A Calming Retreat

In June, right after school was over, and before I had even completed my grading, I went on silent retreat at the Jesuit Center at Wernersville, probably my last time there, as the Jesuits are selling the building and grounds. I needed that healing time.

In the weeks since, I have been taking stock, clearing out my hoard (fabric, mostly, but more will come), and working on getting healthy.

Here is a little photo essay of my time on retreat:

On the way, I stopped and walked the labyrinth at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church near Lititz. On the way out of the labyrinth, the word embodiment came to me. That became the focus of my retreat. When I got home, I listened to sonia renee taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology. I liked it so much that I bought my own copy so I can underline bits and read sections to my classes.
My room. First time I have had air conditioning. It was very hot, so I actually spent more time in my room than usual.

I took along a white cloth and some red thread. I have been inspired by several instagrammer embroiderers to begin to create a story cloth, something that’s not specifically functional, but is more of a journal, a dialogue with my inner self. On one of the first days there, I was meditating on something I’d read, a Buddhist idea about the base of the spine being where the three rivers meet. I began to consider what my three rivers are. Along with embodiment, I received creativity, and magic/mysticism. So I began embroidering the flowering hand image I found framed on the wall–for creativity. Then I embroidered a full body–my body–with wings and a crown, to represent embodiment, being alive within this body. And later, I embroidered my stump, the center of my current magical work, representing the inner work and the spiritual connection to the Source of All Life. All three are connected to a center cauldron, which is the place where the three rivers meet. Other images above include some collages I made while meditating, a painting (“You can become all flame,” said the ancient desert abba), and the back of my #alonetogether sweater, which I completed during retreat.

Every year when I am at the monastery, I greet Jesus in the stairwell when I go up and down the stairs. This year, he and the painting of Mary with the sacred heart were especially meaningful as I held my anxieties about my father’s upcoming open-heart surgery (all has gone exceedingly well, and he is now recovering and regaining his strength).

More than almost anything, perhaps, I will miss this grand cathedral beech.

Holy Trees

The cathedral beech at the Jesuit Center.

Last year at this time, I was spending the better part of a week at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville with my favorite trees. The Jesuits are planning to close and sell the property in another year, so I will need to make one last pilgrimage in the coming year. The grounds require a great deal of upkeep and maintenance, as does the marvelous old building. The community of men who live there are aging, and there aren’t many of them anymore.

I long for someone to buy the place who could work with environmental groups to make it a nature preserve, to maintain the building as a spiritual retreat center, to keep caring for those holy trees.

May we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in Beauty!

“In one of the stars, I shall be living.
In one of them, I shall be laughing.
And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing
When you look at the sky at night.”
―The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you.” ―Octavia Butler

“The world is not to be put in order. The world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” ―Henry Miller

“The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” ―Jane Goodall

Prayer for the World
by Rabbi Harold Kushner

Let the rain come and wash away
the ancient grudges, the bitter hatreds
held and nurtured over generations.
Let the rain wash away the memory
of the hurt, the neglect.
Then let the sun come out and
fill the sky with rainbows.
Let the warmth of the sun heal us
wherever we are broken.
Let it burn away the fog so that
we can see each other clearly.
So that we can see beyond labels,
beyond accents, gender or skin color.
Let the warmth and brightness
of the sun melt our selfishness.
So that we can share the joys and
feel the sorrows of our neighbors.
And let the light of the sun
be so strong that we will see all
people as our neighbors.
Let the earth, nourished by rain,
bring forth flowers
to surround us with beauty.
And let the mountains teach our hearts
to reach upward to heaven.

Begin Again


“There was an old man named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers on his chin-igan.
They grew out and then grew in again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan.  Begin again. . .”
(repeat, ad nauseum)

One of my meditations this week at the monastery was on the concept of Beginner’s Mind that the Buddhists speak of, and also on St. Benedict, who said, “Always we begin again.” And then on Thomas Merton, who said, “There are only three stages to this work: to be a beginner, to be more of a beginner, and to be only a beginner.” I have been reading Christine Valters Paintner’s annotations on selected sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, and contemplating in particular some of their words regarding the Beginner’s Mind.

Abba Anthony, it is said, asked a group of monks and other seekers to expound a certain theological point, one by one, and when he reached Father Joseph, he asked him, too.  Father Joseph simply said, “I don’t know.”  Abba Anthony said, “This one has found the way.  He says he does not know.”

Abba Macarius, when asked by a group of seekers to tell about what it means to be a monk, said, “Ah!  I am not a monk myself, but I have seen them.”  This one reminds me of the legendary comment of the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras, who was asked to speak of how he became wise, and answered, “I am not wise.  I am a lover of wisdom.”

Even poor old Michael Finnegan, in the quote up there by the weeping beech tree, is a classic beginner, with the added idiomatic mystery that “to grow out your beard” and “to grow in your beard” mean relatively the same thing.  We singsong his story, can’t figure it out, and begin again, until our buzzing heads can’t take it anymore.

I returned home from the monastery to this quotation by Rilke, so exquisitely perfect in its timing:
“If the Angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning; to be a beginner.”

In some ways the way of the desert Ammas and Abbas, the way of Buddha, of Merton, of Rilke and Finnegan is the way of the Fool, who is always dancing along the edge of that cliff, wind in her hair, free of the burden of being a wise soul, only always seeking wisdom, each moment a new beginning in the quest.

Gratitude List:
1. My Shining Rose of a friend has just been placed at the top of the heart transplant list, which means that she will likely get her new heart within the next two or three weeks.  This is to me a relief and a terror. Now is the time to hold her in the waiting, to wait and to trust.
2. Beginning again and again and again.  How this frees me from the burden of expectation.
3. Yesterday’s froggy moments.  We found a Spotted Green Frog (rana clamintans) hopping around under the old poplar.  The children needed to take it to the pond, so we settled it onto a muddy bank, where it rested a moment, then plooped into the pond and swam into the weeds nearby.  And the bullfrogs boomed at us from all around the pond’s edges.
4. Even now, the yellow leaves of the walnut tree are pirouetting gracefully down the wind.  Now, when the life force is pushing everything towards abundance, fullness, brilliant health–even now, is the beautiful reminder of decline.  The cycle itself is layers of cycles, birth and death all at once.
5. You.  Me. Encounters.  How every moment that we meet, in whatever virtual or physical spaces, is an opportunity for both of us to experience something new, something profound, something holy.  Thank you for the ways you enrich my moments.

May we walk in Beauty, beginning anew every moment.