Walking in the Holy Presence by Valerie Luckey

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Updated: 53 min 52 sec ago

Women Talking

Mon, 2023-02-06 14:56
Last week at dinner we were talking about our favorite films of all time. As a woman of a certain age, I have no choice but to include Titanic on the list, but there are others with perhaps some higher cinematic standards, too, that I included like The Shawshank Redemption.
Little did I know that I would add another film to the list a few days later.
J and I went to see Women Talking, the Oscar-nominated film by Sarah Polley. In the story (based on a novel, based on a true events), a group of women who belong to a Mennonite religious colony must discern whether they will stay or leave after the men continually abuse them. 
Yes, the subject matter isn't easy, but the movie was so well made, so well acted, so thought-provoking that it had us captivated from start to finish. It started at 7:45pm, and I didn't even fall asleep! A true compliment!
Of course, it's hard not to think about the Rule of Benedict where, in Chapter 3, Benedict call asks the prioress or abbot to call the community for counsel. The movie was basically an ongoing dialogue of discernment. There was listening, there was arguing, there was spirit moving, there was intergenerational insight.
I cannot recommend it enough, though I admit, it might be not for everyone.
I'd also recommend the burrata at Cloud 9! Women talking over food!
Let us walk in the holy presence.

On Monastic Prayer, continued + 1,000 Hours

Fri, 2023-01-20 18:42
You know those alarm clocks that allow you to "wake up" to the sounds of nature. I had one as a kid, and I remember choosing the "Babbling Brook" setting.
Well, this morning we had our very own all-natural alarm clock as water began dripping from the roof into chapel during morning praise! It certainly woke us up!
What was even better were the lines from Psalm 32 we chanted, punctuated by the drip, drip, drip:So let the faithful pray to youin their time of need.Even flood waters will never reach them.
Oh, all is one! (And ironic!)
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Speaking of nature, I am just about done with a new book by religion historian Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World
She reminds us what so many others have reminded us: we humans are the ground we walk on. Let us be a bit more reverent; let us recognize our place in the cosmos. (See: Benedictine humility)
Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book.
Human beings have the freedom to make a voluntary act of islam (the "surrender" of ego) and to consciously shape their lives so that they reflect the source of being.

We can practice a simple exercise that will remind us of the kenosis [self-emptying] that is central to a fulfilled human life. This is not a prayer. It is simply a short, sharp reminder of the essential frailty of our humanity that enables us to see ourselves realistically and, hopefully, improve. Every day, first thing in the morning and at night, for just a few moments we should consider three things: how little we know; how frequently we fail in kindness to other beings; and how limited are our desires and yearnings, which so often begin and end in our self.


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Speaking of nature (again), J suggested that we take on a challenge: spend 1,000 hours outside over the course of the year. Doing simple math, i.e. 1,000/365, we have to spend an average of just under 2.75 hours outside each day to achieve this goal. We are banking on summer days and maybe a camping trip (or two) to help us along. 
I am still not so sure it will really be achievable for me, but it's certainly something worth striving for. Plus, the comprehensive spreadsheet I made to log our hours is delightful for my organized and goal-oriented self!
Here are some photos I have captured over the first 2% of the journey! (980 hours to go!)
Let us walk in the holy presence.
I love the contrast of the fog and these trees.
And I love when the horizon is indistinguishable.
Overall, it hasn't been too snowy of a winter here.

Old Monk + The Gingko

Sun, 2023-01-08 19:03
So many of us have memories of Old Monk, communal and individual, professional and personal, and all those memories somewhere in-between. 
The one I want to share here happened in October 2020, when we expected that she might only have a few months left after her cancer had metastasized. 
Old Monk decided the time had come to clean out her writing studio where she led numerous writing workshops, facilitated book and poetry discussions, and spent hours writing in solitude, too. She asked me to help her with the task.
So, on a Monday afternoon we took some boxes to the classroom-turned-artist studio at St. Mary's School. There, there were so many books of poetry, books on teaching poetry, books on writing, so many books. But, among the books were so many ideas. On one piece of paper scattered among many, as though it were nothing, I found in her scratchy scribble, "COLLEGE FOR POOR." Then, there was a list underneath:
PhilosophyArt HistoryLogicRhetoricPoetryAmerican History
30 students2 nights a week/90 minutes
The paper was caught between others, as though it were nothing, but it was illustrative of Old Monk's life: big ideas. Yet, it was just another idea among many of hers that would add something beautiful and just to the world.
That was Old Monk's life, adding beauty and justice to the world as a sign of God's love for us all. And doing it in a uniquely creative and prophetic way.
At one point, after we had boxed up the things she wanted to keep, Old Monk went to sit down. She said to me, "Come, sit down. Let's let our souls catch up to us."
Mary Lou did so much in her prodigious lifetime; I was fortunate enough that my life crossed her own, even if only at the very end. And even though she did so much: advancing movements and holy ideas, creating communities and ministries, writing books and poems and pamphlets and reflections, she still found a way to let her "soul catch up to her" each day with a disciplined morning routine of prayer and reflection. And all she did was done with such fidelity to and integrity for life. Her life reminds me of the quote about Saint Scholastica, Benedict's twin sister: She could do more because she loved more.
In that same afternoon, she put on a hat that had been sitting on a shelf in her studio. It said "Art—Break the Rules." She loved art, and she loved breaking the rules. I asked her for some bit of wisdom; I don't even remember the exact question, but she replied, wearing this ridiculous-but-perfectly-suited-to-her-personality hat and that characteristic grin.
"You gotta keep choosing life."

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Of course, Mary Lou did keep choosing life. She fought death all the way to the end; she fought death for two years more than her terminal prognosis. She fought death in so many ways throughout her 81 years here on earth. She committed herself to giving life to community, to the poor, to the nonviolent moment, to the gospel message, to furthering the cause of women (especially in the Church), to art, to feast and family, to all these parts of life that she cherished.
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Old Monk loved ginkgo trees, too. I saw this one during a walk on a fall afternoon in the city she loved so much.
On the Smithsonian Education website, it reads:
In Japanese decorative art, the ginkgo’s distinctive fan-shaped leaf has carried symbolism along with its singular beauty: the ginkgo has been a symbol of longevity (the tree can live for a thousand years) and of a more profound endurance (four ginkgos survived the blast at Hiroshima and are still growing today).


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a more profound enduranceand a more profound way of livingshe could do more because she loved morethat was mary lou kownacki.
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Let us walk in the holy presence.

New Year, Same Liminality

Sun, 2023-01-01 11:05
My mentor and I are reading Pema Chödrön's new book, How We Live is How We Die. The contents are as challenging and scary to take in as the title suggests! The title reminds me of a line that one of our sisters sometimes quotes to me from another sister, "As you are in the novitiate, so you'll be in the infirmary."
It's hard to not think about death these days.
Another dear and greatly influential mentor of mine passed away last week. Dr. Robak's wisdom helped to set in motion a lot of necessary discernment and change in my life during my senior year of undergrad. I can't imagine I'd be where I am today without his presence.
And Old Monk also continues her transition back to stardust.
Rafiki is another wise mentor at a time like this: "It's the circle of life."

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We have only read the first three chapters from Pema, but the focus is impermanence. She writes, "Contemplating continual change is a poignant experience."
It feels especially poignant right now.
But, the reality of living in a constant liminal space does open us up to connection and compassion.
During this time, though, Pema offers comfort:
These feelings [of sadness or anxiety that come from reflecting on the passage of time and reality of impermanence] aren't a sign of something being wrong. We don't have to push them away. We don't have to label them as negative or reject them in any way. Instead, we can develop openheartedness to our painful emotions around impermanence. We can learn to sit with these feelings, to become curious about them, to see what vulnerability has to offer. In that very fear, in that very melancholy, is our compassionate heart, our immeasurable wisdom, our connection to all other living beings on this planet, each of whom are going through their own bardos [in-between states]. When we stay present with our transitory experience and all that its fleetingness evokes, we get in touch with our braver self, our deepest nature.
May this new year be one of deep connection and deep compassion for and with all creation as we change and grow together.
Let us walk in the holy presence.
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A Christmas-Day walk to the lake offered us these scenes. 60-degree weather last week changed that landscape quite a bit though!

A fuller meaning of Christmas

Fri, 2022-12-23 18:39
A handful of our brave staff and volunteers ventured out to the soup kitchen for our Christmas dinner this afternoon amidst some pretty hazardous driving and weather conditions. While the snowfall isn't too deep here yet, the wind and the chill are dangerous. I am grateful to those organizing and running our city's shelter, especially during these days.
I am always amazed by the faithfulness of the Emmaus community, but I shouldn't be; they always show up. Whether it was the height of the pandemic when so much about our safety and wellbeing was uncertain, to a rather serious and extended Christmas storm today, so many are selfless when it comes to living the gospel in the daily.
I recently stumbled upon this reflection from Old Monk in her book, A Monk in the Inner City. The reflection is titled "Yuletide Carols," and it captures so wonderfully why we wait in hope for the coming of our incarnated Savior.______________________
The Advent season is especially meaningful this year. The snows are heavy and deep and comforting. It is easy to pray with Isaiah,

Though your sins be red as crimson,
I will make them white as wool.

And there is such silence. City noises, encased in yards of white swaddling, are muffled. Cars, concrete sidewalks, and other hard objects lie buried under the soft snow.

We are forced to slow down—walk carefully so we don’t slip; drive cautiously so we don’t skid. We can spend more time indoors reading, listening to music, and praying. We prepare. For soon, “when the earth is in peaceful silence, and the night is in the midst of its course, your almighty Word, O Lord, will leap down from heaven.”

It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that this is what Christmas is all about.

Thank God for the soup kitchen. Is there a lonelier place on earth as Christmas nears? The guys start drinking in the middle of the month so that by Christmas week they can’t even hear the words “I’ll be home for Christmas” blaring on the radio. It’s their only defense. We try to make it less sad. But even handing out brightly wrapped socks and scarves and lotions, or having a party and singing Christmas carols and drinking hot chocolate doesn’t ease the heartbreak.

I’m grateful for both experiences—quiet confident joy at the coming of the Savior, tempered by the harsh reality of human suffering. Together, they capture a fuller meaning of Christmas.______________________
Thank you, Old Monk. And Christmas blessings to you all! May you be incarnated love each day.
Let us walk in the holy presence.
Mary graces our Emmaus office, also waiting hopefully.
The tree graces chapel, and the photo doesn't do it justice.
It's from our woods, and it's totally magnificent.The liminality of Advent and Christmas on display.

Pizzelles: A Perfectionist's Perspective

Mon, 2022-12-19 14:59
Everyone gets on my case about being a perfectionist. And while it causes undue anxiety and tension in my life, there are times when it's helpful. And there are also times when others come out to play the game with me!
Pizzelle night is one of those moments.
A yearly tradition at the monastery, everyone looks to make the *perfect* circle with the pizzelle irons, getting just the right amount of batter at just the right location for just the right amount of time. And when they do, they want everyone to know. And we all rejoice in those satisfying shapes.
Marilyn, responsible, for the operation, gives us all pointers before we start, elevating the hope that the perfect circle is within our reach!
You can see many of my attempts above...Maybe not perfect, but they certainly offered an opportunity to appreciate diversity!
Many joined in on the fun!


Here was my best attempt of the evening!
But, of course, when they aren't perfect, we have to cut off the extra ends...and eat them, too! Maybe imperfections aren't so bad!
The anise and vanilla cookies are all boxed and ready to savor on Christmas Eve after Liturgy... Anticipation!
Let us walk in the holy presence.

To Be of Use: More on Advent

Sat, 2022-12-10 20:26
One of my favorite scenes at the monastery these days can be spotted in our courtyard. Each Advent one of our sisters decorates with lights. It used to be just the magnolia tree, but now it has extended to the bushes on the west side of the courtyard. And this year, another extension! Look at Mary herself!

Salve Regina!
It makes me think of a Marge Piercy poem I love.
To be of use
Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Mary wants to be of use, too.
We know Mary isn't the passive young mother in the way history has portrayed her. No, she was fully submerged in the task of being the Mother of God, and she is a model for us today. She, too, is an incarnation of God's love in our world—teaching us mercy, compassion, resiliency, and courage. No wonder God opted for incarnation; we, too, are here to be put to use.
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My friend shared with me a most beautiful rendition of the first lines of Isaiah 54 from the group Sweet Honey in the Rock—Sing Oh Barren One. It's worth the 12 minutes, I promise!

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I just finished a book called lighter by yung pueblo. The cover has the appearance a self-help book, which can be off-putting to me, but I found it to be one of the most profound books that I've read about doing inner work, i.e. making it an appropriate and beautiful Advent read.
In between his prose, yung pueblo (It's a pseudonym meaning "young people" and signifying that "humanity is entering an era of remarkable growth and healing, when many will expand their self-awareness and release old burdens.") intersperses some short, thought-provoking poetry.
It's that inner work, or as monastics would call it—conversatio—that allows us to more fully express the truth of incarnation.
Here's an example of these poems, one which I think is also fitting for this liturgical season:
we allow ourselves to love because it's worth the riskeven though there is the chance of loss or hurtwe take the leap again and againbecause love is one of the best parts of being alivewe don't do it because it's easywe do it because connection makes everything brighter
Let us keep taking the risks of love—even when it doesn't feel useful, even when we feel barren.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

Advent: A Different Perspective

Sat, 2022-12-03 18:38
On the first day that we heard Isaiah proclaimed at morning prayer our sister read with such conviction those dreamy, yet possible passages of hope, light, and promise. 
It must be Advent! And how good that is...
... because Advent offers us an opportunity to hope and dream of what it might look like if we took more seriously the reality of incarnation, the truth that we are embodied love.

It's a perspective we could really use these days. (Isn't that the kind of stuff we say each Advent?!)

I love this poem by Jan Richardson because it gives us a different perspective on the Annunciation. Of course we ponder for ourselves how insurmountable it might have felt for Mary to say "Yes" and hope we might muster up the courage to give a real, heartfelt one ourselves at least once in our lives.
But, how must it have felt to bear the news to Mary, to have to be the one to tell her about God's big ask? No wonder it took an angel!
I hope you love the poem, too.
Let us walk in the holy presence.



Gabriel’s AnnunciationJan Richardson
For a momentI hesitatedon the threshold.For the spaceof a breathI paused,unwilling to disturbher last ordinary moment,knowing that the next stepwould cleave her life:that this daywould slice her storyin two,dividing all the days beforefrom all the onesto come.
The artists would laterdepict the scene:Mary dazzledby the archangel,her head bowedin humble assent,awed by the messengerwho condescendedto leave paradiseto bestow such an honorupon a woman, and mortal.
Yet I tell youit was I who was dazzled,I who found myself agapewhen I came upon her—reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,I cannot now recall;only that the woman before me—blessed and full of gracelong before I called her so—shimmered with how completelyshe inhabited herself,inhabited the space around her,inhabited the momentthat hung between us.
I wanted to save herfrom what I had been sentto say.
Yet when the time came,when I had stammeredthe invitation(history would not recordthe sweat on my brow,the pounding of my heart;would not notethat I saidDo not be afraidto myself as much asto her)it was shewho saved me—her first deliverance—her Let it benot just declarationto the Divinebut a word of solace,of soothing,of benediction
for the angelin the doorwaywho would hesitateone last time—just for the spaceof a breathtorn from his chest—before wrenching himself awayfrom her radiant consent,her beautiful andawful yes.

Renounce and Enjoy (and Give Thanks)

Wed, 2022-11-23 13:14
During her reflections at my final profession, our prioress quoted Gandhi's secret to life. (Get ready...it's not fun...)

Renounce and enjoy.
Isn't that brutal? Let go of it all, and experience joy. The gospel was about the young person who wanted to know the secret to inheriting eternal life. Renounce and enjoy... Really? Is there no other way?
Well, I got a fresh, and even more challenging, take on renunciation while reading Pema Chödrön's, The Wisdom of No Escape.
"Renunciation does not have to be regarded as negative. I was taught that it has to do with letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teachings of the present moment.
"It's probably good to think of the ground of renunciation as being our good old selves, our basic decency and sense of humor. [...] It's as if everyone who has ever been born has the same birthright, which is enormous potential of warm heart and clear mind. The ground of renunciation is realizing that we already have exactly what we need, that what we have already is good. Every moment of time has enormous energy in it, and we could connect with that."
Renunciation is not just about giving up my possessions; it's about giving up anything that takes me out of the present moment. For me, that usually has something to do with giving up my ego and my anxieties and embracing my conceited, worried self just as it is. It means, after the awareness comes, trying to move away from the conceit and anxiety without beating myself up, but rather laughing at myself for falling into the traps of the ego, yet again, for the hundredth (thousandth?!) time that day. Renunciation is about giving up anything that takes me away from being who I am, where I am—so that I can be open, honest, and light-hearted about who I am, where I am.
Well, I'd rather renounce my extra winter coat.
(But it doesn't hurt to do that, too.)
I think, or at least hope, we've all had some taste of it—letting go of our agendas, letting go of our desire to live somewhere other than reality, letting go of our idea of the right way to do something, letting go of wanting to be something other than who we are—and tasting the joy that comes from just being. It's the call of meditation, as Pema would remind us. Let go. Breathe. Be. Renounce. Enjoy.
Yes, it's harder than giving away our coats, but there is indeed so much joy waiting for us there.
At the start of the chapter on renunciation from Pema, she writes that when people enter the Buddhist faith, they receive a title. People aren't too happy when they receive the title "Renunciation." No wonder.
We, too, in our community receive a title at profession. My title is "Of Mary, Joyful Bearer of the Word."
It's hard to joyfully bear much of anything when I am caught up in myself. No wonder I needed a reminder to "renounce" if I was going to "enjoy." 
I am so, so grateful to all those who journey on the path of renunciation with me. I am grateful to community, friends, family, guests of Emmaus, our volunteers, and so many more who come into my life with a reminder that the work of renunciation is worth it for the joy it bears in our lives.

Joyful Thanksgiving to you all!
Let us walk in the holy presence.


War No More

Sat, 2022-11-12 18:31
I always struggle to decide if I should watch movies about war.

This choice is made even more difficult when my favorite trusty website, Rotten Tomatoes, shows a good rating for a film or show on the topic. (As my friends know, I trust the site's averages [sample size dependent] wholeheartedly.)
So, when I saw that the new film version of All Quiet on the Western Front had a 92% with 99 reviews, I had to do some discernment.
I did end up watching it. The opening scenes were mostly piles of dead, bloody bodies, and people stacking piles of dead, bloody bodies. That made me cry.
And now I am writing this blog in response.
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When I was teaching, I kept this classic poster somewhere in each of my classrooms.

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Here's a poem I love... Bees by Alden Solovy

The bees
Do not stop
Collecting pollen
When humans
Murder each other
With guns.
The bees think:
How strange,
How low
On the evolutionary scale
Must those humans be,
That they haven’t yet
Figured out
How to make honey
Or peace.

___________

When will those wildflowers in our backyard begin blooming?

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I taught in a Quaker school for a year, and we weren't even to put war into the curriculum. It's debatable on a lot of levels, but it's what we did. We also had a tribute assembly at that school when Pete Seeger died.

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Josh Ritter, one of my favorite artists, sings some of the best contemporary anti-war music I've found.

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Old Monk has a quote on the wall of her office...
"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask: 'Mother, what was war?'"
Gets me every time.
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May we walk into the Advent season with the Peace of Christ in our hearts and in our voices.
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Let us walk in the holy presence.

Another World

Sun, 2022-11-06 14:14
These are reflections I shared at Liturgy this morning, based on today's Lectionary.

II Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Luke 20:27-38

_____________________________

You know, if I had chosen readings to reflect on, I wouldn’t have chosen these.

I might have chosen Mary and Martha, or the Prodigal Son, or, any number of other biblical stories.

BUT…

That’s what you get for saying “Yes” without looking at the readings first!

And, isn’t that how life is anyway? We wake up in the morning; we say “Yes” to a new day, and then… the experiences that present themselves are rarely the ones we’d choose for ourselves, or the ones we’d imagine having.

So often the life that comes our way is challenging, mysterious, unexpected.

But it’s our life, and we’ve chosen to say “Yes,” so we have to do something with it.

So we do our best to dive in, to grapple with it, to live.

And once we dive in and grapple with these readings, there’s much to glean about our attitudes, our choices, and our way of moving through the world.

“There is another world, but it is in this one.”

I read this quote in a book recommended to me about the possibility of creating utopias here and now.

In the story from the Maccabees, there is another world for rulers who scourge those who live by their convictions, and we experience it in the pained, yet strong mother and her faith-filled sons.

In Luke’s Gospel, there is another world for those so concerned about distinctions and black and white answers that they cannot fully live, and we experience it in burning bushes and resurrections.

But inhabiting that latter world involves a choice. And it’s a hard choice. Because we are anxious, because we want clarity and not complexity, because we aren’t willing to let go of our grasp on the way things “should be,” because the work, both inner and outer, required to live in that other world demands too much of us, and asks us to change in a way that feels too far a stretch for us.

Yet, still, we hear the call to that world each morning. And we have to choose daily, and even in each moment, which world we not only inhabit, but also create.

We know from our own experiences, and now from these Scripture stories, that it is our experience of the Divine that takes us into that other world; it is our experience with the suffering and those on the margins that takes us into that other world; it is our experience of hardships and the inherent messiness of being alive that open us up to that other world. Does the Divine scourge? Does the Divine want black and white?

We know another world is possible. We have experienced it—the one of the mother and her sons, the world where what we eat does not matter as much as making sure those around us are not starving while we ourselves feast. We can create it right now.

We know another world is possible. We have experienced it—the one where our belief in life eternal unites us, the world where our true marriage is to the oneness that connects us all. We can create it right now.

But, to live in that world, we also have to choose a different narrator. The narrator cannot be those in power; it cannot be the capitalist economy; it cannot be the oppressor. We have to hear another perspective.

Come to the soup kitchen and listen to any hungry guest. Go to the shoreline and watch the water rise inch by inch. Take a walk through the poverty of any town or city. Unite yourself with the pain of the world.

Let your world be turned upside down by this new perspective. Welcome it with an open and compassionate heart and a robust humility. Welcome it with a desire for change, a desire to create a new world.

Because there is another world, but it is in this one.

It’s why we come to this chapel, to be together and to strengthen our communal resolve to choose to live in and create that other world, here and now—the one we know is so available to us when we hear another perspective.

That’s the outer world—our relationships with each other and with the earth itself. And how about my inner world? What about my relationship with myself?

What happens when I choose to narrate my own story rather than let someone else do it? What other world emerges? The woman and her sons do not allow the ruler to narrate their story. Jesus does not allow the Sadducees to narrate his. And it’s not only that I narrate my own story, but it’s the attitude with which I narrate it. Do I narrate my story through the world of my jealousies, my grudges, my desire for control and easy answers? Or, do I narrate my life through my experience of the Divine? Is my story one of abundance, of gratitude, of concern for others?

The former is so much easier than the latter, so much more comfortable, so much more seemingly secure. But, we know the former world is passing away. As we move closer and closer to Advent, the choice becomes more and more clear and more and more necessary. Christ is coming. Let go of the world you knew. Say to yourself, “I am the light of the world. I am the light of the world. I am the light of the world.” Believe it. Become it.

The possibility of this Christ-centered world comes in each moment, and there is a deep call from God to choose it.

And its name is simple. It’s love.
_____________________________
Let us walk in the holy presence.

a new day begins at the monastery

On Community

Fri, 2022-10-28 09:31
This weekend is our annual community weekend. The formal one. Our sister Joan Chittister will be speaking on the Synod and synodality to the community, which includes many of our oblates who will join us beginning today. Some, coming from a greater distance, have already started trickling in, making for a nice, fuller choir at prayer this morning.
Last weekend was a different sort of "community weekend" as another 100 trees were planted across the street on our property at Glinodo. Many helping hands joined to plant the trees, mulch around them, and protect them from hungry deer with cages. Even our Sister Lucia, 89-years-old and still-going-strong (!!!), came out to help on a rather glorious fall day. The trees were planted as part of the Re-Leaf project from LEAF (Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier), with a goal to plant one tree for each citizen in the county over the course of a few years. They serve a double purpose, though. The trees will grow where the goats (who were here in the summer) gobbled up invasive species. This helps to prevent as much re-growth of the multiflora roses and other varieties that had taken over by the creek. Native berry trees made up the majority of one hundred planted.
Planting along the creek
Thanks, Lucia!
Jackie looking like she belongs on a holy card!
Jackie liked that I was wearing an appropriate shirt; it reads, "Cultivate community"
Certainly these trees and their roots will strengthen each other as they add more beauty to our property.
The Thursday before Saturday, eighth graders from St. Luke's parish school came to Emmaus Grove to clear the garden for the winter, providing a great help to our master gardeners who volunteer their time to plant and harvest over 2,000 pounds of fresh produce each season for guests at our food pantry.

We know that caring for the earth is a communal effort, so it's wonderful to watch so many people coming out to help with these good projects.
And fall is definitely here, so the work must get done sooner rather than later! It’s hard for me to let go of the warmth and fullness of late summer. You know those days when you might need a sweatshirt but can still get away with shorts if you really want to? As I scraped my car this morning for the first time, I knew summer had really ended.
Fall is here.But, goodness, isn't it beautiful?
Natural proof that blue and orange belong together!

One of Jackie's goddaughters snapped this photo...I am obsessed with the shadows.
Mom snapped this one and sent it to me! She said it never stormed though...
I love the vibrant, richly colored hydrangeas next to the bare black-eyed susans... talk about diversity in community!
I thought our "library tree" couldn't get any more beautiful than it does during its spring blossoming, but this red hue might be close!

The letting go and trusting that the fall season calls us to are much more bearable when we are surrounded by community...by each other and by the beauty of nature.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

On Beauty

Sat, 2022-10-22 06:55
I recently listened to a great Ezra Klein podcast featuring Chloé Cooper Jones, the author of the memoir Easy Beauty. I haven't read the book yet, but it's next on my "to-read" pile after another memoir I just picked up, Solito. (Yes, the memoir is my favorite literary genre!)
A lot of moments stood out to me in the interview, and, of course, I listened to it a few weeks ago, so I don't remember much. 
But I do remember one point she made.
She said we sometimes feel weird when we don't experience beauty and awe in places and spaces where it's more-or-less expected, but instead, experience them in some inconspicuous moment. For instance, you might have just visited the Louvre, seen the Mona Lisa for the first time, but it's outside the museum, watching a pigeon pecking at food crumbs that moves you to tears.
I also copied down this quote from Chloé during the interview:
Beauty gives us an opportunity to step outside the palace of self-regard.
Well, if that isn't humbling! It was made even more humbling because I listened while taking a walk in downtown Erie, in and around our ministries and up to State Street (the street that divides the city into east and west). I saw a family—mother, father, and son—whose children I taught at daycare. And I wondered, why were they walking all the way up 10th Street during the school day. And I saw a couple who eats at the soup kitchen across the street from me, and we waved at each other while cars passed by. And I saw a pile of belongings from another man who comes to eat with us from time-to-time, all his belongings in the nook of a doorway on 11th. He wasn't there, but his things were; I knew it was his stuff because I've seen him there, spending away the hours—in that nook. The thing that killed me was the green top of a fresh pineapple, just the top, now wilted and brown. And his dirty stuffed tiger.
Chloé also said, of the experience of experiencing beauty:
I am broken out of the prison of myself.
We know it well. Stare at a full moon in the clear sky. Watch children playing in a fountain. Take in a field of delicate, bright wildflowers. Find the top of a pineapple of a homeless person you know on the street. See how your ego melts away.
How good and how pleasant it iswhen all people dwell in unity. (Psalm 133)
And, of course, I'd add...how beautiful.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

On Monastic Prayer

Mon, 2022-10-17 12:32
Seven years into my monastic journey, and, at this point, I am not quite sure if I could be sustained without communal morning prayer.
Sure, there is the familiar recitation of psalms, the comfort of the Benedictus, the necessary reminder in the Prayer of Jesus to forgive and to let God do God's things for the day, but...
There is also what happens to human beings at 6:30am!
It's great!
As a sister remarked to me once, "Chapel is a circus."
Just this morning, one verse too early, a sister began to stand up for the Doxology. With monastic reflexes and groggy brains, up went the other two sisters sharing the row with her! They all looked at one another and laughed while they sat back down for a couple more lines, until getting up once more to praise the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
But, this smile-worthy story reveals a bit more of what's happening underneath in the monastery.
As cenobitic Benedictines, that is, monastics who live a communal life, we vow ourselves to one another. We vow to go to God together. Sure, we have to work on ourselves, but we are also accountable to each other. We aren't going to God alone, and we can't go too much faster than another sister, or we'll have to stop and let her catch-up. Vice versa, too, of course.
Sometimes not just our brains, but our lives get a bit groggy, too. We aren't attentive, don't listen deeply enough, fall down a bit. And that's when the beauty of going to God together appears. We have others surrounding us who, too, have committed themselves to God. We can reflexively join with them on our own journey. They get up to praise God, so we get up to praise God.
And the chapel holds so much of the symbolism and ritual of that community journey. And, of course, chapel is a circus...we're human!
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It always amazes me when our sisters who we know are in dementia pray with us as if nothing is wrong, their brains still fully there. They follow along with the psalter, utter a liturgical response, or sing a hymn they've sung most their lives. How can someone not be able to name any sister they've lived with most their life, but sing the Salve Regina perfectly, in Latin no less!? A moment like this happened last night; it happens most nights. I witnessed it not only from one sister, but from another, who is in an even more significant stage of cognitive decline. We sang, and she tapped her feet while covered in a fleece blanket, itself covered in virtuous words such as "peace," "trust," and "faith."

These sisters lose their ability to do so much, but in chapel we see the fruits of a lifetime of prayer. It is who they are.

We live this life faithfully, lovingly, and enduringly so that as we change, as we age, as we decline, as we evolve, all that's left is praise.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

The Lingerers and The Letting Go

Mon, 2022-10-10 14:25
It's that time of year.

(I feel like we could say that anytime, and some appropriate metaphor or story would follow.)
Well, right now, it's that time of year when some of those last blooms are hanging on for dear life! Or, are they?
A walk through our inner courtyard revealed just a few of the myriad examples you can find outside during these autumn days.



As I noticed them this morning, I referred to these flowers as "the lingerers" in my mind. They stick around to the last possible moment before letting go. Who knows why...
Just to show off...Because they still have life in them worth living...Because they're not ready yet...Some other reason... Really, who knows?
As we do know, though, nature is very generous in the ways it allows us to flex and create metaphors that help make meaning we want to find, meaning we sometimes need to help us make sense of life. Who hasn't seen a tree and given thanks for the ways it reminds us to root deeply and let go?
If you want to read a good book, pick up Pico Iyer's Autumn Light. I am only about 60 pages in now, but I am finding it a beautiful narrative reflection on letting go, in light of the death of the author's father-in-law in Japan.
However you are lingering yourself these days, how is nature calling you to growth? How is the autumn season calling you differently this year than previous ones?
And, just because, here is one of my favorite trees on our property. Look at that red color. Today I learned that it was struck by lightning some years back and not expected to survive. Well, here it is. (And don't forget about that full moon tonight!)

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Oh, Happy Day, Kathy!

Sat, 2022-10-01 07:07
If you look around the monastery, you might notice a few differences:

There are some colorful, bold mums lined up outside, next to a door that goes into our chapel.
There are unique, yet familiar cookies in the kitchen...

There are extra tables and chairs lined up in the community room...

Yes, today is a special day because our dear Kathy is making her final profession to this community. It's hard to hold back a smile when you spot these differences making your way around the monastery. And more "indicators," if you will, of this grace-filled day will pop up as the day continues. The Paschal Candle will be set up in chapel. Friends and family will walk through the front door. The joy and excitement will build in anticipation of the late-afternoon profession liturgy.

The traditional Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, will interlace the Gospel proclamation during the ceremony. I spent some time listening to varied arrangements and performances of the song yesterday to center myself. It is a well-known and oft-used song and tune, so I shouldn't have been surprised to discover all I found, but perhaps the one that surprised and delighted me most was Aaron Copeland's arrangement.

Community is a celebration of so many gifts, simple and layered, coming together to be something greater than the singular. The gifts that Kathy brings to community are both simple and multifaceted, too. Decades of working in L'Arche communities has gifted Kathy with a patient and gentle presence. Kathy also has a deep love and respect for the natural world. When she was a novice, she revived our composting efforts at the monastery and has helped to care for new trees, reduce plastic in the house, and transport glass recycling that can't be picked up here. Plus, Kathy's infectious smile and laugh make it hard to resist your own.

Kathy was the next woman to enter community after I did, which makes me her "angel"—the one who tried to help with the little things when she began her monastic journey...things as mundane as where to find everyday items or how to turn on the dishwasher. But, of course, few, if anyone, would argue that I have anywhere near the angelic qualities of Kathy. She is one-of-a-kind, and it feels like such a gift to welcome her fully into our community today.

Blessings on you, Kathy.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

_________________________

Enjoy some other versions of Simple Gifts.

Springtime Solitude

Tue, 2022-05-17 15:21
When the wind blows,the scent of the lilacs hits you—Nonviolence.
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Nonviolence:When the wind blows,and the scent of the lilacs hits you.
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Vast varieties of daffodils—Small, big, orange, yellow, white.What’s in a name?

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A diversity of daffodils,The first spring I notice,Might I live differently now?

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In the distanceI hear the monastery bellsCalling me to prayer
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The chapel bell ringsIn the distanceWill I make it home?

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Solitude comes…I make space to welcome it—The dance begins.
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Solitude comesLong-awaited one:Birth new life in me.

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Green,Budding on the branch of every tree.Crayola, no name will suffice.
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Green,Budding uniquely on each and every tree.Crayola, don’t even try.

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Nature repeats the lessonOver and over again—Live easy.Forget the rules.
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The lilies of the valley,The violets of the field,The children of the streets.

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Old Monk is my haiku teacher. When I was a novice, I spent time writing with her for a few months, practicing different styles of poetry. The haiku is her favorite.

I remember trying to force the haiku back then; I remember trying so hard to polish them. I wanted to be ingenious, maybe even cunning with my words. Don’t I do that with my life all too often? I would create a version of the lines in my head, honing the words, not putting anything down until I was satisfied. I would only present one set of lines for each idea. I don’t think I was ever really satisfied though.

Ah, so young. And still, now, so young.

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I went into solitude this past weekend for a much-needed break. The haiku about the lilacs came first, and then some more. But I knew that that one was the gift, the spontaneous grace. I could tell when I was trying harder than I needed to. I went back and experimented with different versions of the same poem. Let it evolve, Val. Let life evolve. Old Monk has taught you that—over and over.

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Here are some poems that came to me on the deck, in the morning, by the water, surrounded by delicious nature.

Thanks, Old Monk. For all the lessons then and now…and in between..and to come.
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Let us walk in the holy presence.

Happy Feast of Benedict!

Mon, 2022-03-21 11:21
My friend, Jackie, wrote a great reflection on the Transfiguration last week. She is writing weekly for an email we receive from our community's federation (Federation of Saint Scholastica) as we prepare to celebrate its centennial this June in Atchison, KS and in our home communities. Surely Jackie's words were part of my subconscious when I realized that I had formed enough thoughts to put together my own words for this blog. Read a part of what she has to say about the mountaintop, and then continue on. (If you care to read her thoughts on the Third Sunday of Lent, here they are as well.)_______________________________

A few weeks ago, I met a young Episcopal priest who was very interested in monasticism. She particularly wanted to understand its appeal for some spiritual “nones” who are leaving parishes like the one she serves.

“Monasticism seems to have a certain mystique that makes it very attractive,” she sighed. “Being in a regular parish church is mostly a matter of putting out folding chairs and then putting them away.”

I laughed and said that, although she’s probably right that many people who are drawn to monasticism expect it to offer something exotic, our day-to-day life also largely consists of chores. “We’re not exactly living on the mountaintop,” I said.

[...]

That’s what we are called to do, too: to fully give ourselves over to awe when we feel the divine presence, of course, but more importantly, to doggedly look for it, day by day. We monastics do our quotidian little chores, sit through long meetings, hold signs in inclement weather at political demonstrations, serve difficult guests at a soup kitchen, pray the same 150 psalms over and over, find a way to live peaceably with our sisters… all of it, hopefully, with a reverent awareness that God may be found in the midst of this.

That does seem to be attractive to many people, as my new priest friend noticed. It may be especially attractive to those who are disillusioned with institutions that have a flawed sense of certainty about exactly who, and exactly what, is holy. The monastic eagerness and curiosity about where God can be found–our willingness to seek the sacred in the mundane and even the ugly–is part of our gift to the world.


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As I've gotten older, (I know this phrase makes my sisters laugh at a median age of 76, but I am standing firm!) my experiences of God have changed.

When I was in my early 20's, I had some pretty big, obvious moments of sacred sensation, fully aware that God's presence was the center of my being and that of the cosmos.
These days those grand and awesome "mountaintop" moments often escape me; I cannot recall the last time I experienced one.

And, now it's even harder for me to use the word "God" to describe the movements of my life. I am less and less sure of what the word even connotes, and I think God likes it that way.
But, yesterday morning, at Liturgy, there were two so-totally-ordinary things that happened, and I was so-totally-sure of their holiness.
At the start of Liturgy two sisters who are dear, lifelong friends walked into chapel together. One is recovering from surgery, the other accompanied her. When the healing one walked past the chairs the other had pointed out to her and chose her own seat, the other sister simply shrugged her shoulders out-of-view of her friend as if to say, "Yup, that's my friend...always doing her own thing," and she simply sat down.
Jackie and I laughed at each other, acknowledging the mirror to the future that this small moment provided us. We both knowingly said, "We're going to be both of them one day!" (If we are not already there now.) Laughing at the quirkiness of the intimacy the monastic life affords is joyful. It's hearing the footsteps of someone behind you walking into chapel and smiling to yourself as you identify her by the sound of her gait; it's changing the routine you have on your dish team when you sub on another because you know that they don't do things the same way as yours; it's knowing who is going to follow you to the fridge after morning prayer and getting out the orange juice with some pulp because that's what she likes...some pulp. Beautiful, unique, odd, lovely intimacy—indeed. It's nowhere near the mountaintop, but I have no doubt it's part of the journey there.
The second moment that stood out to me during Liturgy came during the responsorial psalm. We heard one of my favorites: a harmonized duet of Our God is Kind and Merciful. The sung harmony of these two sisters is always beautiful and breathtaking, but it felt especially beautiful yesterday. I think it was because in front of me sat two sisters who, too, are dear, lifelong friends, but they, on the other hand, were sitting side-by-side. You could tell that they were each leaning toward the other with a particular fondness and love.
One of them has Alzheimer's, and the other helps with her caretaking, after decades of living together. She takes turn accompanying this sister—sitting next to her at prayer, pointing out where to make a turn down a hallway, helping her play Bingo—as Jackie would describe, "quotidian" events. And, even as the latter helps with the former sister whose memory is fading away, there is no doubt that she remembers and loves her sister deeply.
But, it was hearing the words of the psalm, "Our God is kind and merciful" while witnessing to this very real personification of the holy presence a few rows ahead that took me a little higher on the mountain. Isn't that what we are called to do? Be Christ in the world, here and now, for others?
The monastic life offers daily opportunities for this, all life does. But, having just made monastic vows, having just made a commitment to live the Christ life in this community, adds a little power to my reflections these days. We heard a reminder of it at morning prayer this morning: we commit our lives to coming together as strangers and making Christ's presence known.

We heard those words because today is a special day for us Benedictines. We celebrate the feast of our founder. Saint Benedict attuned himself so fully to mundane and asked us to seek God there. Indeed, the mundane makes up much of the Rule he gave us to guide us in our way of life. Where to say "Alleluia" when we pray, how to prepare to serve a meal, how to divide up the balance between work and prayer. There are no formal instructions on seeking God to be found in the Rule, except that it's all an instruction.
Let us celebrate, as some say, "the extraordinary ordinary" of the Benedictine way of life today. Wherever you are on the mountain, be grateful for God's presence with you—whatever that means.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

A Few Thoughts on Time

Tue, 2022-03-15 11:28
I was in a card store recently and saw a birthday greeting that made me laugh.
On a drawing of a cake was the line, "Time is a construct."
Inside: "Happy Birthday!"

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The other day I was writing the date on the top of a bank deposit slip. When I was writing the month, I wrote "11," as if it were November...but it was March.

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We are entering into year 3 of living with, grieving about, and adapting to life in the pandemic.

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Last week we opened up the soup kitchen for indoor seating for the first time in two years, minus a week, after having served dinners through a window during that entire span, never having missed a meal.
On Friday, two guests asked me to tell them the Emmaus gospel story...something that wouldn't have happened through a window.
How good it felt to welcome our guests inside again.

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Two weeks ago, one of our sisters died. Sister Bernadette entered into the fullness of God's love for eternity.
I feel like I will still see her walking toward me when I turn the corner in the monastery hallways. I looked at her seat in chapel during her memory service, still filled with her reading materials and midday prayer psalter.

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Today is the death anniversary of Benedicta Riepp, the founder of our Benedictine life in the United States. She traveled to Pennsylvania from Bavaria in 1852, came to Erie in 1856, and died in 1862. She was in her late 20's when she left everything she knew, alongside four other women and traveled to a completely unknown place, trusting in God and her chosen way of life. I'm 34 and feel like I can barely decide what to wear in the morning.
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It feels like both yesterday and forever since I last wrote on this blog. It was Advent when I last wrote; now we are in the second week of Lent. Sometimes the liturgical calendar feels more real than the Gregorian calendar.

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Time is a construct, indeed—a truth given even more perspective by having "sprung forward" in Daylight Savings this past weekend.

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How are you relating to time these days?

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Let us walk in the holy presence.
our soup kitchen ready for guests...what does time mean for the poor?
water time...4 years ago

Advent and Beauty

Mon, 2021-12-06 07:29
I spent Saturday in some Advent solitude, hopefully having prepared at least a tiny part of my self for Christmas. I brought with me two trusted and dear friends: Greg Boyle and Mary Oliver. Greg Boyle (the Jesuit priest who runs Homeboy Industries in L.A.) wrote a new book during the pandemic, and I had received it as an early Christmas gift. The title is The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness, and the first line reads: “Nothing is more consequential in our lives than the notion of God we hold.”

Well…

If that wasn’t enough fodder for the day, enough fodder to prepare my heart for Christ being born in my midst—here and now. But, there was also revisiting a Mary Oliver poem I love, Varanasi.

Early in the morning we crossed the ghat,where fires were still smoldering,and gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges.A woman was standing in the river up to her waist;she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling itover her body, slowly and many times,as if until there came some momentof inner satisfaction between her own life and the river’s.Then she dipped a vessel she had brought with herand carried it filled with water back across the ghat,no doubt to refresh some shrine near where she lives,for this is the holy city of Shiva, makerof the world, and this is his river.I can’t say much more, except that it all happenedin silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that feltlike the bliss of a certainty and a life livedin accordance with that certainty.I must remember this, I thought, as we fly backto America.Pray God I remember this.
I first encountered this poem on a long retreat as I discerned making a perpetual profession to the community last year. Someone with whom I was having conversations recommended the poem to me because of the phrase “the bliss of a certainty.” She encouraged me to move from the fear of commitment (my natural inclination) to the beauty of commitment.

Old Monk gave the Advent reflections on Saturday evening at our vigil prayer. To turn the previous phrase, she spoke of making a commitment to beauty. That commitment has a healing and saving power in a world so full of darkness—and not always the Advent kind.

So my question to self in my solitude was this…

What are the people, places, things, words that most easily connect me to Love and Beauty?

What is your answer?

May they continue to expand our hearts until nothing is left out.

Let us walk in the holy presence.
Now my orchid has four blooms...two weeks ahead of Advent!

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