“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
Ana, The Book of Longings
In The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, Ana writes this prayer of longing on the incantation bowl her aunt Yaltha has gifted her. “Do you know what an incantation bowl is?” Yaltha asked. “In Alexandria we women pray with them. We write our most secret prayer inside them…Every day we sign the prayer. As we do, we turn the bowl in slow circles and the words wriggle to life and spin off toward heaven.”
“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.”
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—advocate for social justice, racial harmony and equality, civil rights and non-violent resistance. In his 1964 Nobel Lecture titled “The quest for peace and justice” he states
“Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964
Over five decades later, this week of the inauguration of our 46th President, the United States of America is reeling from the insurrection of January 6, 2021. It is also the date of Epiphany, celebrated in Christianity as the date Magi visit the Christ Child, recognizing that Divine Light has become incarnate in our world.
Americans are experiencing an epiphany of their own. Deep divisions that exist in our country have been made clear, brought from the darkness into the light—no doubt, as King stated, “a descending spiral ending in destruction.” How did we end up here? Surely most of us desire the “permanent peace” King spoke of, and yet here we are. I have no answers so I read and re-read the words of MLK and look to my faith for understanding.
I reflect on the opportunity I had last year to attend a concert of The American Spiritual Ensemble (ASE) at a local church—a concert to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with African American spirituals. MLK wrote that spirituals “give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote that civil rights activists “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday’.”
The King Center, a living memorial to MLK, envisions a world where global brotherhood and sisterhood are not a dream but the state of humankind.
Let this be our prayer today—
May we walk together as children of God, that we ease the suffering of those near and far from us, that we stand up for the oppressed—the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the suffering. Let us pray, that through our efforts and the grace of God, that we shall overcome. May this week of Inauguration be peaceful and all involved be protected from harm. Amen.
I write more HERE about the American Spiritual Ensemble, the importance of Negro spirituals and their impact on American music.
December 2020 Lectio Divina and Oblate Reflections
Sources: Luke 1:67-79; The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72 Study Guide for The Rule of St. Benedict, Maria-Thomas Beil, OSB, page 180-185
For our Lectio Divina practice, we read more deeply the well-known Benedictus that is prayed every morning in the Divine Office, Luke 1:67-79.
Words and phrases that resonate with us, shared in our discussion:
Save us from our enemies….to show mercy….to set us free… without fear…. knowledge of salvation….forgiveness of our sins….the way of peace…promise….prepare his way…you, my child…tender compassion.
The Benedictus proclaims what God is doing and will do for us—not what we do. Many of us have grown up with the image of an angry God, but that is not the God we are shown in Scripture. We are promised a God of tender compassion, not a bookkeeper of judgments. Mercy is God’s loving response to suffering. God is not watching from afar; God is suffering with us.
The dawn from on high breaks upon us—God is breaking in with the incarnation and gives us hope. Benedict was not harsh, but practical, just as God is tender. God enters our history to experience our suffering with us, but we must expose our wounds for the tender compassion of our God to work. To prepare our heart, we must invite God in. Advent was a time to prepare our hearts for God to enter—although this task is never fully completed. We must live in perpetual Advent, inviting God in and humbling ourselves without fear, to receive the tender compassion of our loving God.
During Advent, we wait in darkness for the light of Christmas Day. We circle around the Advent wreath, igniting another candle each week.
Advent is about longing for the God that breaks into time and space as a baby in a manger. Advent is about cultivating patience and not rushing to the Incarnation. Advent is the ultimate “vorfreude”, anticipating the joy of God becoming one of us, that God in his humanity has shared with us his divinity.
“God became human so that his divine life might flow into us and free us from our mortality and impermanence…to fulfill the deepest longings for transformation and the healing of lives.”
Anselm Grün, A Time of Fulfillment
The Advent wreath symbolizes the coming of the birth of Jesus, the light of Christmas drawing near and the anticipation of the Christ-light breaking into our life and world. With each passing week, the candle represents our hope that light will dispel the darkness.
So it is with us. We circle around the same issues, questions, and problems in our lives, struggling with the dark and light within us and around us. And we pray that God breaks in, that the light will prevail.
“When we come to understand that everything in our world, including its darker aspects, derives from God, we begin to realize that much of what we perceive as “bad” is, from the divine perspective, simply another piece of the sacred whole…that which appears as darkness to us may very well be the beacon to our redemption.”
Niles Elliot Goldstein, God at the Edge
The beauty of the Advent season is recognizing and honoring this darkness in ourselves, in others and in the world. This darkness that we prefer to deny, flee from or quickly fix is actually the beginning of something new and hopeful happening in ourselves. The darkness can bring a great light. “We see the darkness and we forget even darkness is light to God.” (Deidra Riggs, Every Little Thing)
The expectant and hopeful waiting in Advent when Jesus is in the womb, where possibility of new birth is upon us in the waiting and tender honing of our patience, is where we must begin. We begin in the womb.
Consider creating a SoulCollage® card or journaling with the following questions:
So what is it that needs to be birthed within us? In our world?
How do we accept and forgive the darkness in our selves and others while nurturing and encouraging the positive?
What can we bring out of darkness and into the light?
What gives us the strength to wait in patience, to trust that our circling around will bring us into the light?
“I am one who” is a prompt to begin to speak from and about the images that intuitively come together. Using all three of the collage creations on this post, I write:
I am one who walks through rough and rocky terrain. I am one who dances gracefully in the light. I am one who casts shadows. I am one who gets stuck. I am one who circles around and around, sometimes feeling a little lost.
I trudge reluctantly… or tread carefully… or move forward faithfully. I am one who, with open arms, embraces both dark and light: in myself, in others, in my world. I see the light and the darkness, the gold and the shadows, the smooth and the rough. I go through all…the white sand, the gold dust, the smooth and rocky, the hard and broken, the shadowy or the illuminated, the gray, the light, the dark.
I am one who is filled with hope. I pray. I am one who feels hopeless too. Eyes open, door ajar, I glimpse the light. I am one who closes my eyes, sometimes trusting and at times in denial. I dance the dance of light and darkness.
I stretch out my arms in surrender to the moments, layers, phases, experiences that are light and darkness intermingled; Darkness that seems like it will never pass and pure, unadulterated light that never ends. I am one who believes that the Christ-child covers both light and dark, in me and in the world.
I hope, I pray that I hold the two in balance; honoring both, recognizing both, knowing I am both, knowing others are both. I surrender to rebirth, to a new way of being and seeing and accepting. I am one who holds together the dark and the light.
“…the light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome it.The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1-1:5
May the darkness of Advent, the light of Christmas, and the new insights of Epiphany be with you. By holding the sufferings and joys of our life together, may we come to see Christ in new ways.
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”
― LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Listening to the sweet and soulful songs of Alana Levandoski is prayer itself. I discovered Alana through the Center for Action and Contemplation and have used her contemplative songs and chants in retreats I have led and in my own prayer practice. Whether setting music to her own words, or lyrics drawn from poetry or scripture, her singing is elevated prayer.
Ring Out, Wild Bells, a poem sung by Alana, is a heartfelt, prayerful intention to ring out the old of 2020, a year of great challenges, and to ring in the new of 2021. The poem, In Memoriam, (Ring out, wild bells) was written during a time of grief, nearly 150 years ago by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The lyrics ring true for both letting go and welcoming in—letting go of the false, feuding, dying, grief, pride, partisan divide, and civic slander WHILE welcoming in the new, true, noble, sweet, pure, love, truth, light, and peace.
(Image above taken at St. Jacob’s Church bell tower in Telc, Czechia)
Enjoy Alana’s new video of Ring Out, Wild Bells! And at the bottom of this post, learn more about Alana, how to find her music and some additional prayerful songs to start your new year.
Each is an expression of his hospitality. A true gentleman with a heart for one who needs compassion and comfort and the most energetic man I have ever met celebrates his 80th birthday today, December 29, 2020. Fr. Volker has touched many lives through his work as a Missionary Benedictine—as Oblate Director, Sub-Prior, and Mission Procurator—known especially for his hospitality. He is the living example of the instructions of St. Benedict, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: “I was a stranger and you took Me in” (Mt 25:35).”