of course, there was a reason.
Without missing a beat, Aunt Bea shared that just a few months earlier, Colleen had borrowed those red shoes on an evening when she and her sisters were going out dancing, something they loved to do together. Aunt Bea commented how much Colleen loved to dance; telling us that Colleen believed when you dance you have to wear high-heeled shoes. It was a lovely story to imagine a time when Colleen was joyful and doing what she loved most—dancing. There is comfort in storytelling and remembering.
Choosing a word of the year can be a prayerful intention as well as creative expression. There is nothing magical about one word over another, but I find the process insightful and revealing—both spiritually comforting and challenging. I worked with the idea of doorways and thresholds for several weeks after realizing how many cards in my SoulCollage® collection had images of doors on them.
“Doors are places for pausing, of finding your key, of knocking, of asking for entry. Thresholds carry us from one place to another – usually from outside to inside or the other way around. They are symbols of our inner movements…. I believe that our lives are about crossing one threshold after another. Thresholds are challenging places to be because there is no map. There is no ten-step plan for how to move through this space. We feel disoriented there and impatient in having to wait.”
Christine Valters Paintner
I thought about selecting a word like welcome or becoming, or simply doorway or threshold. The images resonated, but the words were not quite right. I considered what it feels like to stand on the threshold of the unknown, to step through the doorway of uncertainty. The moment of crossing over can require courage, honesty, a surrendering, a willingness to be transformed.
“Our uncertainty is the doorway into mystery, the doorway into surrender, the path to God that Jesus called “faith.” -Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder
Extending hospitality to guests, as St. Benedict instructed in The Rule, can be practiced towards the uncertainty that life brings, the times when we can no longer control our circumstances and we must surrender our expectations. We can extend hospitality towards all that is mystery and trust that we will be transformed in the process. We may not know what we are walking into, but we can grow into acceptance of whatever comes.
“We need to honor what is on both sides of the doorway: to celebrate the whole of our lives, the self we are leaving behind as well as the self toward which we are going.”
The threshold moment requires an acceptance of what has been, what is, and what possibilities may come. The threshold moment, if we wish to honor each moment as life-giving and transformational, forces us to see our truth, the truth of our desires, and the truth of our circumstances.
“If you are interested in transformation, no element is more important than developing a love of truth. As we learn to accept what is real in the present moment, we are more able to accept whatever arises in us, because we know that it is not the whole of us… When we are willing to be with the whole truth—whatever it is –we have more inner resources available to deal with whatever we are facing.” –The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson.
And this brings me to my 2021 word of the year: TRUTH.
Sources: Mark 1:7-11; Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living by John McQuiston II (Preface-p. 14)
For our Lectio Divina practice, we read more deeply Mark 1:7-11, the baptism of Jesus.
Words and phrases that resonate with us, shared in our discussion:
It is with great humility that John proclaims there is one more powerful than I. In an area of rabid individualism, it is hard to turn things over, to admit that I am not the fount of all wisdom. Even if we feel called to speak truth to power, to share our faith or ideas that may differ from another, we must humble ourselves as John did. John admits he is not to untie the sandals of Jesus, and even stoops down to show his humility. Indeed, there is one more powerful than I.
Both John and Jesus show humility. By going down into the water, Jesus foreshadows going down into the tomb. It is a descent, a submission to the obedience of the will of God, and then a rising. Jesus chose to be baptized; he did not have to be, but he chose to be weak, to become humble. This is the beginning of his service. He has been chosen to be Messiah. Jesus did not shy away from this service.
As part of Jesus’ baptism—the heavens were torn apart. Jesus’ identity was affirmed by the father; this is how we get our identity too. The heavens are torn apart for us as well. We live our lives in the balance of humility and knowing that we are made in the image of God.
Always We Begin Again—A new year, a new book.
We begin 2021 by reading the introduction and first section of Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living by John McQuiston II (Preface through page 14.) The Rule of St. Benedict provided guidelines for monastic living by giving order to the monk’s day with a balance of prayer and work. Although it may be impossible to follow the Rule strictly while maintaining a life in the world, it is the longing of the Benedictine oblate to have a “creatively balanced framework for life.”
St. Benedict instructs that “every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection.” (RB: Prologue vs. 4)
Embedded in the guidance from St. Benedict in his Rule is that we must both pray and work, ora et labora. The prayers offered by religious at the Democratic National Convention embody the longing for peace and justice that, as Americans, we hope for and work towards. The prayers offered must not be declared only once but be the prayer of our hearts and in our every breath.
My Benedictine Oblate friend, Gloria, invited me to pray with her each day the prayers that Sr. Simone Campbell and Fr. James Martin, SJ shared at the DNC. Her suggestion gave me the idea to invite all who desire peace in the United States of America to also join us in daily prayer.
I share below the text and video of the prayers offered by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK and leader of Nuns on the Bus; Fr. James Martin, S.J., editor at large at America Media; Rabbi Lauren Berkun of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; and Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid from The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
Sister Simone Campbell
“The very first paragraph of the Scripture that informs the three Abrahamic traditions tells us: The Divine Spirit breathed over the waters of chaos and brought forth a new creation. Encouraged by this promise that a new creation can come from chaos, let us pray:
O Divine Spirit!
During the weeks and months ahead, stir our hearts and minds that we might fight for a vision that is worthy of you and your call to honor the dignity of all of your creation.
A vision of who we are as a people, grounded in community and care for all, especially the most marginalized.
A vision that cares for our earth and heals the planet.
A vision that ends structural racism, bigotry and sexism so rife now in our nation and in our history.
A vision that ensures hungry people are fed, children are nourished, immigrants are welcomed.
O Spirit, breathe in us and our leaders a new resolve…that committed to this new American promise, we will work together to build a national community grounded in healing, fearlessly based on truth, and living out of a sense of shared responsibility.
In the name of all that is holy, O Spirit, bring out of this time of global and national chaos a new creation, a new community that can, with your help, realize this new promise that we affirm tonight.
Topic: Seek Peace and Pursue It, Rule of St. Benedict: Prologue 17
Sources: John 14:27 and John 16:29-33; Study Guide for The Rule of St. Benedict, pages 13-15, Maria-Thomas Beil, OSB
The questions that guided our discussion were: How can we remain peaceful despite the anxiety caused by the pandemic and political division? And in light of our Lectio Divina readings: What did Jesus mean by the gift of peace? Oblates of Christ the King Priory met in person at St. Benedict Center for our August meeting, respectfully following safety guidelines of physically distancing at least six feet apart and wearing face coverings. Those who were not able to make the drive had the option to Zoom in. All are encouraged to follow the 11th Commandment: