Walking in the Holy Presence by Valerie Luckey

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Updated: 1 hour 14 min ago

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.

Simultaneous Life In the Time of COVID-19

Mon, 2020-04-06 14:43

When I was teaching fourth grade another teacher would come to my classroom to help during math. She would work with a smaller group of students, as well as help the children learn their times tables using all the tricks she had gathered in her 40-plus-year teaching career.
Sometimes she would have the kids stand side-by-side and give them a multiplication fact. Often times they would answer at the same time. The entire class would respond, "Simultaneous." Not only were they slowly putting the facts into their memory bank, but they were also learning a REALLY big word, by fourth-grade standards.
I always think of that when I think of the word "simultaneous." And I am thinking of the word often these days because there is so much simultaneous joy and fear tugging at me all the time.
And it's for all the reasons you might imagine...
On Friday night we gathered at a social distance to enjoy Quarantine Follies, a monastery talent show. Some people who live outside the monastery joined in via Zoom as we began with a "letter" from Heaven that Ed Sullivan wrote to us reminding us of Sisters '66. Sisters '66 was a performance from that same year which we used to financially support the building of our new motherhouse. (Enjoy the performance on his show below!) (And yes, we did end our evening this past Friday with a wonderful repeat of Kumbaya.) 
The evening included musical talent, poetry reading, a lesson in statistics, some puns, Donald Duck impressions, hula-hooping, as well as a drumming rendition of Love Will Keep Us Together. It was simply pure delight to gather that way and to be able to find joy and laughter in some lighter shared moments during this pandemic.
And yet, there is this pandemic, and there are the very real statistics always in front of us. And there is the total uncertainty surrounding just about everything. It's hard to trust those oft-used gospel words, "Do not be afraid" in these moments because fear is a natural response to feeling uncertain and out of control.
I find myself vacillating so quickly between the two, or feeling them simultaneously, and it's more than a bit uncomfortable. Mary Oliver writes about it well:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

There are no answers for how to deal with this abundance of emotions playing out inside, but there is breathing and there is staying in the present moment and there is gratitude for daffodils blooming and for all those working tirelessly to respond.
Let us walk in the holy presence.

The Questions We Ask

Mon, 2020-03-30 16:38
"You have to write this down, Val."

I was talking to a friend on the phone this morning...about...what else...Covid-19.

We were talking about the complexity of upholding one another while the entire global community is in pain. When we speak of community, we often speak of the gift of the strong upholding the weak, the joyful uplifting the sorrowful, the healthy caring for the unhealthy and how that all balances out over time as we each experience our own highs and lows.

But, right now, in this moment, that isn't so easy. Everyone is hurting for one reason or another in the unique ways this affects us all. There is a communal heaviness across the world, and one of the hardest parts is that we do not know when it will end. How long will we have to carry ourselves in this incredibly vulnerable way?

Sure, we can joke about how introverts are grateful for all this solitude or that the Brits love not giving hugs for a while, but we know, deep down, that this reality is deeper than any of that.

There are no answers; there are questions; there is an uncomfortable attempt at patience; there is hope.

"Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." --Rilke

Let us walk in the holy presence.
masks that my friend sewed

What's It Like in a Monastery During These Days of COVID-19?

Tue, 2020-03-24 14:44
As many of us have been spending more time on the phone, or FaceTime, or Zoom, or whatever way we connect with technology, people have been asking what it's like in the monastery during these days of necessary distancing. We don't have any guests or visitors right now; nearly all of us usually going out to ministry are staying home; we are seeking new ways to support one another.

Yes, things are different...but they are still very monastic.

So, I decided to take a few photos illustrating some of the ways we are adapting here at Mount Saint Benedict.

1. A large, gridded white board hangs outside our community room with a variety of activities offered, creating a new kind of horarium.

2. Last night was the first (with hopefully more to come) folk concert during dinner time...fun sing-a-longs! Thanks, Marilyn!

3. Waste cans outside each bathroom so that you don't touch the doors with your clean hands and can throw away the paper towel afterward instead.

3. Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes...everywhere!

4. You can see that the tray holder is down on one side of the line. We are serving meals to one another so that there are fewer people touching the serving utensils. "The members should serve one another." (RB 35:1)

5. A variety of light viewing options. Today is Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

6. And no names in the guest wing. I don't know if this has ever happened (outside of community meetings) since I entered the monastery.

So, yes, as everyone across the globe acclimates to a new way of being for who-knows-how-long, this a brief glimpse of some acclimating here.

Be safe and healthy.

Let us walk in the holy presence.

The Rhythm of the Days

Fri, 2020-03-20 09:00
Well, words are certainly hard to find these days. We have only just begun this new time of indefinites and uncertainties.

And, like the rest of you, anxiety is hard to control right now.

Although the psalms can be hard to pray right now, as we prayed psalm 79 this morning...

Throughout Jerusalem
they have poured out blood like water.
No one is left to bury the dead.
How long will this endure?
May your compassion enfold us;
we are in the depths of distress.
We, your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give you thanks forever.

...they still are my greatest comfort. The routine of the Liturgy of the Hours is comfort.

I helped to sort through some books yesterday and was reminded of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB's book, Seven Sacred Pauses. In it, she offers reflections and antiphons to pray the seven traditional prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Here are a few from the book...

The Night Watch (Midnight through Dawn)
"And I said to the one who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely in the Unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.'" (Minnie Haskins)

The darker the night, the lovelier the dawn she carries in her womb. (Dom Helder Camara)

They also serve who only stand and wait. (John Milton)

For God alone my soul waits in silence. (Psalm 62:1)

The Awakening Hour (Dawn)
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love;
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalm 90:14)

Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door. (Emily Dickinson)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Bathed in morning light, pray that the lantern of your life move gently this day into all those places where light is needed. (Macrina Wiederkehr)

The Blessing Hour (Midmorning)
Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes. (Etty Hillesum)

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor. 3:16)

I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know--the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. (Albert Schweitzer)

The Hour of Illumination (Midday)
Only in embracing all can we become the arms of God. (Coleman Barks)

Commit your way to the Holy One. Trust and God will act. Integrity will rise like the sun, bright as the noonday will be your healing. (Psalm 37:5-6, paraphrased)

To become [human] means to have no support and no power, save the enthusiasm and commitment of one's own heart. (Johannes Metz)

The Wisdom Hour (Midafternoon)
Sustain me as you have promised that I may live; disappoint me not in my hope. (Psalm 119:116--NAB)

Death belongs to life just as night belongs to day, as darkness belongs to light, as shadows belong to substance...death belongs to life. (Rabbi Alvin Fine)

Who knows what is beyond the known? And if you think that any day the secret of light might come, would you now keep the house of your mind ready? Would you now cleanse your study of all that is cheap, or trivial? (Mary Oliver)

The Twilight Hour (Evening)
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. (Psalm 43:3)

O [God], support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, [God], in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last; through Jesus Christ. (John Henry Newman)

A soul flare is what happens when someone shines [his or her] light no matter what it is. In a song, a smile, or a well-made soup; they send out a flare of light that inspires others to shine their own. Soul flares make this world better. (Annie O'Shaughnessy)

The Great Silence (Night)
I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart--oh let them take me now. Into them I place these fragments, my life, and you, God--spend them however you want. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The more faithfully you listen to the voice within your, the better you hear what is sounding outside of you. (Dag Hammarskjold)

O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Psalm 56:3)

As we continue to walk through these days, marking our hours with whatever sacred strength we can find, let us pray for one another.

Let us walk in the holy presence.