Sister Helen Mary
by Canon A.M. Allchin
On Christmas Day, 1998, Sister Helen Mary, Solitary of God, SLG, died at Fairacres, England, home of the Sisters of the Love of God.
Sister Helen Mary was Sister Brigit’s hermit mentor and friend, and during her pilgrimage to England and Bardsey Island last September, Sister Brigit was blessed to have been able to visit with her.
Following are excerpts of an address given by Father A.M. (Donald) Allchin at Sister Helen Mary’s Requiem and funeral on January 8th, 1999. Father Donald, formerly a Canon Residentiary of Canterbury Cathedral and presently an Honorary Professor of the University of Wales, Bangor, was Sister Helen Mary’s spiritual director. For many years he has been influential in Sister Brigit’s formation as a hermit.
On this particular occasion, this Requiem Mass and Funeral for Sister Helen Mary, words seem singularly inappropriate, and I feel the burden of them. Should we not worship better, should we not honour her memory more truly by silence than by speech? Quite recently I have become aware that this very hidden life of our Sister had in these last years begun to take on a public and open significance of a kind which perhaps we had not thought of before.
Sister Helen Mary was given in these last thirty years since she went up to North Wales in 1969, the gift, the charism, of a particular calling which we now begin to see has an unexpected, universal meaning. She went to North Wales seeking a place for the solitary life and she was drawn there, to the end of the Llyn Peninsula, by the presence of Father Derwas Chitty.
Before his sudden death in 1971, she gained from him great depths of knowledge and understanding of two things which had formed his own life. First, his unrivalled insight into, and knowledge of the origins of the Christian monastic way, particularly in the Christian East. And secondly, his sense that Bardsey Island was in some mysterious way a place of God's presence and a place of resurrection second only to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. For Father Derwas, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Resurrection, and Bardsey Island coincided. These convictions of his were not notional but embodied.
Helen Mary was to live out for the rest of her life this particular gift she received through him. She found that everything he had said about the monastic tradition and about the island was true. It was a place of resurrection in a very specific, powerful, incomprehensible way. ('Incomprehensible' was one of her favourite words.) Not, of course, in any way which excludes other places, but in an all-embracing inclusiveness of Divine Love and Life.
At first Sister Helen Mary spent the summers on the island, but gradually she worked her way toward living there all the year round. That was not an easy thing to do. It had not been done for at least four and a half centuries that someone should live the life of monastic prayer all the year round in that isolated place. There were practical difficulties of many kinds on the way, but she overcame them bit by bit, by patience and very stubborn determination, and by faith and hope and love. On the island she had an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Saints. They had, she felt, shown her the way, and shown her that the life she was living was true.
But if the gift of the island was absolutely specific, it was also open and inclusive. And for her spiritual nourishment she found herself more and more drawn to the Syrian Fathers, the school of Isaac of Nineveh and John of Dalyatha. The two extremes of the old Christian world, east and west were united on Enlli in her prayer and in her life. But she looked further than that. She was drawn more and more into the mystery of prayer and silence and adoration as it has been made known not in one religious tradition only, but in many. She received particular help from the writings of Swami Abhishiktananda. So much of what he wrote seemed to confirm her own discoveries. Beyond that opening out to all mankind, there was a further opening out to all creation. For the presence of God was given, communicated through the very substance of creation – the rocks and the sea, the wind and the sun and all God's creatures. Creation, Redemption, Transfiguration, were woven together into one, all lifted up into the mysteries of the Triune Life.
At first in her life on the mainland and also in her early years on the island, Sister Helen Mary lived a life of great rigour and of great strictness. As I once waited for the boat at Pwllheli, some other visitors going to the island said to me, "You do know that there's a nun living on the island now, don't you? You don't speak to her."
As time went on she grew into a great sense of discernment and liberty of spirit – it was beautiful to see it growing. And as more retreatants began to come to the island (which greatly rejoiced her heart), she became more willing to receive now one, now another, to share with them some of the fruits of her prayer. Very occasionally she came out to speak to a whole group.
It is enough to say that Bardsey, Ynys Enlli – which is to Wales what Iona is to Scotland, and what Lindisfarne is to England, has known, after a break of more than four centuries, the living
presence of monastic prayer and monastic life – that presence that had marked the island for a thousand years before the Reformation. Her faithfulness and obedience to the vision have opened up the way, and now others are following it. A new epiphany of the island as a place of resurrection has been given; a new discovery of what she had discerned to be the island' s true vocation.
As she wrote in the summer of 1987: ‘This mystery of Bardsey is founded on that which has been given and lived here from its first origins and in all its depths, and which today and from henceforth has received a new beginning in this time, in our time.’
For our Sister's prayer and faithfulness to the new life that has come to us from the dying and rising of Christ our Lord, in this time, in our time, we give thanks to the Eternal Father, in the power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, to whom, Three Persons, One All Holy God, be glory through the ages of ages. Amen.
The Reverend Travis DuPriest
That mud turtle who so intensely watched me last week reminded me that I, like him, live in two worlds. As I leaned over the bridge railing and stared at the turtle, I chuckled as I realized that I was playing the part of the narrator in so many of the delightful poems of the 17th-century Anglican poet-priest, Thomas Traherne.
A mystic, Traherne was fascinated with neo-Platonic ideas of reality and shadows. He was also intrigued by the notion of the pre-existence of the soul, and many of his poems are spoken by a young, exclamatory child-narrator who discovers new-found delights in his heretofore unknown body and world.
The child-narrator in several poems sees images of himself reflected in water. The other world which the child imagines is under the water; the reflected child in "Shadows in the Water," actually becomes an imaginary playmate.
Thus did I by the Water’s brink
Another World beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious Skies
Reversed there abus’d mine eyes,
I fancy’d other Feet
Came mine to touch and meet;
As by some Puddle I did play
Another World within it lay.
This notion of two worlds intersecting is, of course, evocative of the spirit world and the physical world. Cultures have different ways of expressing the intermingling of the two realities, the two worlds. In much art of the Orient, for instance, clouds signify the mixing of the divine with the human, the human with the divine; the horizontality of the feathers in Korean dances suggests the intermingling of the human and the divine and may signify the melding of the different orders of human society.
Our western mystical tradition in Christianity speaks of the inner and the outer orders of reality. God ‘out there’ is paralleled with God ‘in here.’ Jesus himself spoke of the Kingdom of God as the reign of God coming into the world as well as a lordship already centered inside the individual.
‘Look in thy heart’ has been the clarion call of Christians from St. Paul to Thomas Merton. Paul’s declaration of ‘our life hid with Christ in God’ is echoed through the centuries in the tradition of saints who fervently enter into the very life of Christ and '‘elive,'’as it were, that archetypal life of faith lived not for self alone.
Our lives are indeed lived on two planes, if not in two worlds, and the two worlds – the inner and the outer – are inextricably bound with each other, as we learn from sages such as the Sious Indians who teach us of our linkage with the natural world. Perhaps a poet like Robert Frost catches a glimpse of the ancient wisdom of the Indians in his poem ‘Tree at My Window,’ which hints at the union of our two worlds:
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me …
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
When we are at peace inside, so is our outside world more likely to be at peace and in proper balance. When out of sorts on the interior, how easily can our whole outer life – an entire day or even a week – be turned inside out.
We each make some sort of ‘meditation’ as did Traherne’s child and find some sort of shadows in the waters of our everyday lives. When we look in fear and judgement, those shadows remain dark and we see them as ‘other,’ removed as if in another world. When we look in hope and trust, those same shadowy figures look back at us as playmates from a friendly and animated world which is a real and necessary part of our own as are our dreams and fantasies.
The constant mirror, though, is nature herself – water, forest, sky, hills or plains. We see wilderness of affectionate communion, depending on how we look. The wisdom of the Oglala Sioux chieftan, Luther Standing Bear, is sobering and inspiring: "We did not think of the great open plains … as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ … To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
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First Stop: Bethlehem
One of my Christmas joys is unpacking the nativity set each year. This particular set – there have been several in many shapes and attitudes – belonged to my late mother-in-law. She splurged to buy this lovely olive-wood set on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel many years ago: Mary and Joseph, a couple of shepherds, two sheep, a cow, a donkey, three wise men, a manger, Baby Jesus.
Each piece, wrapped in tissue, is lovingly exposed, polished and positioned – the manger, sheep, and cows are on the bar counter (Bethlehem); the shepherds take their places on the far edges of the counter (the hills); the three wise men linger on a curio cabinet in the hallway (theirs is a long journey, since they won’t make the countertop until January 6). Finally, Mary, Joseph, and the donkey begin their journey in the master bedroom, moving from dresser-to-desk-to-hall-to-living room on their trek to Bethlehem. Baby Jesus resides safely in a kitchen drawer to await his appearance after Christmas Eve service.
So, as we continue to prepare for Christmas this Advent, let us take a few minutes to stop in Bethlehem.
This is the city in which Mary and Joseph will find themselves, the home of Joseph’s ancestors, Bethlehem, King David’s ancient city. It is a city full of things which fill all the world’s cities – people and their business, traffic, the shouts of vendors, the cries of children, the sounds of shopping, crime, sickness, heroism, celebration. This city is full, too, of the busy-ness of people: meetings, deadlines, obligations, pressures, stress. Bethlehem is the city foretold by prophecy to be the birthplace of the Lord’s Anointed, the Great King, greater even than David, whom the Lord loved. It is a city of startling contrasts and diversity – slums and palaces, shops and sewers, darkness and light, twisting footpaths and bright avenues. But for all its flaws, it is a wonderful city, full of life and promise.
There are places in this city where visitors are welcomed, places the Chamber of Commerce shows off to prospective businessmen, places worthy of the new king’s birth.
Here, too, are places where no one is safe, places visitors don’t see and the Chamber would just as soon forget – places kept hidden behind stone walls as if they and the people who inhabit them didn’t exist at all. This is where the King of Kings will be born.
Within each of us is a Bethlehem full of God’s life and promise, though our Bethlehem is flawed, too. Our Bethlehem is also full of our business, our needs, emotions, griefs, joys, questions, concerns, schedules, demands, obligations and stress. We, like Bethlehem, are destined by God’s grace to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Where will Christ be born in us? Not into the best parts of ourselves – not into our nobleness, our goodness, our lovable inner palaces – but into our hidden places, our ghettos of hurt and loss and aloneness, our greed, our anger, our most dismal neighborhoods, the places in ourselves we haven’t cleaned up and our Chamber of Commerce would hide behind stone walls of denial.
Here is where the Lord will be born. The Messiah is our urban renewal.
Gracious Lord, look into the Bethlehem of our hearts and find the place you have prepared for the birth of your Son. During this Advent, let us open the doors to our blighted inner neighborhoods that He, who is the Light of the world, may be received by our whole selves, and thereby we may be made truly whole and holy. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
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Walking by the Light of the Lighthouse
Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
One day while I was on Bardsey Island a few weeks ago, an Island which lies off the North coast of Wales, the sunset promised to be a very special one, and I decided to walk to the beach to savour it. A few others had the same idea, and we sat or stood scattered around in companionable silence as the sky turned to a multitude of shades of gold, pinks and mauves. It was spectacular – truly a sunset to remember. On the Island, as the sun sinks into the perennial cloudbank on the horizon it gets dark very quickly. I had brought my flashlight with me for the walk back to the cottage that was my home for the week. As I rose to leave, I noticed that I seemed to be the only one with a flashlight. As I had my small pocket one on me as well, I offered it to a person close to me. "No thanks," she replied, "The lighthouse puts out plenty of light – I’ll just walk by that." The lighthouse on Bardsey puts out a double strobe-like flash in quick succession then another double flash after a delay of 15 or 20 seconds. I decided to try the "when in Rome" bit, so I also chose to try to walk by the light of the lighthouse.
I found I developed an interesting cadence in walking home that evening. Three or four steps taken in confidence in almost daylight brilliance, another three or four taken hesitantly as the darkness enveloped me and my memory of the landscape directly in front of me faded, then a few more steps taken rather gingerly and a bit slower than the others. The light would flash again, and I found myself peering intently ahead, trying to hold in memory the next few steps, but then darkness – blackness. My memory of what lay ahead would fade and the next few steps were taken in blind faith that I wouldn’t run into a patch of gorse (nasty prickly stuff) or stumble over one of the many stones. Then a brilliant double flash of light, the next few steps taken confidently, and the rhythm began all over again. Other moonless evenings found me walking the Island with greater confidence as I developed more skill in walking by the light of the lighthouse, but I was never completely comfortable. And I did not try to walk the mountain paths at night where the gorse is most plentiful.
Thinking of that experience has raised some interesting thoughts about prayer. Anyone who perseveres at prayer long enough knows there comes a time when the bottom appears to drop out and all the wonderful gifts and riches we are accustomed to in prayer fall away.
It is as though some great celestial arm has reached over and flipped off the light switch. Darkness envelops us. A darkness that at times feels heavy and thick, and seems to go on forever. This is the time I learn to breathe deeply, concentrating on the breath going in and out. It appears to take a lifetime to begin to be at home in this state where God is not evident and yet some small voice within says, "Hang in there." Hang in there? In darkness and not knowing? Exactly. In darkness and not knowing. All we know about God falls away. And we are left with a vague remembrance of God’s presence, but even that begins to be replaced with a not knowing.
Then as we are beginning to be a little at home in this seemingly black hole, a piercing ray of light envelops us. Very briefly God’s presence fills and surrounds us. Suddenly, and without cause. And in that moment we see. We see everything clearly and distinctly. And we know, we experience. Everything makes sense. And just as quickly the flash vanishes and we are left in darkness again.
At this point I would really like to tell you that the darkness doesn’t seem as dark as before. I’d like to tell you that the flash of light that illuminated it lingers just a bit. But I’d be lying if I told you that. The truth is that the flash of light – the experience of God’s immanence -- is so blindingly brilliant that the darkness appears all that much darker by contrast. And once again we find ourselves sitting in faith, counting our breath or saying our mantra. But there is a difference. There is a place beyond the senses where we remember, at least for a time. And we sink into the darkness knowing that it’s OK. God is beyond light and dark. God just is. And we are in God. And we tread even the mountain paths fringed with gorse with more confidence.
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Life Abounds in the Wilderness
Sand--why am I surprised to find it here, less than 10 miles from the Texas coast? Disturbed by early morning winds, it swirls around me, clinging to my boots, my jeans, my face. With every few steps I take, I stop to brush it off.
Walking this four-mile trail through La Parra Ranch, the working cattle ranch that is part of the retreat community of Lebh Shomea, I'm reminded again of where it is I am.
Described by the handful of people who live here as a "desert wilderness," this land is, in the purely literal sense at least, neither of those things. Rather, it is part of the extensive Rio Grande Plain that begins just below San Antonio and reaches south to Brownsville. Unlike true desert, which receives no more than 10 inches of rain per year, Lebh Shomea and the rest of Kenedy County gets approximately 26. That's not a great deal less than the 33 inches that fall annually in Central Texas, but it's enough to change the landscape rather dramatically.
For the most part, this is brush country. Tangles of mesquite, liveoak, yucca, huisache, ebony, sabal palm, mustang grape, and assorted vines and grasses cover much of the county's 1,456.8 square miles. What passes for soil here is in reality millions of years' worth of sand blown inland from the Gulf. In some places, I have read, it reaches a depth of 60 feet.
True desert or not, there is nonetheless a wildness here, a remoteness and desolation that scour the psyche like blown sand. To prefer such a landscape is to prefer what is hidden, what is fundamental, and lean. "The desire to stay, to enter in, is not a whim or a notion but a passion," Joseph Wood Krutch writes in "Why I Came," one of his many essays on life in the desert Southwest. "Nature's way here, her process and her moods, correspond to some mood which I find in myself."
What mood do I hear echoed in the call of the barred owl or the coyotes crying on a moonlit night in early spring? Clarity, simplicity, the frightening terra firma of the soul--these are what I crave, and these are what I find in the desert that is Lebh Shomea.
It is just after 8 a.m. when I come around a bend in the trail and find myself caught up by the sight of fresh tracks in the sand. Turkeys? I wonder, studying the curious string of Xs that lead to nowhere in particular. A novice when it comes to reading tracks, I am even more baffled by the slender furrow winding through the wind-swept sand. A snake perhaps.
Tracks, signs, intimations of something that has come and gone, something that is buried just below the sand or deep within the heart--these are part of the desert's life as well.
Like the dozen or so other guests here at Lebh Shomea, I suspect, I have come in hopes of finding something Real. Or, more aptly put, of letting it find me. Stumbling upon it in the dark, or stepping across it in the sand, I can only hope I'll know it for what it is.
Thirty minutes after stopping to study the animal tracks, I am startled by the sight of a Santa Gertrudis bull standing squarely in my path. Lifting his head from a patch of wildflowers and grass, he pins me with a long and wary stare. I stand my ground and wait.
The realities of our lives, I have learned, are often just as large--and just as hard to miss. How is it, then, that I have come 200 miles to look for something that is always right before my face?
Hungry to know our own secrets, to hear a voice we can recognize as ours, we leave the place that is familiar for the place that asks us who we are. And it is here, in this solitude of the desert, that we begin to know ourselves as dust, as part and parcel of the sand beneath our feet.
How do we live from the center of our selves? How do we work and rest and play in ways we know are truly ours?
My boots planted firmly in the sand, I am still watching the bull when, quite suddenly, a song comes floating toward me from beyond the thicket to my right. It is a fellow retreatant, I realize when I catch a glimpse of her between the trees. Her back against the morning sun, she is riding her bicycle down the narrow asphalt road and singing, singing into the cool South Texas wind.
How is it that we learn to live out of the center of our selves? In the desert of our hearts, we can begin by listening for music rising out of silence, by looking at the world that plays before our eyes, by loving what is dust.
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Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
A homily delivered at the DeKoven Center, Racine, WI on, March 24, 1998
Each week during the winter, I load my fireplace ashes in a small cart and walk to dump them in the burn pile, a large brush and wooden trash pile. A few weeks ago, upon going to the burn pile, I found the ranch owner's son had discarded freshly cut cedar planks from milling some cedar on the ranch. They were beautiful -- really stunning as the sun highlighted the different shades of red and white against the brush and weathered grey/browns of the other wood. I couldn't believe anyone would throw away such wonderful planks like these. Until I looked closer -- then I saw they were split, had rotted area, or were just too knotty to be used for building or construction purposes. They were structurally unsound -- truly just trash to be thrown away and eventually burned. Wounded wood.
I returned to the hermitage, but couldn't get the cedar out of my mind. It was as if the planks were calling me. I ended up taking the truck and hauling all of them back to the house, having no idea at the time what I was going to do with them. What I have done is made some freeform sculptures and crosses, working around the wounded areas or incorporating these areas into the pieces I've cut and sanded.
As I've worked with this beautiful wood, I realized what an incredible gift I've been given. It seems as if the wood is speaking to me of God's love and graciousness. The working with this wood has become my Lenten prayer. There is so much in the process, so much that relates to my own spiritual journey, but I think the journey all of us make. What I'm seeing is how God picks us up from some discarded wood pile ready to be burned. Then as we are sanded and shaped, our true beauty comes forth. Nothing is added -- the beauty was there all along, but was hidden by our woundedness and our sin. Just as I take the wood as it is and work with and around the wounded spots, God does the same with us. We are not expected to be what we're not.
God takes what we offer -- what we are, wounds and all, and makes out of us a beautiful creation. Our scars and the wounds that we have picked up though life make us all that much more beautiful in God's sight. These crosses and sculptures would not be half as interesting had I used knot-free, structurally sound wood. The wounded and rotted areas themselves, as I incorporate them into the pieces, are what makes the objects so beautiful.
The wood is also teaching me on a deeper level than before, that it is necessary for what I thought my usefulness to God's kingdom is, has to fall away before I can truly be used. Without this falling away, we are not able to become what we were created to be by the Creator of the wood in the first place. Just as the usefulness of this wood as wood planks for building had to fall away before it could be used as crosses and small sculptures, so my ideas and thinking of what my usefulness is has to fall away.
As I thought of all these things, I couldn't help but think of Father DeKoven. Perhaps it was the reference to the fire in today's Gospel that triggered some of this [Mt. 13:47-52], but I realized in many ways, Father DeKoven was thrown on the burn pile by the very Church he loved and served. He stood firm on some unpopular ideas of his day and paid a very dear price indeed. Twice elected a bishop but not ratified by the other Bishops, three other times he was in the elections, but turned down. At one point, he confided to a friend that of all the priests in the Episcopal Church, he was the only one who could never become a bishop. If anyone was wounded, he was. It appeared that the Church had thrown him onto a burn pile -- he was to live out the rest of his life in this small town as headmaster of a small struggling boys’ college.
Father DeKoven is my patron -- I call him "Father" because that is what he really is to me. His gift to me personally has been his witness of staying firm in spite of adversity and continuing to love and serve the very Church that was persecuting him. He was willing to accept being relegated to the burn pile and in no way retaliated for the treatment he received. He was willing to be "useless", and in the eyes of many, he was considered to be a failure.
And yet look at his legacy. Those of us who come to this place year now called The DeKoven Center after year cannot help but be struck by the fact his spirit lives on. The Church at large owes Father DeKoven a deep debt of gratitude for his gifts of reason in an age where the Church was about to make the mistake of over regulating public worship and was denying or at best minimizing Our Lord's real presence in the Eucharist. No wonder he is considered an Anglican saint.
Just as the cedar pieces I've been making are shaped and defined by the wounded areas within them, so I see Father DeKoven's ministry to the Church at large, was defined by his life being given over totally to his Lord -- the vocation and devotion of which he speaks, which was his way of loving and serving God. These factors, that were within him, in essence, "sanded" and defined his ministry which was then further refined by the college, by the greater Church, by his adherence to his convictions. I wonder what would have happened had Father DeKoven decided that being a Bishop was his ministry -- that was how he was to be of use to the church, and abandoned his principles so as to make himself more acceptable to the other Bishops? Would we be here today celebrating his Feastday? I doubt it. He had to give over his idea of what it was to be great, and accept being on the burn pile -- useless -- so that God could truly use him. This was the lesson I learned from the cedar: just as the wood had to see and accept it's uselessness as building planks before it's great usefulness that God was calling from within could come forth, so I am called to do the same. And I believe we, along with Father DeKoven, are all asked to do the same thing. After all, according to Phil 2: 5-8, we follow a Lord who:
was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death on a cross!
If ever there was a burn pile… but it doesn't stop there --
Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow -- in heaven, on earth, and in the depths -- and every tongue acclaim, "Jesus Christ is Lord," to the glory of God the Father.
Can we ask for anything different? Amen
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Solitude ... Isolation
Sharon M. Brown
Solitude … the pain of forced aloneness; the pleasure of being quiet and in communion with God.
Solitude … a state of being in which one is alone or in isolation – a word that has often been defined improperly in the world of spirituality.
While being alone may be a joyous spiritual experience, it may also be the horrible sense of isolation I have felt sitting in a wheelchair at a party, unable to push myself (physically or mentally), being surrounded by people standing up, and none of them talking with me.
The major difference for anyone, I think, is whether a person is in solitude by choice or by force. Then, what we do with that solitude, is the most important decision we make.
In the enforced solitude of a wheelchair, I could choose to fall into despair, and, there have been times I have slid in that direction. Each time, however, I have a lifeline called hope - hope in the truth of the resurrection, when I will feel no pain nor loneliness, nor isolation.
Being alone, however, is a wonderful opportunity.
In my wheelchair, at that party, I can choose to feel isolated, or I can turn the isolation into solitude by returning to my center, the core of my being, which is God. If I remember to do that, I can look at each person around me and thank God for each person's creation, no matter how irritated I may get at being ignored.
It is difficult to stay angry with someone I pray for.
What seems like a lifetime ago, I cherished the solitude I felt hiking the Appalachian Tail, hiking through the fjord country in Norway ... I was free to see, smell, taste and hear the gloriousness of God's creation.
Then, only eight years ago, multiple sclerosis took my hiking boots away from me (though I keep them in a closet for hope's sake).
So, the isolation, the pain of solitude, began.
Within this isolation and painful solitude of dis - ease, survival depends on learning how to turn the pain into joy, the solitude into communion.
So, while I can't hike the Appalachian Trail or the Norwegian fjords, I can lie on my bed, close my eyes, and see those places that God has made ...
While I can't walk, or read too much, I can rest in the quiet of an abbey church, surrounded by trees and the wind rushing through the leaves, and know with an ever-certain knowledge that every tear I shed is shed by God, every pain I suffer, is suffered by God and someday the joyous never-ending solitude will come.
Jesus knew pain and joy in solitude and isolation. "Father take this cup away from me," he says, as I have said so often.
"Not my will, but thine," he continues, and I try to do likewise ... When we avoid solitude, through television, movies, radio, the media, books, or whatever, we just end up in isolation, a jail we put ourselves in to keep away from God.
But, when we stop, slow our breathing, live in the present moment, thanking God for the here and the now, our solitude is God's grace and we know that peace that passeth all understanding.
Solitude … isolation … these two words conjure up pictures of heaven and hell – but
which ever it is, we have created it, and, with God's help, we can endure and grow.
Courage - The only people who fail, are those who fail to try.
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"Behold, I make all things new..."
The Rt. Rev. John H. MacNaughton
Chairperson, Board of the Solitaries of DeKoven
Over the course of 43 plus years of ordained ministry, I have had an opportunity to be involved in the life of the church in a tremendous variety of ways. I never thought that "I have done it all" but, over these years, the church has engaged me in an extraordinary menu of ministries at many of the levels of its rich and varied life. Those who know me well and with whom I have had the privilege of working closely would probably nod their heads in agreement when I say that my style of ministry has always been an active one. I have tried to be a doer. I suspect, without consciously thinking it out, I have lived out my ministry believing that theology grows out of doing ministry and then reflecting prayerfully on that doing rather than from simply reflecting, praying and thinking in what seems like a vacuum. While I have been more effective in some areas than in others, it has been a deeply fulfilling and satisfying vocational life. It is also a life from which I am now officially retired, and happily so.
In my retirement, I have discovered that God seems not to be through with me yet. In my second year of retirement, He has called me to be the chairperson of the Board of the Solitaries of DeKoven. Our task as a Board is to be of support to and advisers for Sister Brigit Carol, a solitary religious of the Diocese of West Texas. The heart and core of Sister Brigit's ministry is in her dedicated life of prayer and meditation on behalf of the church, especially the episcopacy, and on behalf of the clergy and congregations of the Diocese of West Texas.
The Biblical model in the choosing of leadership has always fascinated me. Rather than choosing persons obviously qualified by their giftedness for leadership roles, God seems deliberately to have called out unqualified people and then equipped them, gifted them for the task to which they were called. Abraham, Moses, David, Amos, the twelve Apostles and Saul of Tarsus, all remarkably unqualified for their tasks when they were called by God, are but a few examples of this divine phenomenon. I suspect that God's intention in working this way was to raise up leaders who, lacking the specific gifts for their tasks, would turn to Him and depend on His empowering for their effectiveness. This, rather than choosing leadership already gifted in specific tasks who, by their very giftedness, would be tempted to depend principally on those gifts for their effectiveness and, perhaps unconsciously, consign God to a secondary role in the background.
While I make no comparison of myself to these Biblical giants, that would seem to be the case when He, through the persons of Bishop McAllister, past Board chairperson and Sister Brigit, who began her journey into this solitary life when I was Diocesan bishop, called me to chair this Board. There is a bit of surprise, and, perhaps even a touch of wonder, in the fact that an active, and sometimes impatient, doer should be chosen to be chairperson of the Board of a solitary religious who is committed to be a person of prayer and meditation and who lives her life as a hermit.
I have always had the greatest of admiration for such persons and, sometimes, have even envied them for what I perceived as their spiritual- centeredness and inner calm, qualities that were often elusive to me. I have admired them and have always known how desperately such ministries are needed in the life of the church. But to be like them has simply never been in my genes.
So, why am I here as chairperson of this Board? Maybe my doer skills can be used in support of this significant ministry. But, I suspect when I think about it more deeply, I am here because God isn't finished with me yet and this is one of the ways He has chosen to pull me out and stretch me into something new.
The Writer of the Revelation heard God say, "Behold I make all things new... "(Revelation 21:5). For me, being involved with the Solitaries of DeKoven is to enter an unfamiliar world, to be doing a brand new thing. It is a wonderful thing and I enter it enthusiastically. It is nice to know that God thinks I am still teachable.
Perhaps God is calling you, too, into something new, something for which you seem not to be terribly qualified either by experience or gifts. While it may surprise both of us that God continues to extend such unlikely invitations, God does seem to work in surprising and mysterious ways. Responding to his call with make you - and me- newer persons in Christ. Now, isn't that an interesting and exciting prospect.
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On Seeking Solitude
Mother grew up wanting to be a nun and then promptly lost her resolve when she met and married my handsome father. I never considered the option.
After school, a busy career and helping to raise eleven children (two of which were mine) precluded any notions of being physically "set apart unto God". And yet there was always a hunger to spend more time with Him that wasn't always satisfied with just morning quiet time and evening prayer.
How can a busy person living in full community experience alone-ness while never seeming to have the opportunity for retreat? Wistfully, I blessed friends who set out for mystical weekends in the hills or on the coast, weekends of being alone with Him. And those people who lived in monasteries and convents must be breathing the very air of heaven, I thought. But I had been called to a "twenty-four/seven" vocation, and those lovely packets of quiet eluded me.
And then our Bible study class chose to study a book about Christian disciplines. Tucked in neatly after Bible study and prayer was the topic "Solitude". I don't remember many of the details, just the call for every believer to[practice solitude and, furthermore, to plan for solitude. "Plan solitude" was the phrase that stuck in my mind. I had never planned solitude, thinking that that must be a luxury afforded solely to those who had an abundance of discretionary time.
The thought of planning for solitude brought great conviction to my heart and stirred again the longing for more of Him. But how did planned solitude work with a busy schedule? For me, it began by looking first at the responsibilities of the week and then marking a morning – mornings work best for me -- to spend time alone with Him. This was a date I planned into my itinerary as I would any other commitment but with a difference. On this particular morning I would be meeting, alone, with my Beloved.
I found myself looking forward with anticipation to this special time -- separate and apart from regular times of devotion. When the morning approached, I took my basket of books -- Bible, Prayer Book, devotionals -- climbed the stairs to the library where distractions were minimal, and waited I waited for direction; I listened.
That first meeting was precious. His outpouring of love, the sense that He also was pleasured by being with me was "fullness of joy". There have been other times since then, since I have begun planning solitude.
No time has been the same.
Sometimes I sing; sometimes I worship with recorded choral music. I read His words or sometimes I read about Him. I have approached holy ground, and I await His presence. As my faith senses His nearness, I talk and fellowship with Him. When I am finally still and quiet, it is enough to be in His presence. Songs, prayers, words are not necessary. Being in and with Him is enough.
And then I leave my mini-retreat to go back into the world to practice what I have heard when I was alone. I still haven't been able to spend more than a weekend apart with Him, but I have discovered for now that time is not the critical factor in solitude -- His presence is!
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The Solitary Voice
Volume vii, Number 2 Pentecost, 2000
Editor: Helen M. Schnelzer
It is morning as I walk along the bare caliche road, as my sandals crunch across the gravel, drowning out the mid-September songs of birds.
It is morning when suddenly it occurs to me that, for reasons unexplained, I am not being struck by lightning. I am not falling into a crevice and disappearing into the earth. I am not bursting into flames or whirling into space. My body is intact.
It is a morning in mid-September when I wonder why it is that I so seldom marvel at the fact that I'm alive. Why does it seem so ordinary to be occupying time and space?
I hold out my hand and see the veins, see the knuckles, tendons rippling underneath the skin. I see the tiny scar there on my middle finger where I accidentally burned it as a child, the callous where I gripped the pruning shears too long.
What is it, I wonder, that tells my hand to brush the bangs out of my eyes, that tells my fingers to adjust the glasses riding down my nose, that tells my feet to rise and fall, rise and fall in a rhythm that makes sense?
As a rule, I admit, I am not moved by mysteries such as this. And yet, this morning I am baffled by them all. This morning, for an instant at least, I am fully in my body, fully in my life. My feet are on the ground. I am, as some would put it, "placed."
Were I more literal-minded than I am, my curiosity would not be piqued by such phenomena as this. I would be satisfied to know, for instance, that it is some electric impulse coursing down the nervous pathway from my brain, some charge emitting from any of 10 billion neurons causing me to stop on this caliche road, to bend over from the waist, to touch the flower of an Indian mallow in full bloom.
As it is, though, I'm confounded by the simplest of things.
Later, having traced my steps back down the caliche road, I will sit in the gazebo near the house where I am staying. Behind my back, a light breeze will be blowing from the south. A dragonfly will hang in air just to my right. Clouds will drift by overhead. And on the screened-in porch, 100 yards away, a young man will stand in a shaft of sunlight, working out a sweet and haunting tune on his fiddle.
Hearing this, feeling this, seeing this--it is all another way of being placed.
Days before, a friend had written to tell me of the changes in her life. "I have the sense that I'm being distilled," she wrote, "simplified by forces I can't name."
The process, she added, was less disturbing than it seemed. It was, in fact, a little bit like being on the bottom of the pool, or under water in a lake, looking up and seeing the turbulence on top, but not being battered by the waves.
Reading this, I felt myself swept back to an afternoon just 15 months before, to a moment when, having crashed into a massive rock, two friends and I were thrown from our canoe. Caught by the river's current, caught by a force I couldn't see, I was held here, held below the water's surface long enough to know that I would die.
"This doesn't happen to me," I had thought for an instant. And then, "Oh, yes, it does."
Minutes later, years later, I had somehow washed up on a gravel bar, had dragged myself to a nearby rock, and had sat there staring at my hands.
What struck me then, what struck me later as I read the letter from my friend, was just how strange it was to be alive. Moved by the fact that I was still in my body, I had come out of the river knowing something that I hadn't known before. I had learned, quite simply, just how thin the margin is between what we call life and death. I had learned a little bit of letting go, of letting myself be borne away by something I could neither understand nor tame. I had learned the volatility of things.
"Everything distilled," I told my friend, recalling the events of that summer day last year. It's distilled to something that feels like a single pebble or a single grain of sand or a single drop of water, and you know this "something" is your life. For an instant, you hold it in your hands or taste it on your lips, but then, quite suddenly, it's gone. Paradoxically, you realize, it now is who you are.
Walking along a rough caliche road in mid-September, I am jolted by the mental image of a woman sitting on a gravel bar, staring in amazement at her empty hands. This is your life, the stones in the river tell her. Pick it up and hold it; turn it over and over; let it go. Let it gently fall into the flow of the river. Let it be carried away like sand. Let it disappear from sight, becoming a part of the current as it goes. Let it not matter any longer that you have lost it. Let the losing of it set you free.
Walking with the wind against my back, with the sun on the side of my face and the sound of crunching gravel underneath my feet, I am grounded in this time and in this place. For another day, another moment, I'm alive.
Susan Hanson lives in San Marcos, Texas, where she attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and teaches English at Southwest Texas State University. She is a feature writer and columnist for the San Marcos Daily Record.
The road turns right almost as soon as it leaves the village, and twists again in the other direction at a place where a bit of lake-edge swamp comes up close to the pavement. That's where something changes, at that spot. I don't know what it is: but each time I come here, I get that same feeling whenever I pass that stand of reeds: that I have left one part of this particular world and stepped into another.
It's the woods in part: woods almost always get to me, especially when they're near water. I know that. I do indeed have a "thing" for woods and hills, because that's where I first sampled this particular taste, in taller forests and bigger mountains, many years ago. But people report the same feeling in deserts and dunes, on the top of barren screes, on buttes, at wide silver water, along a shore at low tide. There are sacred rocks well known to the people who live close to them, and holy springs, and clearings that have a certain radical peacefulness. Who knows? Maybe there's some phone booth on a Manhattan street corner that has something special about it. I'm not willing to rule it out.
Up here in the Madawaska Valley there are miles and miles of wood, and miles and miles (although not as many) of riverside and lake edge. It's lovely, wild, bony country. When you're here, you get clonked with the realization that this is the civilized, highly populated fringe of the Canadian Shield, and the Real Thing goes on and on, largely unpeopled, for, oh, something like a thousand kilometers to the north and west: a huge mass, terrifying in its immensity. Is that vastness spotted, as this country is, with places with this feeling? Or do you have to have people there to notice the feeling? It's the old tree-falling-in-the-forest problem. (Would God be in this world if we weren't here too? I think too highly of moose to believe otherwise.)
But there is that feeling here, just at the turn in the road and on. It's somewhat thicker and stronger where the community has its white-painted house and its working buildings, and thicker and stronger still on the island among the reeds, where the log chapel stands. A sense of something peaceful and yet gloriously alive: of Joy lurking somewhere in the landscape.
The Celtic tradition had a phrase for it (Celtic tradition would, of course!) it calls places like this "thin places," or so I've been told. There are spots where this world and the realm of the spirit come close together, some claim. That may be; or it may be that there are some places, like some chords in music, that evoke something spiritual in people, as the smell of burning leaves can bring back childhood to many of us; and that some places have more of that power of evocation than others. Whatever. I don't know, and I'm not sure it's all that important anyway. Even if scientists could pin down the loci of the brain centers involved and isolate the requisite stimuli, would it really make any difference.
The important thing about this particular thin spot (or whatever you want to call it) is that it fetched a holy woman – a brilliant, passionate, fiercely courageous woman whose Godlove was huge and whose energy was boundless – and she found her own particular Madonna in these sandy pine woods. Her cabin is on the island and the feeling there is so thick you could almost slice it and use it for shingles. She founded a community that keeps going through hard work and cheerful begging and that has tendrils reaching far out into the world. I come to visit this community sometimes, partly for the community itself, but largely because this place feels like a drink of cold water when you're really thirsty.
I was talking about all this to an old priest who lives here, one who'd been close to the holy woman and had known this place almost from the first days of the community. I asked him the tree-falling-in-the-forest question: did that woman find Mother Mary already here in the woods, or did her prayers bring Mother Mary here? Mary had always been here, he said; the woman had only named her and had taken root here because of Mary's presence. Question answered.
But, he said, while there are places that call us toward holiness, maybe it's a two-way street. Maybe there are places that we can help make holy. That felt right: I have known places (my home church is one such) that seem to seep the same feeling from their walls as I got from this place, as though the prayers and joy and pain and angel-wrestling of the people who had worshipped here had, in some fashion, sunk into the very fabric of the joint. The priest said (he had known her very well) that the woman's cabin was like that; it was, for him, full of the scent of her agony. What had that agony been? I asked him. "That Love goes so unloved," he answered.
Maybe – I don't know – if we could be completely open to God's love, as we never seem to be able to do, maybe we could make more thin places. Maybe by love and prayer we could clear some of the rust and debris that evil has left spotted on the face of this earth, the scars on the faces of God's children, by facing them front-on and loving them as best we can.
A more radical thought: maybe we could work on becoming ourselves the thinnest places we can manage to be. Not thin in the sense of meagerness, as fashion models are thin – in fact, now that I think about it, the ‘thin place’ people I know are as often as not quite comfortably upholstered – but thin in the sense of transparency: being as full as we can hold of the love of God, and leaking it like crazy. Highly permeable membranes. The priest himself was like that; he leaked a deep and quiet peace.
Sounds simple, becoming a thin-place person; but in fact, it's not easy at all. Our notion of love often isn't Love but ego, and it needs to be stripped down to the chassis and rebuilt. It means giving God leave to do whatever we need to undergo if we're to become the vessels God wants us to be. That may involve being opened and stretched in ways that I, for one, find terribly painful at times. God's hand is very tough on the clay at times, and if you think that's rough, you should see what he does to brass.
And sometimes it seems like it's all for nothing. Listening to the priest talk about the woman who had lived here, I felt like a scant and wavering taper next to a glowing potbellied stove. I feel muffled off from God's love so much of the time. I can take only a sip at a time of all the living water on offer, however much I want to gulp it down. I've got my areas of indifference or cruelty, spite and self-serving. I too don't want to see or be seen too much or with any real accuracy. I too don't love Love, or at least not often or nearly well enough.
But the thin-place places and the thin-place people don't judge us; they call us, fetch us, offer us the startling gift of grace, and get lodged deep in our inmost selves. They tell us, here, this is what Love tastes like; this is what Love's supposed to be. And nothing else ever really feels the same – which is good, really; it keeps us from looking for God's Love in things and people that aren't equipped to give it. It helps if you can see that the idols are only plaster; you can even feel sorry for them.
God-love is alive and active in this world; God's fingerprints are all over the landscape. That love bubbles through among these particular pines and rocks and in communities like this, but it also surfaces in all love: in a mother's gaze on her sleeping child, in the affection of friends or care for strangers, for all love is ultimately God's, love passed on. It's in the stillness of contemplation and in the action that flows out from it. It's yeasty and unstoppable and willing to suffer anything to get through our stubborn unlovingness to reach us. It's here. You just have to be willing to step into your particular woods, stand still, breathe deep, and open your soul to it.
(Copyright Molly Wolf 2000)
Ed. Note: Some years ago I was introduced to Molly Wolf’s weekly e-mail journals –"Sabbath Blessings." They have long since become an integral part of my week. She is the author of two books, "Hiding in Plain Sight", Liturgical Press, 1998, and "A Place Like Any Other", Doubleday, forthcoming in September, 2000.
Tuning in to Spirit
A Reflection on the Melodies of Prayer
Fr. Travis du Priest
"How has music been instrumental in your prayer(s)?" my friend asked me, and even as he was asking I was planning how to wiggle out of the assignment. "It hasn’t been," was my first thought. I’m not a musician and I quite like a quiet early morning Eucharist with lots of silence. And besides, I had a bad experience with the children’s choir of my childhood – I showed up one Sunday in a green shirt and wasn’t allowed to sing. But on reflection, I realized that music has indeed played a larger role in my prayer life than I had thought.
First off, I’d better say a word about my understanding of prayer, because it might strike some of you as odd: I don’t actually think we pray, I think God does. I don’t really believe God answers our prayers, but that we seek to answer God’s. So then, God’s prayer for us and the world is what we listen for when we ‘go to church,’ or settle into a conscious mode of individual prayer, what I call ‘practicing prayer.’ Just as musicians practice their instruments and voices, so we ‘practice prayer’ when we sit or kneel at home or when we respond in church to the invitation, "Let us pray."
The ancients believe that the spheres made music as they swirled through the cosmos, and that in some sense the Music of the Spheres held the universe together. Interestingly, Quantum physicists today believe something of the same thing: The so-called ‘strong theory’ says that electrons undulate rhythmically like tiny strings of pearls dancing in ritual ceremony. Christians similarly believe in an Interior String Theory, and Interior Music of the Spheres: The Spirit inside us is actively praying or translating our inarticulate verbal groans in an unceasing melody of prayer, as St. Paul explains in the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. This on-going prayer of the Spirit links up with the never-ending song of the Angels, Archangels (and one assumes the other orders of angels), saints, and the faithful departed most noticeably in the Holy Eucharist, as we sing, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus." "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of Thy Glory, Glory be to Thee, O Lord Most High." Hence, the universal prayer practice of the faithful is to be attentive to the rhythms and melodies of on-going prayer in the cosmos and in one’s own human heart. In other words, the Spirit and angels are playing a timeless tune – for those who have ears to hear.
We all hear in different ways and are a-tuned to different modes of music. Some of us like classical, some rhythm and blues, some jazz, and some folk. I confess to feelings of great joy, freedom and at-one-ness when alone in the car, I can turn up the radio and sing an old BeeGees song. In Church or in private prayers, some of us prefer choral music or hymns or the newer ‘praise music,’ while others of us prefer instrumental music – classical or ‘background.’ Some of us like the so-called New Age tapes of sounds of nature: crickets, ocean waves, whale songs, rapid flowing streams and the like.
Whatever the instrument – the human voice, piano, lute, guitar, cello, drum, waterfall, bird –
the question is, Am I tuning in? Am I tuning in to Spirit and her on-going prayer–melody? For me, this tuning in is best accomplished with quiet instrumental music – I really like single instrument sound like the cello or chant. I have a preference even when I am in a prayer place, such as church, for music for solo organ, brass, or strings, particularly by Corelli, Charpentier, or my favorite Orlando Gibbons.
The most tuned-prayer experience I have ever had was several years ago when a bright young cellist named Michael Fitzpatrick, winner of the Prince Charles Award at Spoletto in Italy, played improvisations on his cello in the 1865 St. John’s Collegiate Chapel at The DeKoven Center where I work. When I told Michael afterwards how interiorally transported I had been during that time, he said in response that he had actually felt a spiritual energy entering his body as he played. I have prayed through his music since.
The same is true during a ‘prayer practice’ at home when I sit quietly – I prefer sounds without words. Usually I meditate in silence, but sometimes I listen to falling water, to me one of the most pleasant sounds on earth; sometimes, to the piano music of the late Daniel Hansen which mixes in the wind chimes and sea gulls of his native Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. The ‘openness’ and non-directive quality of the sound without attendant thought is, for me, more conducive to receptivity and meditation. Wordless sounds are the ‘thin place,’ to use a Celtic term, where Heaven and Earth meet, where I can more readily slip out of myself and more deeply into myself and reach that place where ‘God and I mingle,’ as a Quaker writer once put it.
Chanting, though, with its paucity of words and repetition, has much the same effect. I love traditional Gregorian Chant and Anglican Plainsong. I am very fond of the chants of Robert Gass – for example "Alleluia" set to Pacobel’s Canon – and some Taize chants such as "Veni Creator Spiritus" or "Ubi Caritas." The slow repetitive quality of the sound seems to become a part of me, almost like T’ai Chi breathing or Centering Prayer, and at the same time, chant seems to surround or envelop me, inviting me inside the music.
One particularly appealing aspect of chanting is its memorable quality. I find throughout an ordinary day, a chant will rise up to consciousness, like an Arrow Prayer, threading itself from one prayer practice to another. Chanting has an energetic ‘connecting’ effect, linking exterior sound with interior sound, assisting us, as Robert Gass puts it, to ‘sing our lives.’
What I have come to see, or rather hear, is that there is not so much one particular type of devotional music, but rather musical sounds which devote us to the Spirit’s prayerful melodies of the Kingdom Within.
The Reverend Fr. Travis du Priest, Ph.D., is the director of The DeKoven Center, a retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, in Racine, Wisconsin. He serves as chaplain to the community of St. Mary and as spiritual director to the Order of Julian of Norwich, has conducted numerous retreats and quiet days and published over 300 articles on literature and religion, prayer, meditation, and spirituality. An active member of the conference on Christianity and Literature, he is Book Editor of The Living Church magazine and teaches Creative Non-Fiction at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
A Julian Devotion
…offered by Cy Deavours – an example of what people are doing with the work of Sister Brigit-Carol’s hands.
The thirty-three count Anglican Prayer Beads have been used in the Episcopal Church since the mid-1980's. This form of the rosary comes from the Celtic Church, which apparently obtained it from the Orthodox Church around the 6th century.
The prayer beads made by Sister Brigit-Carol, SD, come with four suggested prayer sequences. I have taken one of these sequences, attributed to the 14th century English mystic Juliana (Julian) of Norwich, and added readings and meditations based on the five sorrowful mysteries of the traditional rosary.
During the meditative part of the devotion, contemplate the previous reading. This can be done by the normal cognitive process or by using some kind of centering prayer technique whereby you build a vivid image of the scene and let it play before your mind. Let your heart and mind become fully engaged.
The main prayer sequence consists of what I have called Juliana's Prayer (for want of a better name) which is said in unison, followed by a short affirmation that is said responsively seven times.
In place of these two prayers, another pair of prayers which seem to fit quite well are the Trisagion (Holy God, /Holy and Mighty, / Holy Immortal one / Have mercy upon us.) with the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, / Have mercy upon us.). The Jesus Prayer is one of the oldest existing Christian prayers and was used extensively by the desert fathers of the early centuries.
You don't need the beads to do the devotion but it really helps with the counting because most of us find it difficult to count and to concentrate on the prayers at the same time, and, besides, the beads are so beautifully and lovingly made.
Leader and People:
God of your goodness, give me yourself.
For you are enough to me.
And I can ask for nothing less that is to your glory.
And if I ask for anything less,
I shall still be in want,
For only in you have I all.
Leader: In His love He has done His Works
People: And in His Love, He has made all
things beneficial to us.
The DevotionLeader: In the name of God, + Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit.People: Amen.
InvitatoryLeader: O God make speed to save us.People: O Lord make haste to help us.All: Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be forever. Amen.
Meditation 1: In the Garden of GethsemaneLector: Mark 14:32-42 (Period of silence)
All: Juliana's PrayerLeader/people: The Affirmation (repeat 7 times)
Meditation 2: Jesus is whipped.
Lector: Mark 15: 1-15 (Period of silence)All: Juliana's PrayerLeader/people: The Affirmation (repeat 7 times)Meditation 3: Jesus is mocked and crowned
with a crown of thorns
Lector: Mark 15: 16-20 (Period of silence)
All: Juliana's Prayer
Leader/people: The Affirmation (repeat 7 times)
Meditation 4: Jesus carries His cross to
Golgotha and is crucified
Lector: Mark 14: 21-24 (Period of silence)
All: Juliana's Prayer
Leader/people: The Affirmation (repeat 7 times)
Meditation 5: Christ dies on the cross
Lector: Luke 23: 35-46 (Period of silence)
All: Juliana's Prayer
All: The Lord's Prayer
Leader: Let us bless the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God.
At the regular quarterly meeting of the Board of the Solitaries of DeKoven, held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, on Thursday, April 27th, 2000, the Board:
Accepted the Treasurer’s quarterly report .
Reviewed a report on Prayer Bead sales and inventory. Sister Brigit-Carol will have beads available for sale at General Convention.
Resolved that the Money Management Policy presented to the Board by the President and Treasurer be accepted as policy for all fiduciary activities.
Received reports from Barbara Hill and Deacon Joan Clark, Coordinator and Chaplain respectively for the Companions.
Agreed that Sister would attend two days of the Companions’ and Friends’ Retreats, this year scheduled simultaneously, June 17-22, at the DeKoven Center, Racine, Wisconsin.
Agreed to sponsor a representative at the Retreat. Nancy Hibbs will attend.
Resolved to invite the Chaplain and Coordinator for the Companions to the Board meeting on October 26th in San Antonio at the Board’s expense.
A special edition of The Solitary Voice will be published for General Convention, July 5-14, in Denver.
Bishop John MacNaughton affirmed Spiritual Director, Jean Springer’s assessment of the Board’s position: to be the Guardian of Sister Brigit-Carol’s vocation and the bridge to the outside world.
The Solitary Voice
Volume vii, Number 3 Advent, 2000 Editor: Helen M. Schnelzer
To the Well
Suzanne McQuinn, CSD
There was a lovely breeze as I walked down the tree-shaded lane to this very special spot. Tingling with anticipation I turned right and saw it – a fenced-in long green rectangle seemingly cut out of a pasture. At my feet was a stream tumbling over small rocks and babbling its ancient secrets.
I crossed a small bridge and entered the green rectangle. The stream curved off to my right, under another small bridge, which led to an altar. Then it branched into a ‘Y’ with swift water coming from the right, and calm water disappearing behind a low wall on the left. Part of this wall was shaped like two rounded orbs with a hole in the middle of each. Water from an underground source dripped through the holes. The structure was called the Breasts of Saint Brigit. The water comes from her holy well 150 feet behind the wall. Five stones marked the distance at equal intervals.
Approaching the stones and the well, I passed by the second bridge and the altar. Bouquets of flowers decorated the shelf and the ground all around the altar. Overhead hung a carefully woven straw cross of Saint Brigit – the material of the original cross the Abbess Brigit wove for her dying father. The story relates that she baptized him just minutes before his final breath in this realm.
As I stood there, I felt the Presence of the place, and I noted that with the altar, the five stones and then the well, the perfect number of seven was attained – the number of wholeness, of perfection, of God’s everlasting realm.
Joining with other pilgrims, I stood before the altar and offered a prayer of thanksgiving for Saint Brigid and for her attentive love and hospitality. This earth-born mother figure known for her nurturing, and in that thin veil of time that characterizes much Celtic thought, even as the wet-nurse of the baby Jesus, inspire us with her generosity of spirit. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
I moved onward to the first stone. The sun felt warm against my face, and I heard the sheep calling to their friends in the pasture. Shadows danced on the grass as a current of air stirred the leaves on the trees, and the stream continued its babble. The birds were singing, and there was a faint droning of bees. I offered a prayer in appreciation of God’s creation and for the beauty of nature, for the seasons of the earth and the cycle of life itself. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
I moved to the second stone. This place seemed far removed from any hustle and bustle, and its very greenness was soothing. I felt at peace, and yet I knew there was little peace out there – in the ‘real’ world. I prayed that peace would come not only into the world but also into my own heart, and that the peace of Christ would calm any strife I was feeling, and would remain within me constantly. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
I moved to the third stone. I remembered that Saint Brigid was known for ‘the milk of human kindness.’ If she were here today, she would be in the foreground to champion the poor, the sick, the lonely, the prisoners, the destitute, the hopeless. I prayed that I might be an instrument of comfort to the poor; that I might make a positive difference in the lives of the needy by bringing hope. I remembered the prayer attributed to Saint Francis – ‘Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.’ Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
I approached the fourth stone and I prayed for all the relationships in my life – for my family, friends, business associates, my church and other groups that involve my time and energy – and I prayed for openness, understanding, sensitivity, closeness and a mutual feeling of honor and confidence. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
With these thoughts of loved ones, I came to the fifth stone, concern for their physical well being uppermost in my mind. I was also conscious of my own physical shortcomings – aches and pains that come with aging but which are difficult to accept. I prayed for the health of those I care about and then for my own health, hoping that my resurrection day will come without prolonged pain or illness. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
Ahead lay the holy well. It was shallow, more like a quiet spring. Here again, Saint Brigid’s straw cross lay against the back stone. I noticed a small tree on the left side with personal mementos hanging from its branches – offerings from people who had prayed and received healing at this well. The pilgrims formed a circle around the well and we joined hands. I prayed for any brokenness in my life, and I asked for the gift and grace of healing. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
I knelt on a flat stone at the front of the well and dipped my hands into the still water. Then I dipped my Companion’s Cross in the well three times in the name of the Trinity; and in the name of Saint Brigid and all the saints and hermits; and I prayed for our Sister Brigit-Carol, SD, who assumed the name of this blessed saint.
There was moss around the well, and tiny minnows darted about. I wondered – How many saints have knelt here? How many spirits have been healed? I knelt there, feeling the holiness, feeling the prayers, feeling the welcome of Brigid here at her well. I sensed a wholeness of being and a vitality that made me want to shout for joy!
I had arrived at the well. Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.
Suzanne is a Companion to the Solitary of DeKoven and a Board member. Her visit to Saint Brigid’s well was part of a pilgrimage to Ireland led by the Reverend Herbert O’Driscoll and Marcus Lusak in June, 2000. "Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est" was the theme song of the pilgrims – a fitting song to sing at Brigid’s well as it speaks of love and charity. At each of the seven places there were also readings from ‘Rekindling the Flame, a Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Brigid of Kildare’ by Rita Minehan, CSB, published by Solas Bhride Community, 14 Dara Park, Kildare, Ireland.
As you all know, the solitaries of DeKoven and Sister Brigit-Carol, SD, have been in the process of looking for a suitable permanent location for the DeKoven Hermitage. We had a five-year agreement on the current hermitage. That agreement expires at the beginning of this coming year. Your prayers have been an important component in this search process, and for them we are grateful.
At this point, we have ceased looking for a new location as Sister Brigit-Carol, upon the advise of her advisors, has decided to move, temporarily, into an established Religious Community for a time of further discernment and formation as a Solitary.
Sister said she has chuckled at God’s timing. She has been professed for seven years and has not considered taking a Sabbatical, but that is exactly what is happening. College professors tend to take Sabbaticals where they can further their studies; clergy take opportunities for furthering growth in their ministry; and so it makes all the sense in the world for a Solitary to take advantage of a Religious Community for further vocational growth.
At present, it has not been decided to which community Sister Brigit-Carol will go. The current plans are for her to remain at the DeKoven Hermitage on Cypress Valley Ranch until at least the end of the year, and then move in early to mid January.
The Board of the Solitaries of DeKoven will continue to oversee Sister’s temporal affairs during this time of transition, and we ask that you keep us and Sister in your prayers during the next few months as we seek God’s will for the future.
Prayer for the
Solitaries of DeKoven
Blessed Lord, we thank you for calling people throughout the ages to serve you in a special vocation of solitude and prayer. Bless the Solitary Religious of DeKoven, the Board of Directors, Companions, and all who seek You in silence and solitude with your peace. Be present to them in their lives and work and bless all that come into contact with them. Gather us, we pray, into a spiritual community of humble hearts drawn closer and closer in bonds of affection through a common goal of devotion and vocation as envisioned by our patron, Blessed James DeKoven. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer is the contemplation of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good … As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of the oar, are true prayers and heard throughout nature…
(Emerson: Essay: Self-Reliance)
Hi From The Hills
After an extended stay at the hermitage for some of the Fall Season, I have returned to the ministry in the Hood, the inner city, for my usual two days a week. It is as if I had never left – the sirens, the noise, the chaos, the smells, the street people, the crime, and the dirt all still here waiting for me. Also waiting for me are the friendships, the love, the ministry, the privileges, the sunshine, and the wonder that is the Truth and the Reality of this place called the Hood. Different valleys, hills and woods, but valleys, hills and woods none the less, even if they are concrete and stone. I find I no longer have to 'shift gears' as I did several years ago between the environment of the hermitage and the environment that is the Ghetto. It is all a place in time and space inhabited by God and by God's grace and light. I have learned to listen and to be as aware of what surrounds me here in the city as I am of what surrounds me at Hill House. This has by no means been quick or an easy lesson to learn.
My spiritual walk in both places, in the hills and in the Hood, have brought life and meaning to the following words written in 1673 by Michael Molinos. I expected to find more of this meaning in one or the other place, what a blessing to find this meaning equally in both:
"It behooves you, you who would seek a deeper walk with your Lord, to soon lay aside clearly defined intelligibles. In short, lay aside everything and cast yourself into the bosom of a loving God. Eventually this Lord of yours will restore to you all you have dropped, while at the same time increasing you in strength and power. [I speak of a power to love Him more ardently.] In turn this love will maintain you in all circumstances that may come into your life. Be sure that the love which you pour out towards Him [which love He Himself will give you] is worth more than all of the actions which you can ever perform. There is little that you can do for God; there is so very little in this lifetime you will ever really come to understand of Him, I care not how wise you are, nor how much you study. But, oh! You can love Him a great deal."
When I entered these woods and hills, I cast myself into the presence of God, laying aside all that I had previously known, imagined or surmised about myself, God and my Christian faith. Casting myself into the void of silence and stillness, where the only thing that I did accept with assurance was that I existed, and had spiritual being, and that God existed and had Being. The rest of my actions, beliefs, and studies, I left to either be reestablished, discarded or ignored. I started from this basic premise and did so without using the hills and woods as a place to 'run away', but rather as a place in which to contemplatively come. I allowed myself only to feel the love that I had towards God and to feel the love that God had towards me. Free from all other attachments, expectations, actions, dogmas and purposes, I found a depth and richness to this love that I had never imagined could exist. While I could not come closer to intellectually understanding God and my self in relationship to God, I came and continue to come closer and to fall deeper into the loving and being loved by God in all manner of very Real ways. God returned to me many of the things that I left behind me when I entered this contemplative and semi-eremitic lifestyle, and those that did not return to me, I have to think very hard about to now even remember what they were. While they seemed very important once, loving and being loved by God in the silence and in the stillness of being present to myself and to God's being, reduced them to insignificant matters.
When the call came to enter into my ministry in the Hood, the inner city, for several days a week, I clearly saw and understood it as having come forth from within my contemplative and semi-eremitic lifestyle. It clearly came from within the love at the center of my being.
"Your daily occupations are not contrary to your Lord's will. Your occupation is not against the resignation to His will which you presented to Him. You see, resignation encompasses all of the activities of your daily life. Whether it be study, reading, preaching, earning your living, doing business, or the like, you are resigned to whatever it is that comes into your life, each hour, each moment. Whatever happens in your life is, in itself, His will. You have not left that resignation nor have you left His presence."
Be it in the hills or in the Ghetto, this statement has Real life for me now.
"Why do so many believers hinder the Lord's work within their lives? It is because they wish to achieve something, because they have a desire to be great. For this reason you find many believers attaching themselves to the gifts of the Spirit so that they may come out from that central portion of their being where they themselves are nothing; thus the whole work of the Lord in their lives is spoiled. We find Him only when He is all and we are nothing. When one knows that he is nothing, then there is nothing that can disquiet him. He who knows he is nothing is incapable of receiving grievance or injury from anyone or anything. As long as we can see ourselves as nothing, the Lord can continue to work in us, depositing His image and likeness within our inward being." [Michael Molinos: The Spiritual Guide]
I found in the hills and in the Hood, that I had to see my nothingness in order that I might understand The All in Whom I was. A lesson, that for me, required a journey into both places. For a time two very separate journeys and then combined into awareness that they were the same journey. To see, understand and experience that active and passive contemplation are one in the same essence. To see that in the love of God, the hills and the Hood meet, that to be called to one or the other, or to be called to both, requires the same holy intention and regard. One is not 'better' than the other, nor neither more useful nor more holy a calling. The point, the true point to both the hills and the Hood, was to grasp the Whole in the small part that I had been given in each. We all reside in just such Reality; it surrounds us at every moment. We each can come into a loving and close relationship with the Whole, with God, we each can grasp the Whole from the small part we have each been given.
"It is in this superb stillness that truth finds its origin and beauty touches the heart. It is here that love – not its poor substitutes – is at last known…there is an immense realization of abiding at last in the complete truth about life, the final word about reality. There is a perfect inner silence…there is an utter emotional calm when desire and fear lie quite still. There is a sense of reality, a reality that ever was and ever will be, and of the surface illusions having stopped at last." [Paul Brunton: The Notebooks of Paul Brunton]
When we give the Truth that is within us, a chance to experience the Reality that surrounds us, we will more fully touch and experience this love, along with the silence and the stillness in which it travels.
Bill Kolacek, a part time pastor to a church in the Hood (ghetto) of Chicago, lives a semi-eremitic life in a rural part of the Midwest. His writings appear with some regularity in Solitary Voice. We are grateful for his willingness to share his walk with the Lord.
From Blessed James DeKoven…
Not simply through faith in Christ; not simply through love of Christ; not simply through zeal for Christ; not simply by the conforming of heart and will to His, do Christians grow nearer to one another; but through oneness with Him on earth, in the Church His body, through the Sacraments in the same holy Church; in Paradise, by His own blessed and life-giving presence. As Christians thus grow nearer to Him, they ever grow nearer to one another.
At the Feast of All Souls
The Reverend Mary Earle
Creaking and groaning,
caught up in a song too deep for words,
a primordial sound,
what has been
The thaw brings fissures,
cracks that open
Floes rub against
Ice creates fire.
Can it be that after so long,
after what seems an eternity,
the newness really will come?
The river flows beneath the grey-green ice,
flows unseen, unheard, unnoticed.
The river, currents deep and unplumbed,
warms the glacial frozen surface.
The noise is deafening.
Deep waters warm, rise.
South breezes caress the hard as ice surface.
What was breaks up and washes away.
The river is no longer hidden;
now the deep life is on the surface.
Mary is a priest, spiritual director, obviously a writer, and popular speaker and leader of retreats and quiet days. With her husband, Doug also a priest), Border Collies Maggie and Merlin and her cats, Grendle and Cuthbert, she lives in San Antonio.
From the Hermitage
Sister Brigit-Carol, SD
It is raining in South Texas! After over six months of almost no measurable precipitation, the rain comes as a pure gift. I kept waking during the night to the glorious sound of the rain on the metal roof – it was like the song of angels in my ears. A shower two weeks ago greened up the land, and this rain is recharging the stock tanks and underground springs. Indeed, the desert does flow with springs of living water.
For several weeks now I have been meditating on a couple of verses from Lamentations 3:22-23:
The Lord’s love is surely not exhausted, nor has his compassion failed;
They are new every morning, so great is his constancy.
As I lay there last night listening to the thunderous rain on the hermitage roof and giving thanks for the refreshing earth, I prayed that God’s love, like rain, would pour forth just as powerfully, into all of our lives and bring the greening to our souls just as the natural rain greens the earth and makes it fruitful.
Thoughts in Solitude
Many years ago I had the opportunity to read The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Since then the book has remained on my shelf, but the title still haunts me. With time I have learned that a paradox exists in the lived experiences of security and insecurity. Both attract me and both frighten me. I desire to feel secure and I long to know the meaning of really letting go.
Security is necessary for newborn infants. Children learn to trust that life is reliable, that others do care. Not even the best child hoods are perfect so as we grow some of us have more resilience than others in risking mature lives.
But the paradox is that I mature into adulthood only to discover God calling me to let go of the life on which I have learned to depend! As a solitary, I am called to live this paradox, to grow into the true freedom of the Children of God. The call to trust emerges out of the mysterious recesses of desert emptiness – a call to have faith and confidence in life and the God who dwells in all the experiences of life.
Solitude, I have discovered, is the place where I face head-on my resistance to the paradox. Here I meet all the insecurities that prevent me from growing into God and the securities that hold me back from the embrace of Love. Looking around, I see my security needs: financial, material, physical, mental, and spiritual ones.
I desire the security of knowing that there is a God who is deeply invested in my life and in all of creation. I desire to trust that there is a God who is there even in quiet nothingness. In solitude I discover over and over that my finances are not secure; that all the ‘things’ I have around me do not satisfy nor ever seem to be enough; that my health can change at any moment; and that my experience of God is one of never knowing for sure what this Divine Presence is or how it will be revealed.
Others may experience the paradox of security/insecurity in other forms. For me, it is fear and the trap for me is to hold on to what I have. Fear of? My list is endless: fear of not having enough, of being needy, of being insufficient, not good enough, and of course the big one: what will happen when I can no longer support myself? Intertwined is the terror of total aloneness and emptiness that I see on the horizon at times. All these fears can be paralyzing.
The hermit’s wisdom is that God will provide, as we grow in fidelity to this way of discipleship. I have known this in bits and pieces. I long for the day when all these loose ends will be linked together in a trusting awareness that God alone is my security. I long for the day when I will truly believe that, when I feel most insecure, God will be there to give me everything – but nothing to hold on to. My flailing around may stop even if my fear and anxiety continue to surface. Yes, I will continue to provide for my needs. The difference is a growing awareness that my inner solitude and my external solitude are ‘secured’ in God providential care.
Judith lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her writing appeared in ‘Raven’s Bread’, a newsletter which seeks to affirm and support the eremitic life.
Lift up yourselves to the great meaning of the day
and dare to think of your humanity
as something so divinely precious
that it is worthy of being an offering to God.
Count it a privilege to make that offering as complete as possible,
keeping nothing back.
And then go out to the pleasures and duties of your life
having been born anew into his divinity
as he was born into our humanity
on Christmas Day.
From a Christmas sermon preached by Phillip Brooks,
Episcopal priest and author of "O Little Town of Bethlehem".