Monday, June 30, 2014

Monastic Retreat

In late spring of this year I made a retreat at Julian House Monastery in Wisconsin. Attracted by the promise of several days of prayer and silence, I found myself along side a group of individuals whose lives were consumed with prayer. They were at once both profoundly other and completely unremarkable.

Julian of Norwich lived in the late 14th Century. She received a  vision from Christ and spent the next twenty years of her life wrestling with the meaning of that vision. Her Revelations of Divine Love are available in many modern translations. Finally, at age 50, she enclosed herself in a small apartment (anchorage) attached to her church, St Julian's, the only name by which we know her. 

In 1985 Father John-Julian Swanson founded the Order of Julian of Norwich. It is a contemplative order of Episcopal monks and nuns and affiliates.The Monastery has been located in Wisconsin since 1989. I visited there in May of this year (2014).

Visitors are welcomed gladly to the monastery but are expected to maintain the Order's disciplines of prayer and silence. This suited me well. I was looking to immerse myself in prayer for a few days.

Here is a mown path through a wild meadow on the monastery grounds. The path diverges in two just where that smaller tree is on the center right. Have you ever hugged a tree? You could do worse.

The sisters and monks (who live off site but come for services and major tasks) are avid gardeners, growing much of their own food. Below are some young tomato plants sheltered from the early summer sun. 

Besides prayer, the sisters work very hard caring for their house and land. Visitors are sometimes permitted to join in the work. I was allowed to weed this bed.


I asked permission to take pictures around the public areas of the monastery, but shyness kept me from asking to photograph any of the sisters. I wanted to be there are a faithful person, not a reporter. Here is a picture of Father John-Julian. It is taken from a photograph in the book shop. "My life has been one miracle after another," he told us on my last day there.

The monastery grounds are a haven for birds and the sisters love watching them. This is a robin's nest (abandoned) in a crown of thorns sculpture on the front wall of Julian House. A new nest had been built on the drain spout near my room.

Silence is kept throughout each day. Voices are heard only in prayer. The sisters meet occasionally to discuss business in what they call "session" and, of course, when a visitor arrives, someone shows them around. But otherwise all is silent.

I anticipated this silence and longed for it for many weeks before my retreat. I needed to be alone with God, away from the cares and needs of others. Silence would nourish me. I would gain insights, truths. This didn't happen. 

Walking the halls in silence, wandering the grounds and taking my meals in silence only increased my awareness of everyone and everything around me. Desperate to fit smoothly into the routines of monastery life, I sought clues everywhere for right behaviors, wrong behaviors. And how could I seem to be at peace when I was always getting lost? 

Then, as the days wore on, all my unsaid apologies, all my unspoken questions simply melted away into nothing. How did this happen? Why did it? Because no one cared. I was not a disturbance to them, and, at last, I was no disturbance to myself either. My awkwardness didn't matter. My anxiety about being "right", being valuable, wanted, approved of meant nothing. It was nothing. Like sin that God wipes away without even thinking about it.

This is the habit of silence that I so wanted. This was the lesson: stop thinking about myself. Stop needing a pat on the head. Stop needing to "get it right." My friend Trischa has a lot more to say about the gift of silence, and she says it much better than I can. Read her words here.

When  the silence finally settled on me, we had reached the feast of the Ascension. This meant a special dinner with dessert and conversation at the table. You would think that living daily in silence would bring an outpouring of words when such a break occurs. Not so. The sisters barely had anything to say. "I saw an indigo bunting in the oak tree." "Our asparagus crop is long gone." "We have ginger beer for a special beverage." 

No positioning. No agendas. No compliments. No worries. No need. Silence sheds all unnecessary talk and with it all unnecessary maneuvers. 


The thing I learned at the monastery was that belonging to God, utterly belonging, meant that everyone around me is loved and beautiful. Prayer supports the individual and the community but without the evidence of support that we usually look for. \

The life of Julian House revolves around prayer. There is morning prayer at 4:45 preceded by "still prayer" at 3:30. There is Eucharist at 7:30. There is noon prayer. There is evening prayer, again with still prayer right before it. There is compline at 7:00. That is the structure of the day. Below is the long hall leading to the entrance to the chapel for the monks and nuns. Visitors use the entrance leading to a separate section, closed off from the "choir". Communion is brought to the visitor. The celebrant comes to the visitor to exchange the peace.

Over the course of my stay, this hallway grew in significance. Connected as we were in prayer, I was still apart from the enclosed ones.

Here is the empty chapel.

Probably the clearest difference between how prayer is offered in our churches, and in our homes, too, from how it is offered at Julian House is that here prayer is almost always sung. Chants can be simple or very complicated. On a few occasions, there are 5 notes on two syllables in the alleluia, the "le" and the "lu." A Capella. These were hit perfectly every time. Not by me, of course, but by them. Psalms and some prayers are chanted antiphonally. It is indescribably beautiful.

It took a couple days for me to take all this in before I could settle into the prayer practice. Eventually, the prayer took hold of me. To have the day, every day, shaped by the Daily Office taught me to count time differently. Prayer was what the day was for. Other tasks were wedged in and around this important work. The prayer was alive. Scripted and formal, it breathed itself into each day. 


Of course this is my favorite room: the refectory. It's cozy and thoroughly functional, designed to allow people to eat silently. At the far end is a hearth, unlit in summer, of course. On the right by the window you can just see a poinsettia coaxed back to flowering. At dinner, one of the sisters read a passage from In the Heart of the Desert by John Chryssavgis. Meals were simple but delicious. Whole milk. Real butter. Wisconsin is the Dairy State, after all. 

The Order of Julian of Norwich is a community, a world-wide community with affiliates in many countries. Vows of various stringency are taken by members. Prayer is the central purpose. What kind of a community has prayer as its reason for being? In this day and age, with so much wrong in the world, what can prayer do? Isn't Christ better served by activists working to uplift those in need? 

When I sit down to a meal and remember to say a grace, I am nudging myself as if to say: Oh, right, God. At Julian House, grace is the essential act in the refectory. The meal is secondary. Everything is secondary to prayer. These people are not wispy, other-worldly beings. They are down-to-earth, hard working, practical people who are called to a life of prayer.

If all of humanity is connected, as I believe we are, we need these pray-ers. If an evil act taints all of us, so a life of prayer raises us. 

To find out more about the Order of Julian of Norwich, click here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shop Til You Drop - first posted on 13 September 2013

There’s a lot to be said for finding the right church. God’s many blessings are felt more abundantly when worshiping as part of Christ’s body. We are called to corporate prayer and the necessity of being part of a Christian community has been delineated by many eloquent voices. You can't be Christian all by yourself.

But it’s not always easy. In some locations, one’s particular denomination might be very much in the minority – or even missing entirely. And there is the matter of churchmanship. I know two faithful, life-long Episcopalians who walked out of a church service and never returned to that place of worship. One could not abide the new version of the Lord’s Prayer and the other took exception to the Eucharistic Prayer in Rite One. Perhaps they should simply have switched places.

Certainly, we all have our deal breakers when it comes to church. It is just possible that a particular form of worship or interior space or music or preaching will make it impossible for a person to be at all comfortable in that church.

When my family moved from the very Episcopalian east coast to the mostly Lutheran mid-west, I was hard pressed to find an Episcopal church within a reasonable distance. There were two. The first (and closest) was such a far cry from my “home ”parish in Pennsylvania that I wept throughout the entire service and left when it ended without saying a word to anyone. Homesickness, for sure. The second try was much closer to the kind of church I was used to, both in appearance and liturgy and I worshiped there for many years. It was not perfect. It was not like my home church. It never could be. But I stayed.

I know what it’s like to feel misplaced in a church. We are physical creatures with eyes, ears, histories and preferences. The look of a worship space, the hymns sung, the prayers chosen, the homilies preached matter a great deal to us. Certain of these resonate. Hearing and singing “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” for example, would cover a multitude of deficiencies, like the lack of stained glass windows. Praying “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” at the Offertory makes up for the lack of incense. It’s a trade off. If I am looking for an exact replica of the church I left behind, I will never find it, even if I search the world over. 

Because I had to move on, I moved on.

In my human imperfection, however, I see my simple needs as much bigger than they really are. Do these things matter? Isn't it God I’m worshiping on Sunday morning and not my own refined tastes? If I am so sophisticated that I can’t find God in Rite II, or in a plain sanctuary, or in a raggedy old organ, should I expect God to find a worthy soul in me? 

It is God’s word that we seek, God’s work that we do and God’s people that we are. At some point, my search for a church that exactly fits me, becomes a little too much about me. At some point I need to set aside this quest for churchly perfection and worship the Lord in the beauty of HIS holiness. Otherwise I’m just Carrie Bradshaw looking for the right pair of shoes.

If I find myself uprooted once again, and I hope I don’t, I’ll certainly “shop” for a church. I’ll visit one or two, but no more. I’ll accept that God’s word will be made known to me in the breaking of the bread. I won’t rate churches on assets that may appeal to my pride. I’ll let myself be guided to wherever God wants me and if it’s hard to adjust, if I feel diminished by a lack of beauty here or overwhelmed by too much of it there, I’ll be all the better for it.

In closing, I offer for your consideration this excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s little masterpiece The Screwtape Letters. Here we find the demon Screwtape advising his nephew demon, Wormwood, how to best keep his charge away from the “enemy” (God).

Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. ….the search for a suitable church makes the man a critic where the enemy wants him to be a pupil.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Unholy Alliance - first posted 26 August 2013

An older couple sit three rows away from me. They are church regulars. He gallantly hands her into the pew each Sunday. I envy them. A woman attends the later service with her daughter and two granddaughters. Three generations of Episcopalians together in their Sunday dresses. I envy them. A young couple, both choir members, kiss before the procession. I envy them.

Am I a confirmed malcontent, fixated on the sixth deadly sin? If only it were that easy. I am married to a non-believer. I go to church alone. Have always done so, will be alone in my pew until I can go no more. The hour or so that I spend at church each Sunday is the happiest of my week. The words of Scripture feed me. The prayers lift me up. Communion transforms me. I return to my very happy home and that’s the end of it.

To be fair to us, we had been friends for several years and felt comfortable enough with each other to marry without a lot of discussion or planning. And, in even more fairness, our marriage has lasted 37 years and has been generally peaceful. We do not “fight” about religion. He acknowledges that I will go to church every Sunday though he cannot understand why. I accept that he will make fun of religious practices and beliefs and I mostly refrain from countering these remarks.

It’s more than a truce. It’s a mutual understanding of our different needs and positions. He resents (just a bit) the time I spend at church and church activities. I am stung by his smugness. I can understand his unbelief but wish it would change into belief. He thinks my belief is merely a need for “socializing.” We have a 37 year long stalemate.

You will advise me to pray for him and I do. I pray that he will find some sort of faith in his lifetime, not because I think he will suffer eternal punishment for his unbelief, but because I love him and want him to feel the love of God as I do.  How can the most important thing in my life be something I can’t share?

Would I change anything? Yes, I’m sorry to say that I would. 

If I had it to do over again, I’m afraid I might have waited for someone who could have shared my faith, someone who would have served on the Vestry, led a youth group, helped saw down the trees damaged from a summer storm. I would love to be able to talk about the homily, giggle at Mrs. Paulsen's new hat, share concern for an elderly parishioner who is more and more frail each week.

Yet, this is the life I am living and I know that God is with me every day. I know that whatever reason there is that I can’t share my faith with my husband, it’s a good reason and I have to play my part in the story that I am writing of my life.

I don’t believe in predetermination. For me, there are many paths and partners that anyone might choose in life. Some things are best undone and some are best left to flourish in their own way and for their own reasons. If you are considering a relationship with someone who is far outside your beliefs, I’d advise you to think long and hard about it. After you do, however, know that there is really no comprehending the loving purposes of God and no grasping the possibilities of even our imperfect human love. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man - first posted 1 July 2013

 “What is this that you have done?”  
Genesis 3:13

It was a set up. Predictable. God put a forbidden tree in the middle of the Garden and Adam and Eve just happened to have a taste. No surprises. Like so many stories in the Bible, the outcome is perfectly obvious from the beginning. Jesus and Caesar’s coin, Isaac’s close call, Moses’ warning to Pharaoh, Esther’s take-down of Haman are just some examples of inevitability in Scripture.

Foreshadowing is a narrative tool designed to let the reader (or listener) anticipate the ending and revel throughout the telling in the moral of the tale. And, of course, these stories demonstrate that, just as our brother Martin told us, the moral arc always bends toward justice.

So what do we learn about God and humankind from the story of Adam and Eve?  Let’s start with the givens.
1)      God created the world out of his great love
2)      God created Adam and Eve in his image
3)      God was pleased with both and they with him and with all of creation
4)      It was all so perfect
But then what went wrong?
1)      The serpent’s craft
2)      Eve’s desire for knowledge
3)      Adam’s acquiescence

Suddenly, Adam and Eve are frightened and hide from God. They are ashamed. They mumble excuses for their disobedience. God and Adam and Eve hardly know what to say to each other. The perfect life is in ruins. Intimacy with God is lost. Now there will be work and desire and pain and weeds. But is this so bad? What seemed delightful in the Garden was actually very static. No change = no growth. No problems = no solutions. No pain = no healing. No sin = no forgiveness.

I believe (heresy though it may be) that we gained more than we lost when we were turned out of Eden. True we lost intimacy with God but we gained a profound and lasting desire for a return to that intimacy, and it is that desire which drives us to prayer, to church, to acts of kindness and to repentance. It is from God’s desire for us that we receive grace, and it is from our desire, our reaching for God, that all human goodness and greatness comes.

What we once took for granted, we now yearn for. In the static perfection of Eden, there was no desire because there was no lack. No problem needed solving, no yearning needed fulfillment. When we lost the intimate connection to God, we sold off our pensions and went to work. And God is the boss. We are now engaged in God’s work. Invent, search, solve, heal, comfort, care for, teach, love. This is what we have taken on. That first act of rebellion of our first parents set the world on its course of error, pain, confusion and cruelty. But …. it also opened the door for healing, enlightenment, and virtue. In church we learn that we are all sinners. Our sin, thankfully however, opens the door for God to work with us and for us to seek God. For as many villains as it has created, more and more have been made heroes.

God loves sinners. Just ask Cain, Moses, David, Peter. No matter how far they strayed, no matter how much they disappointed him, God worked with them. Peter, denier of Christ but true apostle; David murderer, adulterer but blessed king; Moses halting and weak but leader of Israel; Cain marked forever as a killer but protected from harm nevertheless. And, finally, ask our first parents. What did God do for them when he sent them from the Garden - these his first human creations who broke his heart? He made them clothes.

“And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.”
Genesis 3:21 
So get to work and God bless.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Bengali Tea Boy from February 17, 2014

Did you know that Buddhism has saints? It does. One in particular was Atisha, a monk and teacher who had renounced the magic of Tantra in favor of the Buddha’s teachings. He became so admired that he was invited to bring the teachings to Tibet.

Atisha had a tea boy who was sullen and disrespectful. Daily the teacher had to overcome his own pride and sense of self to show loving kindness to his tea boy. The tea boy was never grateful for this but continued in his bad tempered ways.

When Atisha finally accepted the Tibetan invitation, he heard that the people in that country were so cheerful and mild mannered that he feared he would have no one on whom to practice his compassion training. So he brought his tea boy to Tibet with him.

Is the lesson in this as obvious to you as it was to me?

In my last job, I had dealings with a contractor who constantly resisted the requirements in his contract. He made long and self-righteous claims as to why he should not have to comply. He invoked my (deceased) predecessor, wishing he were still in place. He went above my head to elected officials to court their approval and support. He was my Bengali tea boy.

Far from growing to despise this person, I actually came to love him. It was a miracle. His resistance, his whining simply made me value him all the more. I decided I would see the face of Christ in this person because I know it was there. I would treat him like a great sage, a highly valued colleague. I would listen to him with an open heart and I would say kind things about him afterward. My intention to love him became reality. 

I was not able to bend the rules for him as my predecessor had done, nor was I inclined to. He worked for an outstanding organization that did fine work and I praised it and him whenever I could. I was ruthless about the contract and fulsome in praise for all the good that they accomplished. I made friends with his co-workers and clients.

Did he grow to like me? I honestly doubt it. But that wasn't the point. I wasn't after getting him to like me. I was after getting myself to like him. And that did happen. Now that I am retired, I miss him most of all.
Everyone has a Bengali tea boy in her or his life. Everyone can learn to love and value that tea boy. Everyone can don the virtues of patience and kindness and direct all of that to the tea boy.

But, one last piece from this lesson, one closing, disturbing possibility…am I someone else’s Bengali tea boy?
If I am, Dear God, let that person find the grace that I found. Let her or him see the face of Christ in me.