Meeting with Sister Margaret

St. Benedict

St. Benedict

Forty-five minutes north of me, in Rock Island, Illinois, there is a Benedictine Monastery where the Sisters of St. Benedict live and run a retreat center. I have known of this monastery ever since I moved here and have even referred people to the sisters for spiritual direction, but never (in six years) had I gone there myself.   Recently, though, I realized I could benefit from a spiritual director, or a conversation partner in faith. So I made an appointment to meet with Sister Margaret and made the trip this past Thursday.

The monastery was so easy to get to. I turned right off the highway into a neighborhood of typical Midwestern ranch homes. Then I turned left onto a quiet street that opened up into an expansive view of the monastery set on the edge of a hill, overlooking acres of beautiful hardwoods just beginning to turn in color. I rolled down the windows of my car to take it all in—the crisp air, the view, the sunlight highlighting it all. I felt a sense of peace just driving into this beautiful, unexpected nook in Rock Island, and I hadn’t even stepped through the monastery doors.

Ever since I discovered that monasteries are open and welcoming of visitors seeking spaces of spiritual respite and renewal, I have sought them out. Reading books like Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary, encouraged my exploration. I spent a week, once, at a Benedictine Monastery in Cullman, Alabama and I have taken church members on retreat to a monastery in South Carolina. Guest house accommodations are typically very simple and you are, oftentimes, welcome to eat and worship with the community. I recommend a book called Sanctuaries that lists monasteries all across the country that welcome guests for a modest fee, or sometimes just a donation.

Sister Margaret met me at the door of the monastery, dressed in a white sweater, a pretty blue scarf and a pair of comfortable-looking blue pants. They don’t wear habits anymore.   After we sat down in her office, she began our session with lectio divina (sacred reading) and a prayer. Then we got to know each other. Sister Margaret is 75 years old, but still gets around easily in spite of knees that she admits are wearing out. As we spoke she referred to scripture, but also quoted Ghandi and a Zen master. I liked her right away. She encouraged me to practice centering prayer, which she described as a practice in which you simply “let God look at you.” I described my sense of call for her and how I had always felt drawn to God from a very young age. It was good to remind myself of this in conversation.

Before I left, Sister Margaret handed me a piece of paper with the following scripture verses printed on it:

“You are precious in my eyes; I love you.” Isaiah 43: 1-11

“God loved us so much he gave us his only son.” John 3:16-21

“God is love.” 1 John 4: 7-21

“I have called you by name.” Isaiah 43: 1-7

“I have written your name on the palm of my hand.” Isaiah 49:1-16

“With an age old love I have loved you.” Jeremiah 31:3

“Give thanks to God; good indeed is the Lord, whose love endures forever, whose faithfulness lasts through every age.” Psalm 100

“God’s love endures forever.” Psalm 136

Her message to me was clear. I look forward to the next chance I have to be loved by Sister Margaret.

[Feature Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]

Praying for my Community

I pray before every faculty meeting here at my college.  In this prayer, I seek to name the needs of my community.  The rhythm of the academic world is unusual–a blazing fast pace throughout the year, with some halting, long breaks in between.  Here, about two months into our first semester, we are already growing weary and looking forward to our first fall break.  So this was my prayer for our community:

Creator God,

As the days darken and the excitement of a new year wears off, we begin to stockpile our needs and feel the weight of our work.   Here we find ourselves praying / desiring / asking for more time, more resources, fewer obstacles, less stress.

Into this spiritually-constricting place of scarcity, remind us, Holy God, that we are enough, that we have enough, that there is enough…for each.

So let us not hoard, or protect, or scavenge for more.  But let us live generously with each other and generatively with this community – so all might know the abundance of our collective harvest.

Amen.

about a daily spiritual practice

sprouting-seedWe can hardly get Christians today to observe a weekly spiritual practice, let alone daily. This was my response to the teacher of the meditation conference I was attending who claimed he had never visited a church that encouraged a daily spiritual practice.  My teacher was a writer whose writing flourished once he embraced Buddhism and a daily meditation practice.  His statement irked me – as a Christian, as a leader in the Church, as a pastor who immediately questioned herself.  Had I ever encouraged my parishioners to a daily spiritual practice?  I had.  Hadn’t I?  Of course I had.

Why was I so defensive?  How many churches had my Buddhist friend actually visited?  He’d never visited mine.  So why did I take his criticism so personally?

I just finished my sermon on Luke 10: 38-42 where Jesus tells Martha that she needs to spend time sitting and listening at his feet.  Working through this text I felt as if Jesus was speaking to me as well as Martha.  I do so much in my life.  I am constantly doing.  But everything I am doing is expected of me.  I can’t stop parenting my children, nurturing my marriage, or investing myself in my vocation as a college chaplain.  Jesus expects me to do these things.  I know he does.  He’s the one who, I believe, called me to marriage, parenthood, and ordained ministry.  But in the midst of all this doing he also wants me to have a daily sitting practice, a time of listening at the feet of Christ.

Throughout my life I’ve tried a variety of spiritual practices.  I’ve prayed the liturgical hours.  I’ve meditated, contemplated, walked the labyrinth, invested myself in centering prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading). I’ve gone on spiritual retreats, spent time with monks and nuns, and worshipped in a wide variety of communities. All of this spiritual practice has been wonderful and incredibly edifying.  But when I get busy, it all slips away.  The doing takes over the practicing and I become like Martha, envying all the Mary’s of the world.

There is something not right, though, about the guilt I feel as I fail in these daily spiritual practices.  My Christian faith is my life, a life incredibly full of meaningful work, healthy relationships, and amazing opportunities to serve and give.  Why, in the midst of all of this, must I feel like something is missing?

My husband, Dan, is one of my greatest inspirations.  Also a Presbyterian minister, Dan feels most at home in the academic world.  Prayer is not really his thing.  He can do it, of course.  And he is often called upon to pray.  But his preferred spiritual practice is cerebral.  He is awakened by reading the words of Thomas Merton, Bernard Meland, Paul Tillich and John Cobb.  I liken Dan’s theological reading to the deep contemplation Thomas Merton describes that leads to the gift of awareness, or “an awakening of the Real within all that is real.”[1]  Over the past twelve years of our marriage I have observed Dan’s daily practice of deep theological contemplation gift him with a wonderful awareness.  He is the most spiritually mature person I know.

I’ve come to realize that each of us, as children of God, is unique.  Therefore, our practices can be unique.  Practicing our faith together, in community, is tremendously important.  Faith that is only practiced alone is a self-centered, static faith.  We must gather together around some commonly held rituals and practices.  But it is just as important to have our own, unique, individual practices that open us up and awaken us to the divine.

At this point in my life, I’m awakening to the idea that writing is my spiritual practice.  Writing is what leads me to a deep place of contemplation.  It is my path to awareness.  Oftentimes, I don’t know what I know until I write it out.  I also don’t know what I believe.  Writing is the practice that brings spiritual seeds to the surface for me.  God plants these seeds as I walk through the world, noticing life.  Writing brings the seeds to bloom.  I can only know and appreciate their flowers if I am diligent in my practice.  When I am diligent, I feel the satisfaction and the peace that comes from, again in Merton’s words, awakening to the Real within all that is real.

How about you?  What is your unique daily practice?  What leads you to a deep place of contemplation?  What helps awaken you to the Real within all that is real? Whatever it is, do it daily.


[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 75.