Becoming a participant in your own life

Becoming a participant in your own life

It’s amazing how we can convince ourselves that we simply don’t have the time to do even the little things that might make our lives demonstrably better. We race through our days feeling too overwhelmed and overscheduled to pray, to pay attention, to pause. If we take a closer look, we’re likely to find we invest a tremendous amount of time — often unconsciously — in the very things that lead to us feeling disconnected and depressed.


Learning to be a beginner. Again and again.

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. (more…)

Foodie Friday: Stone Soup

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. (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!

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