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Learning to be a beginner. Again and again.

Last night a friend invited me to join her at the nearby Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna for vespers sung in the spirit of Taize, a prayer style that uses repetitive, meditative singing. Although I was familiar with Taize, an ecumenical order that came out of France, I don’t think I had ever really experienced true Taize-style prayer. As with anything new, when we arrived at the chapel with its beautiful mural (pictured here) by Tomie de Paola, I wondered what it would be like. Would I know what to do? What if I didn’t know the songs? Would I just have to sit there and listen rather than participate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. Read more

Foodie Friday: Stone Soup

For dinner last night, and again today for lunch, I enjoyed a steaming bowl of what has come to be known at our house as “zero” soup or “stone soup.” It’s so named because, like the charachters in the book of the same name, I am able to make it out of nothing, or what seems like nothing. And it’s perfect for a cold winter’s day. Read more

Silence speaks volumes

My latest Life Lines column:

If your house is anything like our house (and I’m kind of selfishly hoping it is), the noise hovers just below earsplitting. I’m not just referring to the usual kid noises—talking, singing, whistling, whining. I’m talking about noise that rises to a whole new level, driven higher and higher by a culture totally ill at ease with silence.

Think about what you hear during a typical one-hour period. Phone, TV, computer, doorbell, even washers and dryers that “sing” when the cycle is complete. If you take it a step further, you can find noise of an entirely different—but no less distracting—kind. Facebook, instant messaging, Twitter and other online communication may be silent on the surface but it is noise just the same.

Not long ago, when our family was uncharacteristically silent as we puttered around the kitchen making dinner and completing homework, my teenager blurted out: “Somebody say something. It’s too quiet.” Can it ever be too quiet? Our society would like us to think so. Like frantic symphony conductors, we are challenged to make the many different parts of our lives play all at once and in harmony, but mostly all we get from that is a lot of mental and spiritual dissonance.

I find I crave slowness and silence more with each passing year. I work at home, so I actually do get a heavy dose of silence on a regular basis. Other than the occasional phone call and my sporadic “conversations” with our two cats, I’m silent for about six hours a day, but it’s not the kind of silence that heals the soul and leaves me refreshed for whatever life throws my way. It helps, for sure, but healing silence comes only through extended periods of quiet and solitude.

Enter the silent retreat, something few of us get to experience nowadays but so worth the time it takes to drive to the monastery or retreat center. Because no matter how silent we may try to be at home now and then, nothing can prepare you for the deep but difficult work of real silence.

This is where we confront ourselves and many of the things we try to hide amid the noise of our daily lives. With no iPods or social networking, no televisions or telephones, we come face to face with our true selves, and, if we really make good use of our silent time through prayer, face to face with God.

From what I’ve experienced on silent retreat, I think of it as a kind of spiritual detox. First there’s denial, as in, why am I even here? I should go home and do the laundry and clean the bathrooms. Then the anger phase: What’s the point? I don’t hear God. I don’t think my prayers are working.

With each passing hour, however, things begin to shift. Walls go down and emotions surface. I begin to recognize how much I fear real silence and how easy it is to drown out the Spirit. It is not unusual, on silent retreat, to see people crying, apparently for no reason at all. Except when you’re on silent retreat, you know very well that there is a reason, or many reasons. By the time I leave, I am clinging to every last second of silence, already looking forward to the next time I can come back to a place that is so elusive no matter how hard I try to recreate it at home.

When I returned from my last retreat, my teenager—the same one who couldn’t bear a moment of silence—asked if he could come with me the next time I head to the Trappist abbey. Silence speaks volumes, it seems. It echoes in our words and actions, long after we’ve left it behind. Its scent lingers on us, giving others a taste of what’s possible when we listen, as St. Benedict taught, with the “ear of our heart.”

September walking meditation

One of my favorite parts of silent retreat is the opportunity to take the quiet of the retreat house or abbey and extend it out into the natural world. When I’m not busy worrying about work or listening to my iPod or talking to neighbors I pass along the way, walking becomes something entirely different. Not exercise, not a way to get from Point A to Point B, but a moving meditation.

I’m always amazed by what I see when I take the time to look and listen to the world around me, rather than rushing ahead with my ears buds in and my eyes focused a few feet ahead of me. Walk with me now down the Genesee Greenway and see some of what I saw through the silence of walking meditation.

This was my view (below) as I began the long walk down a nearby farm road toward the Genesee Greenway. I kept thinking of the road to Emmaus, probably because the prior brought up that topic during our conference the night before. As I walked down the hot, dusty road, not sure where I was going or what I would find at the end, I kept wondering if I’d recognize Jesus if I met him along the way. Do I recognize Jesus in my daily life? In the people I love or the strangers I meet or the people who annoy me?

I turned onto the Greenway path in total solitude. The only other person around was a farmer way off in the distance tending to his crops, and once I got deeper onto the path, even he disappeared from view. There was total silence, save for the sounds of nature — the occasional rustling in the leaves and bushes, the bees flying by, the mosquitoes buzzing near my ears. With every step, I entered more deeply into the silence. And suddenly the little things came into view.

Like the berries hanging from this bush, waiting for birds and little creatures to come by for a snack. What beauty is hidden in places we usually don’t bother to look?

Or this stand of white birch trees in the middle of the dark green woods. Typically I wouldn’t have blinked at a birch tree, so common are they in my own suburban neighborhood. But there, set against the deep colors of the forest, they seemed magical.

This little wounded butterfly stopped for a moment on a stalk of corn. He didn’t flinch as I edged closer to snap a photo. His woundedness made him more special to me, not less.

Corn as far as the eye could see. Everywhere I turned there was corn and more corn. Walking a path with cornfields on both sides made me so happy. I’m not completely sure why. And, yes, the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye.

This little lovely was nothing more than a pretty weed. I grabbed a slim stalk and another of Queen Anne’s Lace to add to my sacred space back at the retreat guest house. Sometimes we can find exactly what we need in the most unlikely places, like a patch of weeds.

As I walked another dirt road back toward the abbey, I saw this little chipmunk in the middle of the road, clearly injured and unable to move. Channeling my inner St. Francis, I talked to the little guy, and used a stick to coax him into the high grass at the edge of the road where I’m hoping he was hidden from the circling hawks and crows, not to mention the tires of the local farm truck.

Finally, back near the abbey, the pathway was lined with so many lovely wildflowers, including this sparse but striking specimen. As I wandered from cornfield to woods to river to garden to sunset, one thing kept playing in my mind: My God is an awesome God. How great thou art!

Reflections on Genesee: the lessons unfold

Is it possible a full week has gone by since I was on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee? Time moves so quickly, especially when time includes three kids going back to school and the start-up of Daisy scouts, Cadettes, Boy Scouts, soccer, dance and more.

The silence and solitude of the abbey seems so far away right now, and, yet, in a way, it is still will me, which I guess is testament to the fact that this retreat was a powerful experience for me. I’m close to saying “life-changing,” but I still haven’t decided if that’s the truth or just my imagination and ego talking. Things churn slowly after silent retreat, and more things are unknown than known. In the best possible way.

During my days at Genesee, I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench under a willow tree (as seen in the photo right here), staring at the pond and the distant fields and just waiting for that still, small whisper of the Spirit. The awesomeness of God’s creation, even when it’s baking under a 90-degree day, is so much a part of the prayer experience for me when I’m on retreat. The sunrises and sunsets, the flowers and plants in every stage of blooming or dying back, the animals scurrying around, the moon rising in the night sky — every single moment seems to speak of the Spirit, something I don’t always notice when I’m rushing past the natural beauty of my own backyard.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been somewhat quiet about my retreat because I feel protective of what happened there. To speak it would be to diminish it in some way, and so I’ve been laying low — staying off Facebook except to post blog links, staying off my own blog except to give factual details rather than spiritual insights. One thing I will say for sure: Everyone should experience one weekend of silence and solitude a year (two, if possible). I felt that way when I went on silent retreat two years ago. I feel it now. Being away from everything, unplugging from the noise and the constant distractions, is good for the body, mind and soul. And if you are willing to let it all go, the Spirit will eventually make itself heard. Not necessarily easily or quickly or loudly, but one way or another, the Spirit will be there.

I’ll share one spectacular moment from my retreat. When I first arrived, I wondered what I was doing there. Why not just go home and use the time to clean my house, catch up on work, hang out with Dennis and the kids? There was a moment when I actually considered getting back in the car and just driving east. But I knew that was fear of silence talking, fear of hearing something I might not want to hear. So I stayed and I prayed. And prayed. And many times, despite the beauty of the monks’ chanting and the wonder of creation, I felt nothing. But I persisted — because what else could I do? This was why I was here. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

With each hour of the Divine Office, I could feel myself settling into the rhythm of the day that is the monks’ entire life. I looked forward to the next hour, the next Mass, the next chance to sit in the silence of the chapel and wait for the monks to enter and begin their singing and praying. By Sunday morning, I felt at home and was sad to know I was leaving for at least a year. As I stood in the bread store, waiting to buy monk-made cookies for the kids, I couldn’t help but feel a little selfish for taking this time for myself when Dennis was home with the kids dealing with real life. Just then, as if to answer the nagging question still hanging around the edges of my mind, an old monk left his post in the “porter” office and came over to me in the store.

“You are doing everything you need to do to make a good retreat,” he said, out of nowhere. And right then the Spirit felt closer than it has ever felt.

His name is Brother Christian, and in the silent abbey where contact with the monks is so limited, I was given this rare opportunity, this unexpected gift, right when I needed it most. It was one of the highlights of my retreat because it was an affirmation of my decision to be at the abbey that weekend, and a reminder that even when we don’t think we’re making progress in prayer, if we are praying at all, that’s progress.

I drove home wrapped in this knowledge, with the words of Brother Christian echoing in my head. Then, when I got home, I googled Brother Christian’s name because I had promised to send him a copy of my book, Walking Together (which he said he wanted to read). It was then that I realized that “my” Brother Christian was also Henri Nouwen’s Brother Christian, the monk he wrote about in Genesee Diary, the monk who helped him when he couldn’t keep up with the bread making, the monk who made him a special monastic tunic so that he could feel more at home on his extended stay at the abbey.

And I felt my heart burst open. What absolute grace to be encouraged by this very same monk, to be singled out and prayed for by the man who once encouraged and prayed for Henri Nouwen. It occurred to me that Nouwen gets all the notoriety for his spirituality and his writings, and yet it is the quiet monk like Brother Christian who is silently but powerfully shaping people’s spiritual lives, unknown to the rest of the world. I know that my Genesee experience was cemented by the personal connection I now have with those holy monks, some — like Brother Christian — who’ve been living that life of silence and solitude for more than half a century.

More reflections and photos to come tomorrow and in days to come…

“Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” — Psalm 90

Entering the silence of Genesee: Part 1

I returned late yesterday from my private weekend retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., where I was privileged and blessed to pray the Divine Office and attend Mass with the Cistercian monks who call this abbey home. To be honest, I’m not yet to the point where I’m ready to ramble on and on about my spiritual experience. Silent retreats are like that, at least for me. I want to hold onto that spirit of silence for as long as I can, even in the midst of the chaos of normal life. Right now, spending too much time trying to write my experience when I’m still trying to absorb it all would somehow corrupt the beauty of what happened there. And so much of what happened there is invisible, indescribable and still unknown to me. So I’ll try to tell you a bit about the retreat in pictures and descriptions, and then throughout the week I’ll be back with reflections and observations.

The photo above is a shot of the front of the abbey, which is a beautiful stone and wood structure where the monks graciously welcome visitors to join them in prayer. The abbey was founded from the famed Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani and is the location written about by Henri Nouwen in The Genesee Diary.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and got my first taste of monastic prayer when I attended Vespers at 4:30 p.m. When you walk through the front door of the abbey, you can turn right to go to the bookstore, bread store (more on that another time) and sitting area where you can rest and look out at the magnificent view. If you turn left, you go down the hallway seen in the photo to the left. This leads to the chapel. Strict silence must be observed once you enter the hallway. Through those doors is the beautiful chapel, with its wood ceiling and stone walls.

Inside the chapel, guests are invited to sit in the stalls facing the monks, separated by a low iron gate. The circular altar is in the center. What a gift to be allowed into this space and to chant the Office along with the monks. A bell rings, the monks rise, one of them knocks on a wood stall to signify it’s time to begin and then the low, haunting melodies of the ancient prayers take over. We used the beautiful Abbey Psalter (seen here on the right) to pray throughout the day.

I loved each of the hours for different reasons, but if one stood out, it was Compline, specifically for the end of the hour when the monks turn to face an icon of Mary holding Jesus and chant the Salve Regina. The darkened chapel, two candles flickering under the icon, monks chanting. Can it really get any better than that? Well, perhaps only when you add to it a walk back from the abbey to retreat house just as the sun dips below the corn fields and the horizon right before your eyes.

I managed to make it over to Vigils at 2:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, which, of course, was spectacular for the very fact that while the rest of the world was sleeping, we were softly chanting.

Our retreat guest house was about three-quarters of a mile from the abbey, down a hill and then following a long stretch of field alongside a fairly busy country road. I often found myself wondering where all those pick-ups were speeding off to in the middle of nowhere.

Summer came on full force this weekend with temperatures hovering around 90 all day and well into the evening and no air conditioning. Anywhere. It was more than slightly uncomfortable, and I will admit that Friday was a rough entry period for me. I kept wishing it would be cooler, and then realized part of this retreat would be surrendering to what was instead of wishing for what wasn’t. Once I accepted the fact that I’d be dripping with sweat for the next 48 hours, things got much better. (Of course, next time I’ll plan for later in the fall or early in the spring.) I figured that with all my trips back and fourth to the abbey for various hours and then my five-mile walk along the greenway behind the retreat center, I clocked about 10 miles of walking on Saturday alone. Good thing I threw in those hiking boots at the last minute.

At the retreat center, I was assigned the “Hermit Room,” so named because the guest who gets this room can remain even more isolated than the other retreatants. Although it was much more sparsely appointed than the other guest rooms, it had a private bath/shower and a comfortable rocking chair. I set up my own little sacred space on the desk of my cell. You can see it over there on the right, complete with crucifix, battery-powered candle, a pine cone I found on a morning walk, a copy of the icon from the abbey chapel, St. Francis, Thomas Merton, prayer books, Rosary beads, and some Queen Anne’s Lace I picked on my long walk. The shell is obviously from a beach very far from Piffard, but seashells are always part of my sacred space.

Now, if you thought I was kidding about that Hermit Room label, please take a gander at my bed, which appears to be either a short picnic table or a large coffee table with a mattress on it. It was as hard as a board because it was, in fact, a board. (Other guest rooms had typical mattress/boxspring beds.) When I first saw this bed, I groaned. Out loud. Which you aren’t supposed to do on a silent retreat. But I will admit that I slept quite soundly, so I guess all that walking paid off.

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in my room anyway since I was either up at the abbey or out on the lovely retreat center grounds or in the small chapel inside the guest house, which was a nice place to pray late at night when I wanted some quiet prayer time without heading out into the darkness. I did that once and decided against it after that. On Saturday morning, at 5:30 a.m. I grabbed my flashlight and reflective vest and walked alone and in total darkness up to the abbey. Longest three-quarters of a mile of my life. I started with my guardian angel and moved right into the Rosary. I didn’t have beads. I wasn’t even counting. I was just saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers as fast as I could, as if rushing the prayers would get me to that abbey faster. I saw the shadow of at least one large figure lope through my flashlight beam. I’d like to think it was a deer. And then one smaller animal. I opted for imagining a bunny or groundhog over skunk or rabid fox. When I finally saw the beautiful Asian-style lanterns of the abbey, I breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to drive whenever darkness was part of the prayer equation.

I’ll bring you more photos and thoughts on my retreat in the days to come, but for now here is a brief video clip of one short piece of my walk to the abbey. It’s the last stretch of hill before the abbey comes into view. Forgive the bright sun in your eye; it was almost dusk and the sun was getting pretty low. This clip is not nearly as compelling as Into Great Silence as there is no melting snow, dripping water, or feral cats, just me breathing as I hike up the hill and some occasional crickets chirping in the background. Click the play button below: