Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Peace Through Practice

As my living group at the monastery began to do lectio divina with the Sunday gospel recently, Sr. Barb invited us to quiet our minds and our hearts. I thought to myself, “I wonder which is more difficult to quiet — the mind or the heart?” The mind is notorious for jumping from thought to thought and demanding attention, but it is often difficult to quiet the heart as well, especially when we are feeling troubled, hurt, or sad.

The parable in the gospel we considered presented another question. A man had two sons and asked first one and then the other to go work in the vineyard. The first refused but later changed his mind and did what was asked of him; the second agreed to go but never showed up. We might ask: Was it more difficult for the first son to change his mind or have a change of heart? Do we need to change our heart before we can change our mind, or vice versa?

Sr. Judith Sutera offers some insight into this question in her book St. Benedict’s Rule: An Inclusive Translation and Daily Commentary:

“Benedict builds his model of the peaceable kingdom on a premise that practice shapes thought. What this means here and elsewhere in the Rule is that we cannot wait until we totally comprehend and embrace the importance of our service and enter into it wholeheartedly. First, we begin to act, even if just reluctantly, and by doing the actions, we will hopefully come to learn why it is a good and holy thing, why we should love serving others, why this action is an imitation of Christ.”

According to St. Benedict, then, what comes first is practice, which helps us to quiet and (when necessary) change both our mind and our heart. There is something about action that helps integrate mind, heart, and body — such as when gardening soothes our heart or doing dishes helps us untangle a problem. If we are seeking to imitate Christ, that practice will include both serving others (which for Jesus entailed teaching and healing) and taking time to pray (communally or alone in a quiet place).

Practice may not make us perfect, but it likely will make us more peaceful as we help build the peaceable realm God envisions for us.


Monday, September 18, 2023

A Model of Humility

St. Benedict devoted the longest chapter in his Rule to humility. Nonetheless, the best way to grasp this concept is to see it embodied in someone who has been practicing it for a long time. Such is the case with Sr. Bettina Tobin, who died on September 16 at age 93.

Sr. Bettina grew up on a small farm in Burlington Junction, Mo., and the sense of being grounded in the earth and connected to God through nature and animals never left her. She related well to children because she respected them and shared their sense of play and wonder. Because she was so observant, she also had a well-developed sense of humor.

Although Sr. Bettina was very unassuming and had a quietness of soul, she led an adventurous and accomplished life. She taught for 30 years, served as a missionary in Brazil for 12 years, spent a sabbatical at Madonna House in Canada, and published two children’s books at age 90. Her inquisitive nature led her to take summer courses in whatever caught her fancy — usually art and literature.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Sr. Bettina had definite opinions and convictions and was willing to express them, but she didn’t insist on having her own way. This ability to set aside her self-will came from a lifetime of putting herself in God’s hands. Sr. Kathleen Flanagan told me that every day for many years, Sr. Bettina would go to the chapel and pray for three things: (1) that St. Scholastica would help her be a good sister; (2) that all decisions made by the community would be aligned with God’s will; and (3) that when it came time for her to die, Saints Benedict and Scholastica would come to take her to heaven.

It appears that Sr. Bettina’s prayers for a happy death were answered. After being hospitalized because of pneumonia and heart issues, she had just enough time before she died to call or FaceTime or have in-person visits with her family members. She was in good spirits and confided to several sisters that she was excited to go and see what heaven was like. She wanted to die at the Mount, and within minutes after reaching her room and getting settled into bed, Saints Benedict and Scholastica answered her prayer and whisked her away to her heavenly home.

As St. Benedict outlined in the prologue to his Rule, Sr. Bettina did indeed progress in this way of life and in faith and ran on the path of God’s commandments, her heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. In doing so, she has provided us with a model of how we can do the same.



Thursday, September 14, 2023

Honoring Those in the Background

One thing I’ve learned while taking photos of flowers is the importance of the background. What is behind the flower needs to be relatively plain, uniform, and non-distracting so the beauty and intricacy of the flower can shine.

Most of us have had someone — a parent, teacher, friend, spouse, or colleague — who provided a background of steady, unobtrusive support for us so we could shine. Jesus experienced this himself, as Luke mentions in his gospel: “Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women … Mary, called Magdalene … Joanna, the wide of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources” (Lk 8:1-3).

In a story by Kate Osterloh titled “Maryam and Yeshua” in The Sun, as Jesus lies in the tomb, he reflects on his life and says of Mary Magdalene, “…you’ve always been the practical one; when we were run out of town or mobbed you’d clap your hands and say, ‘What about an inn? I know a place, not far,’ or ‘There’s a grove. Let’s sleep. I know a woman in the next village. We’ll bring water and bread….’”

Could Jesus have carried out his ministry without the practical assistance of the women who supported him? Could we ourselves fulfill our potential without others who stand in the background, helping and encouraging us?

It may seem as though taking on the role of serving and supporting others is a diminishment, but doing so is actually a crucial component to fulfilling God’s vision of a peaceful and loving world. As Peter said, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

May we call to mind with gratitude those who have graced us with their kind support, and in turn be faithful stewards of God’s grace when we ourselves have the opportunity to be of humble service. Either way, it is Christ’s light that shines through all of us. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Channels of Hope

At a recent community gathering, the sisters at the Mount considered our response to the culture of pessimism that our U.S. society seems to be immersed in. Given growing divisions between segments of the population, the overwhelming challenges of a warming planet, and the anxiety and depression of many of our youth, it’s tempting to believe that our individual efforts to act with purpose, hospitality, and hope are to no avail.

The first thing we need to do is reframe the question, “What good can I do?” Instead, we should be asking, “What does God want to do through me?” Our ego gets involved when we think about what “I” can do; we want to measure our success and get discouraged when we don’t seem to be achieving much. If, instead, we attempt to be open to the ways God wants to work through us — cooperating with God’s grace instead of trying to act on our own — we can let go of expectations and find that, as Jesus said, when we remain in God and God in us, we will bear much fruit (Jn 15:4-5).

Here at the Mount we experienced this form of grace when the program Journey to New Life asked if they could purchase Peace House, our building that once housed 30+ sisters who ministered in the Kansas City area. Journey to New Life assists women who are transitioning from life in prison — just the kind of program we once would have started ourselves. Instead of clinging to this mostly unoccupied building and dreaming that enough women would join us to fill it again one day, we discerned that God had a different plan for this space that we could help facilitate. Journey to New Life is now thriving in Peace House and helping women rebuild their lives and families — and who knows what gifts they in turn will contribute to the world?

According to Michael F. Lee in Give Us This Day, “Jesus says it is the outsiders, the widow in Zarephath, the leper in Syria, who are privileged channels of hope.” Former president Jimmy Carter took this to heart and directed his post-presidential efforts into building houses for Habitat for Humanity and working to eradicate diseases such as guinea worm that primarily affect the poor in remote regions. Thus the unhoused and poor became channels of hope that it is possible to restore dignity and facilitate healing for those in need.

Two other pieces of advice about how to counter despair come from Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who said, “If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things,” and Dorothy Day, who said, “No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” All right, then! Let us be open to God’s grace and carry on in hope.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Keeping a Rhythm

Artwork by Marcy Hall

I suspect St. Benedict would have been a good dancer, because it’s clear from reading his Rule that he’s really into rhythm — the daily rhythm of prayer, the rhythm of nature’s seasons, and the rhythms of the liturgical year. He prescribes exact times for his monks to meet for prayer every day and indicates that when the prayer bell rings, one must drop whatever is at hand and proceed immediately to the chapel. He changes the times for sleep, meals, and work for summer versus winter. He gives instructions for the number of prayers to be said on Sundays versus ordinary days versus anniversaries of saints, and he gives special attention to spiritual practices during Lent.

Living according to such a rhythm means that we are constantly called to be awake to the presence of God in our lives. Yes, our rhythms occasionally are disrupted, as when a guest unexpectedly appears; however, Benedict sees this as another opportunity to recognize Christ’s presence. Benedict indicates that the guest is to be greeted, invited to join in prayer, and then provided for, because as Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

When we don’t set aside specific times to remember God’s presence each day, our awareness gets lost in the demands of daily life. It’s rare for us to notice a sunrise or sunset unless it’s particularly spectacular, or know the phase of the moon on any given night, or see Christ in encounters with strangers, because we just aren’t paying attention. The rhythm of a regular prayer life in connection with the changing seasons at the very least draws our attention regularly to our Creator and Sustainer so we can join Christ in the dance of humility, gratitude, and hospitality.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Sacrifice of One Path for Another

Lately I read the novel Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, in which she tells the story of a happily married couple with three daughters. Patchett writes beautifully, and her description of this couple’s mutual affection, steady commitment, and respect gave me a pang of regret that I never found such a partner myself.

Pope John the 23rd said, “Every choice is a sacrifice of one path for another.” It’s human nature, it seems, to wonder how our life would have unfolded if we had chosen a different path — but all we can know for certain is that it would be different, with a different set of blessings and challenges. Looking at past choices can help us affirm what once was and is now important to us and how God has been present to us all along the way. However, to spend too much time ruminating on our regrets can blind us to the sacrament of the present moment.

In a recent essay, Garrison Keillor said, “I resolved to give up regret, which is merely self-pity, and to embrace what is true, namely love and kindness, the vocation of cheerfulness, the dedication to the day, this day, each hour.”

No matter the path we have chosen, it contains opportunities for us to embrace love and kindness and to be aware of God’s presence in each day, each hour, each moment. No matter what path we are on, we can say with civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, “I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future,” and thus we can be assured that all will be well.


Friday, August 18, 2023

Unexpected Encounters

This morning, while working in the garden, I received a lesson in attentiveness. I was trimming dead leaves out of a horseradish patch and came face to face with a large black and yellow garden spider. To be fair, it attempted to alert me to its presence with markings on its back of what appeared to be a set of eyes that glared at me fiercely. Fortunately, I saw the spider before I plunged my (ungloved) hand into the foliage that surrounded it.

Lately I’ve been trying to give my mind a bit of a rest by doing more physical work. However, this strategy is doomed to fail if I continue to pay more attention to the thoughts that cross my mind than the actions my body is performing. This mini moment of gardening drama reminded me to be present and focus on what I’m doing in the present moment.

I’m also grateful that I noticed the spider because it really is beautiful (from a distance). Furthermore, it provided a reminder that when I garden I’m part of an ecosystem with different inhabitants, each of which has an important role to play. I need to be respectful of the co-inhabitants of the garden we share.

Sister Imogene Baker, OSB, used to say, “Be where you are and do what you’re doing.” That’s sound advice for anyone who seeks to be open to the Divine Presence that is revealed in all of creation — especially in unexpected encounters.