Walking in the Holy Presence by Valerie Luckey

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Updated: 1 hour 15 min ago

It's all about the journey.

Sun, 2020-07-26 13:29
So, where to begin?
When I entered the community back in 2015, I received a gift from one of my sisters. It was a framed cross-stitch of a bicycle decked out in flowers that says, "It's all about the journey." I remember how it made me laugh back then; I have always had a keen focus on arriving at the destination, the end goal, the final product...with little appreciation for what comes in between.
So, I spent the past three weeks reflecting on the journey that has transpired over the past five years living this monastic life with these Benedictine women here in Erie. The reflection came through virtual presentations on the charisms and values of the life: prayer, ministry, good zeal, humility, obedience, among others. The reflection came through spending three days in the kitchen preparing meals for our community during our election weekend. The reflection came through learning who our new prioress would be. The reflection came through a directed retreat. The reflection came through the silence and solitude that followed the whole experience.
Needless to say, there has been much fodder for my reflection these past three weeks.
Did I learn anything?
Well, a few people have asked me about the big takeaways, awarenesses, learnings from the time.
The truth is, I am not sure that there was some big insight at all.
I think it was more of a deepening trust that this journey I am on is good, is holy, is worthwhile, is meaningful...all because this journey leads me closer and closer to Love. And what else really matters?
It meant that I felt a richer appreciation for the power and potential of commitment. I read these words from Sandra Schneiders, IHM one morning while I was in solitude in a hermitage:

By making a perpetual or lifelong commitment we take the whole of our life and being into our hands, temporally, as a concrete symbol of the qualitative whole to which we do not have access until our final breath, because it does not exist as an actual whole until then.

Clearly, this life is about a journey of daily commitment. And clearly, if I choose to make this commitment, the journey is only beginning for me. The commitment is felt in glimpses along the way, and then made whole and real in eternity.
In a presentation on fidelity and conversatio, the prioress from the Benedictines in Beech Grove, Indiana shared a line recited during the funeral liturgy for sisters in their community:
“Sister _____ has now completed her monastic profession.”
I was totally struck by this line. It totally stopped me. Maybe it's because five of our own sisters have completed their monastic profession since the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown.
Sister Kate Disbrow has now completed her monastic profession.Sister Carol Ann McLaughlin has now completed her monastic profession.Sister Anne McGreevy has now completed her monastic profession.Sister Jerome Eustace has now completed her monastic profession.Sister Mary Daniel Meahl has now completed her monastic profession.
They have given me glimpses into what it means to make a perpetual commitment. It is ongoing. They are still alive with us. Each sister's memory comes to prayer, to table, to the salt and pepper shakers she filled, to the clothing other sisters now wear, to the book I spotted in the library, to the towels she folded, to the harp she played. Their commitment to this monastic life is still so very real.
It gives me comfort to know that we are with these sisters in their eternal life; that my journey inches me there, too; that when I make a daily commitment to love and to others I, too, am offering my life to something bigger.
I am beginning to believe that this is a commitment and a journey worthy of their destination.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

What is it that you wish to seek?

Tue, 2020-06-30 16:56
Chapter 58 of the Rule of Benedict outlines the procedures for receiving people who desire to enter into the monastic life, specifically for Benedict, the cenobitic community. The chapter does not sugarcoat the process; it’s not meant to be a breeze. The elder member of the community entrusted to journey with the seeker must lay out the struggles in a candid and sincere manner. The seeker must show a love for the Liturgy of the Hours, for obedience, and for the hardships that are inevitable on the path of a communal life focused in humility and prayer and conversion.
Next week I will begin a lengthy retreat meant to focus on this discernment. Usually Scholastics (members in first profession) would travel for this experience, but here we are, in a pandemic, getting a little more practice in our vow of stability by staying put at home. Yes, we will get some solitude, and we will still be in conversation with others from different communities discerning a perpetual commitment, as well as directors, through the gift of technology. But, as is the reality with all life as affected by Covid-19, it will be different.
Someone asked me this evening what I hope to get out of the experience. I hope to continue to be affirmed in what I already know—that I love this life because it calls me to wholeness; that I love the women who make up this community because they show me how to live loving, human lives; that I love living an intentional life rooted in prayer and contemplation. I hope to remember that all my passing doubts are just that—passing, that the “What-ifs” that I ask myself are important and worth considering, but they are not the be-all/end-all because in the end “All shall be well.”
There will be a bit of a lull in this blog while I take that time away—while I continue the lifelong practice of encountering the Divine. We recently finished reading the book Keeping Faith by Fenton Johnson. Toward the end, he writes:
This act of confidence in our human right and responsibility to shape the terms of our encounter with the divine, as well as confidence in the greater order in which our search takes place—we give the name of faith.
I loved that line, “...our human right and responsibility to shape the terms of our encounter with the divine.” That is what a mature community does, together. As someone in formation moves from one phase to another, the prioress always asks the question, “What is it that you wish to seek?” I wish to seek an encounter with the Divine supported by a group of faith-filled women who also continue to seek that holy encounter. 
I think I am in a pretty good place.
Let us walk in the holy presence.
Fire at sunset

A Combination of Flavor

Mon, 2020-06-22 14:57
You know how some people have to eat all their potatoes, then all their peas, then all their carrots? You know how some people cannot handle one kind of food touching another on their plate? And, you how some other people like a little bit of potato, and peas, and carrots all in one bite?
Who knows why people choose the method they do when eating their meal, but I know that I am part of the ladder group. I love combining flavors. The other night at dinner, I had the applesauce on top of the sauerkraut, which was on a bed of mashed potatoes. I love that combination.
Well, the orioles have been back at the feeders after a brief hiatus. I have had a female at mine, and she keeps coming every day. Perhaps it's the grape jelly. A friend led us onto this trick; the birds love it!
But, to my amazement, or at least, my mild opportunity for reflection, I watched as this oriole flew up to the feeder with some green already in her mouth! I wondered if she likes combining flavors just like I do. I mean, grape jelly is basically sugar, and sugar goes super well with, well, everything!

It made me think of the movie, Ratatouille, a Disney/Pixar animated film from 2007. Of course, the combination of Disney/Pixar and a movie about food made me salivate myself. It was a wonderful film with a tear-worthy ending. There's a moment in the movie when Remy, a rat who is the main character, remembers the joy of each unique food flavor, but also the even-greater joy of combining those flavors.

Maybe the rest of the animal world is full of culinary artists, too!
Let us walk in the holy presence.

A Retreat of Small Joys

Tue, 2020-06-16 19:06
This past week our community was on its annual retreat. Understandably changed due to Covid-19, we had no Oblates present with us as we usually would, nor did we have some of our sisters who live out of the monastery since the presentations were available online. So, it was even more quiet than the week’s usual noiselessness. An additional small retreat from technology made it even nicer.

Winnie Varghese, an Episcopal priest in NYC, presented our retreat virtually on the call to love and justice. She shared many stories illuminating the reality of racism in a very timely way, and there was lots of free space to spend in reflection.

I also decided that I would use my retreat to try to practice feeling like there was nothing that I “had to do.” When a little, annoying urge to be somewhere other than where I was arose, I tried to pay attention to that. Why wasn’t I content in the present moment? I, too, had a bit more time to notice small things, literally so, as I ran past the young grapevines.

I also found such delight in the way that the morning sun glistened through the trees, making it appear as though stars were twinkling in the sky between the leaves blowing in the wind; I thought about how I always expect to find God in big ways. Then, I read a paragraph from Eve Ensler’s memoir, In the Body of the World:
I was always reaching for love, but it turns out love doesn’t involve reaching. I was always dreaming of the big love, the ultimate love, the love that would sweep me off my feet or ‘break open the hard shell of my lesser self’ (Daisaku Ikeda). The love that would inspire me to give everything. As I lay there, it occurred to me that while I had been dreaming of this big love, this ultimate love, I had, without realizing it, been giving and receiving love for most of my life. As with the trees that were right in front of me, I had been unable to value what sustained me, fed me, and gave me pleasure. And as with the trees, I was so busy waiting for and imaging and reaching and dreaming and preparing for this huge big love that I had totally missed the beauty and perfection of the soft-boiled eggs and Bolivian quinoa.
And, for me, I’ll substitute eggs and quinoa for the tiniest grapes and whimsical starry trees.
What are your soft-boiled eggs and Bolivian quinoa these days?
Let us walk in the holy presence.

The Patterns of Life

Sat, 2020-05-30 15:53
“How often in this busy, complicated, overcrowded, difficult world do I make the time to sit and listen to its changing rhythms?”
Of course I had to stop myself when I read this quote in Fenton Johnson’s book, Keeping Faith. And I would be shocked if it didn’t stop most people who consider themselves to be on some sort of journey into the Spirit. The book chronicles Johnson’s journey into Christian and Buddhist monastic life, and although we are not done reading it (My friend and I have been using as a means of staying connected during the pandemic.), I think we’d both give it a high recommendation.
I read that line before last Wednesday’s Silent Peace Walk. Amended, again for the pandemic, we walked spaced apart here at the monastery for our monthly Peace Walk, and it was quite a powerful experience. Even in this slowed down time, I hadn’t taken such a mindful walk around the monastery in the past few months. I was able to notice the greening of the trees, the blossoming of the flowers, the sounds of the birds, and the general rhythms that spring months bring with them. I had noticed that spring was here, of course, but it really did give me an opportunity to pay attention, even if for just thirty minutes.
“How often in this busy, complicated, overcrowded, difficult world do I make the time to sit and listen to its changing rhythms?”
The most startling thing I noticed was a hydrangea bush beginning to flower. I consider myself pretty familiar with this plant, and we have many of them around the monastery, but I had never noticed the pattern of this particular bush in our backyard by the compost bin.

I couldn’t get over how patterned the blossoms were—perfect rows, pair-by-pair. You can even see how each “blossom set” (for lack of knowing the proper term) blossomed in patterns, too, with the outside ring opening first.
I was just blown away. And when I re-read these lines from a particularly good and challenging chapter titled “Being in Doing,” I couldn’t help but think of this hydrangea. I hope you have had space to notice similar beauty in nature these days.
“How often in this busy, complicated, overcrowded, difficult world do I make the time to sit and listen to its changing rhythms?”
Let us walk in the holy presence.

“Baptizing the Ordinary”

Mon, 2020-05-25 15:07
I am re-reading Old Monk’s book, Peace is Our Calling. Written about four decades ago, the book explores the question of what contemporary monasticism has to offer to the peace movement. And even though forty years separate us from its initial publication, its relevance remains today. This quote describing monastic life (from Thomas Cullinan, OSB) captured my attention and resonated in my heart:

“‘Monastic life is baptizing the ordinary,’ he explained. ‘When our neighbors heard we were moving in they were all keyed-up for something extraordinary. I think they’re rather surprised, and maybe a little disappointed. Monasticism is very low key. We are just common people who try to show by our lives that holiness is natural and not very difficult.’”

While I might argue about the relative ease or difficulty of holiness (at least for me!), everything else is so on-point. When I initially entered the Erie Benedictine community a lot of people were curious about how my life would be drastically different. Yes, it is, but it’s not really. When we enter deeply into the horarium’s rhythm without too many *extra* things going on (like these still semi-quarantined days), there is a certain quiet and calm and ordinary nature to it all. We have our prayer time and common table time, and now with a bit more free space, you can see many sisters taking walks around the monastery, stopping to wonder at the marvel of the spring season. You see others gathering to play cards a little more often. Ordinary—if you ask me. And lovely. And perhaps inching toward holiness. Baptizing life with presence and attention along the way.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

(Here are some ordinary findings in my meanderings these days.)
A lovely sunset...
A calm creek...
The oriole enjoying some grape jelly for lunch...
Perfectly fragrant lilacs...

Is It Spring?

Mon, 2020-05-11 16:13
With signs of springtime everywhere, it's still hard for my body to belief it's really here. We had snow on Saturday, temperatures below 40 degrees as I headed back to the office for the first time since March 16th, and I am beyond eager to wear open-toed shoes outside...comfortably.

But, there have been some lovely days, and the buds and blossoms are definitely showing. One of our most beautiful, "show-off" trees anchors the courtyard. You can see that even Scholastica can't stop staring...

And here are the blossoms closer up...

But, one of my personal favorites is this smaller tree. Not sure the variety, but when she buds, she's gorgeous...

And, then these little delights...the violets in the inner courtyard. I happened to open a Mary Oliver book, Blue Iris, and found this poem...

Violets have many leaves, each one so earnestly
   heart-shaped that you could not imagine the plants have
thought of anything else to do. But they have: they make
   blossoms, which rise yellow or violet, in multitudes, the
violet ones with violet-colored spurs. They like
   dampness, they like hillsides and are comfortable also
in the shady woods. They like to be alone, or congregated
   together in the grass, looking up as you pass by, saying
Hello. Hello. And what else do you imagine

they might do? Sing? I don't think so, I suspect   they know when any further ambition would be
unseemly. So all their time is used up in happiness—
   in becoming the best they can be
for the greater glory of _____.
   In fact, they know it's okay to rest for the rest of
your life just saying: Thank you. Oh cast of thousands,
   as are the stars of heaven, Thank you.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

Welcoming the Guest

Mon, 2020-04-27 11:04
Although we still cannot have guests and visitors in our monastic home, it doesn't mean I am not trying to practice hospitality these days—it just looks a little different right now.

There was one day last week—the weather followed this predictable, yet peculiar pattern. For about thirty minutes or an hour, the sun would shine brilliantly in the sky. Then, almost instantly, the gray cloud cover moved in and snow began blowing through the air. Then, again, the bright yellow sun. And again, the snow. And again and again. The entire day. I had seen the sun and clouds play before, but never so seemingly aggressively and remarkably consistently.

Predictable, yet peculiar.

As we read 2015 papal encyclical, Laudato Si, for an initial monastic formation course, I shouldn't be surprised to find myself feeling a similar pattern these days. We are a part of nature, after all, even when we forget that very basic truth. What happens to our earth happens to us.

The smallest things are providing me great joy and light, but then I quickly sink back into the discomfort and gloom of these quarantined days. Just like that day last week, a movement between darkness and light. Spotting two herons and a few friends on Friday made all the difference in the world. Saturday's sunshine did the same for me. But, yesterday's dreariness echoed my mood...at least until I made a lemon meringue pie at night and was lifted back up a bit.

When people ask me how I am doing, I usually respond, "It depends on the moment." Because it really shifts that quickly for me right now. I know it is a natural experience, those ebbs and flows of our emotional life, but the movement seems so fast sometimes that it startles me when all of a sudden a sense of lethargy comes, or in the opposite way, I spontaneously want to just get up and run.

I don't know what exactly to do with it other than try to breathe peacefully with the movements inside me and say to them, "Hello, and enter." Rumi's poem, The Guest House, reminds me to welcome it all. As we end National Poetry Month, I'll include it here.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Let us practice hospitality, however the opportunity appears.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

lemon meringue and the beginnings of a camp fire

Beautiful Stories

Wed, 2020-04-15 11:00
And here is the serpent again,dragging himself out from his nest of darkness,his cave under the black rocks,his winter-death.
He slides over the pine needles.He loops around the bunches of rising grass,looking for the sun.Well, who doesn’t want the sun after the long winter?
I step aside, he feels the air with his soft tongue,around the bones of his body he moves like oil,downhill he goestoward the black mirrors of the pond.
Last night it was still so coldI woke and went out to stand in the yard,and there was no moon.So I just stood there, inside the jaw of nothing.
An owl cried in the distance,I thought of Jesus, how hecrouched in the dark for two nights,then floated back above the horizon.
There are so many storiesmore beautiful than answers.I follow the snake down to the pond,
thick and musky he is
as circular as hope.
Well, I realized that I should probably be keeping track of time and noticed that, lo and behold, it is April. It's National Poetry Month! So, if you're here, you've already read Mary Oliver's poem, Spring, above. Isn't it just perfect, totally fitting, for right now? It would be perfectly fitting in a "normal" year, but especially during these days.
The imagery Mary Oliver paints resonates as we keep "looking for the sun" in the stories of kindness and compassion we hear, in the generous hearts of people reaching out to those with greater needs. And of course, near the end, those ending lines, "...so many stories more beautiful than answers." We must lean into those stories of hope. 
At our Emmaus Soup Kitchen, people's generosity is on full display with anonymous donations, extra masks delivered, and Easter offerings. Here at the Mount, a group has been sewing masks for a number of days now, and they were able to contribute a handful to the soup kitchen today. 
And another sign of hope these days? A just-beginning-to-bloom daffodil.
Let us walk in the holy presence.