Friday, December 30, 2011

freed from bleak midwinter

"A severe winter kills and destroys all the plants and flowers in the country... Sin, that sad and terrible winter of the soul, destroys all the holy works it finds there... (but) when sin is driven out, and the grace of Divine Love returns to the soul, not only the new affections which the return of this holy springtime produces bud forth into rich merits and blessings, but the works faded and withered under the harshness of the bygone winter of sin - as if freed from their mortal enemy - resume their strength and vigour and, as if raised from death, flourish anew and are fruitful in merits for eternal life."  (St. Francis de Sales)

(photo NS) 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Glorious Interruption

After a month of concentration on Advent and Christmas, I’m finding it tough to get back to where I was with regard to “exploring the cloister.”  Don’t get me wrong:  I absolutely love Christmas.  I savor the days of Advent anticipation, I enjoy preparing gifts, and I love meditating upon the birth of Christ.  I’m thrilled to watch my grandchildren being told that at last they get to find out what has been waiting under the tree.  But when it comes to many activities, the Christmas season constitutes… well…..  an interruption. 

Today it hit me.  That is exactly what Christmas is.  That’s what Christmas has been since the instant of the Incarnation:  an interruption.  Please stay with me here, because our first reaction to the word “interruption” could be negative.  But interruptions are often quite positive, and this Interruption was the most positive of them all.

Think of it.  Mary was living a quiet, hidden life.   She was betrothed.  Then one day an angel appeared to her, and with that Holy Interruption Mary’s life was changed forever … as was Joseph’s, as was yours, as was mine. 

As we know, there was a Birth.  There were shepherds tending their flocks, and again an angel appeared.  A night of sheep-watching was interrupted.  While most of the world went on unaware, some men in the east also noticed something out of the ordinary.  A sign in the sky.  Something signaling, to them, a wondrous interruption – one so marvelous that they must drop any other plans they had and go in haste, and they must bring gifts.  These men were wise enough to know that somehow the world had changed, maybe even that the course of life on earth had been altered. 

The change was so shattering that mankind took notice;  calendars would later mark the divide.  God Himself had split the heavens.  We now measure time by the before and after of that Grand Interruption, in effect saying that yes, we see.  We may not understand, really, but we recognize the wonder and the mystery of it.  God interrupted the cycle of sin and death by breaking into our world (John 3:16).  Jesus broke into the flesh of man, shattering hopelessness with His power and mercy. 

With Jesus' arrival in the flesh, God interrupted our sin and misery.  He opened to us the path to salvation and interrupted our hatred and our lack of peace.   

With Jesus' arrival in the flesh, God ripped through the fabric of time.    

Text not in quotes

Monday, December 26, 2011

prayer power

  no prayer, no power. 

a little prayer, a little power.  

                            a lot of prayer, a lot of power!                                


(public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, December 23, 2011

celebration waiting

The mystery of the Incarnation "is so exalted and so profound that we understand next to nothing about it.  All that we do know and understand is very beautiful indeed, but we believe that what we do not comprehend is even more so.  Finally, some day in Heaven above, we will grasp it fully.  There we will celebrate with an incomparable delight this great feast of Christmas, of the Incarnation."  (St. Francis de Sales)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

is there room?

Sometimes, at this time of year, a question drifts into my mind.  It's always the same. 

"Is there room in Your heart for Me?" 

I immediately think of innkeepers.  I think of a house in Bethlehem where travelers once lodged, where no room was found when the time came for Jesus to be born.

As a cloistered heart, I have said that my primary "apostolate" is that of making my heart a refuge for Jesus in the midst of a world which does not, on the whole, love and honor Him.  Christ is in my heart; this I know.  But sometimes I wonder.  What sort of "refuge" am I offering to Him?  Am I providing a place of welcome and adoration?  Or could it be that I've allowed my heart to become cluttered with so many other things that I have little room in my life for Christ Himself.

The inn in Bethlehem was not filled with "bad" people on the night Mary and Joseph arrived seeking shelter.  It had no room for the holy family only because others had gotten there first.

Does Jesus find little space in some of my days simply because the hours fill up with everything else first?

Do I get up in the morning and put off prayer until I get one thing accomplished, and then one more thing - and do I ever find that the day has sped by without my spending any time at all in communication with God?  I am deeply ashamed to admit that more often than I care to mention, this has been the case.

My heart appears to me, today, somewhat like a cluttered desktop.  Or perhaps like a cluttered manger, in which there is no room for even a tiny Babe.

I am ashamed of the clutter in my heart.  I'm much more ashamed of this than of the clutter that accumulates, piece by piece, upon my desktop.  And so I come today to Jesus, asking HIM to clear out all the distractions and (especially) the sin.  I ask our Blessed Mother, who so tenderly prepared a place for Jesus, to help prepare my heart to be a fitting refuge for my Lord.  May she re-arrange my priorities as one might arrange pieces of straw in a manger.

As my Christmas gift this year, I ask that the same be done for you.  I ask that all our hearts be prepared as places of loving refuge for the King and Messiah Whose birth we are about to celebrate.  The world did not welcome Him when He came to earth as an infant; the world does not welcome Him still.  You and I have the opportunity of welcoming Him in a world which does not do so.  You and I have the opportunity (and I think we would fall on our faces if we could see the full reality of it) to lovingly embrace Him.

Let our hearts prepare Him room.

Text not in quotes

Friday, December 16, 2011

our daily Christmas

"Celebrate the feast
of Christmas
every day, 
even every moment,
in the interior temple
of your spirit."

(St. Paul of the Cross)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a manger filled with mercy

Today I received the following from a reader: 

(is not our heart)"a far lower habitation than the original Bethlehem manger? After all, it was mere wood or stone and incapable of sin. But we - how much we owe our Merciful Savior for all He endures out of love for us! Our stone cold forgetful hearts, our sinful thoughts that roll off our tongues unawares. Oh such endless mercy He gives...." (from Joan) 

I am grateful for permission to share Joan's insights.  I'm particularly aware, as I write this, of those thoughts that "roll off my tongue unawares."  A flip remark, a harsh word, a bit of gossip.... they can slide right off the tongue.  And then, often without so much as an "I'm sorry," I march that tongue forward to receive His Eucharistic Presence...

Oh yes... He gives such endless mercy.  He not only comes to us sinners; He cleans us as He arrives. "You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." (1 Timothy 1:15) 

Such amazing mercy.  Such endless love.  It's what Christmas is all about.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Only a Manger

Mangers are not standard equipment inside monasteries.  As Christmas draws near, however, one begins to see them everywhere, even inside the monastery chapel. 

Once, long ago, there was a simple manger.  It was not unique among mangers; it was surely made of the most ordinary of materials.  Yet today this lowly manger is celebrated throughout the world in art, literature, music.  Why?  Because that un-unique manger was offered to God. It was thus transformed from a feeding trough into the very first resting place of our Savior upon His entrance into the world.  The manger so honored was unlikely to have been a brand new one.  Surely it was not altogether clean.  It may have been damaged from months or years of animals bumping against it, crowding around it, perhaps even chewing its edges as they ate.

My heart is not the most spotless, worthy, unmarred place that Christ could find in which to dwell. Yet He, Whose first resting place after birth was a lowly manger, has chosen to find a home therein.  As a “cloistered heart,” I want to create for Jesus a loving place of refuge in this world where He is so often resisted, forgotten, ignored.  I know I am a refuge unworthy of so great a King.  I am a person made of flesh, and my flesh has been tainted by the stains of sin. 

Imagine the tenderness with which Mary and Joseph prepared a humble bed of straw to receive the new Babe.  It was only a manger, but it was what they had.

It is only a heart, but it is what I have.  I can offer it to Jesus as once a manger was offered.  In this world there are hearts much greater and nobler than mine; hearts more valiant, courageous, sinless, unselfish.  But I cannot give anyone else’s heart to our Savior - I can only give my own.

At this holy time of year, I pray that Jesus can find refuge in hearts that, tattered and broken and stained though they may be, are willing to receive Him. 

May every heart prepare Him room.

“Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge it that you may enter in.  It is all in ruins; do you repair it.  There are things in it which must offend your eyes; I confess and know it.” (St. Augustine)

Text not in quotes

Friday, December 9, 2011

a virtuous winter

“In heaven it shall be all a springtime of beauty, all an autumn of enjoyment, all a summer of love.  Winter there shall be none; but here winter is necessary for the exercise of abnegation and of the thousand beautiful little virtues which are practiced in the time of barrenness.  Let us keep on always at a quiet little pace...”  (St. Francis de Sales, letter to St. Jane de Chantal)

(photo NS)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

because she said yes

"Mary said a total yes to God.  Thus she lived enclosure in His will fully.... All her plans for her life were put aside in favor of God’s.  Mary carried Jesus within her and she gave Him to the world - thus she is the perfect cloistered heart...." (from 'The Cloistered Heart,' p. 60)

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my Savior.  For He has looked upon His servant in her lowliness; all ages to come shall call me blessed.  God Who is mighty has done great things for me; holy is His Name…" (words of Mary in Luke 1:46-50).

("Mystical Rose" photo © NS 2010)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

a letter to St. Nicholas

Dear Saint Nicholas,

My wish this year is not like what I’ve asked for before.  I'm not writing to ask for candy or trinkets.  This year I have but one wish:  I want to be a candle.

I want to stand tall and firm, carrying the Light of Christ even when winds and storms lash about me.  You see, good St. Nicholas, the world has grown terribly dark.  We talk of peace and sing of peace, yet rumors of wars swirl all around.  We’re busy and distracted, we have no time left over to pray.  We get confused about what is truth and what is not; we redefine sin and call it “choice” and “entertainment,” and there is more darkness around than I could tell you about.  In fact, there’s more darkness than I can even see.  It can be hard to peer into darkness, and I feel sometimes like a child at night who wants to cover her head with blankets and wait for morning light.  I need the light; the world needs the light.  So I want to be a candle.

Like a pillar of flame standing beside the Tabernacle in a monastery, lifting firelight fingers high in adoration, I want to offer praise to God.  Like a sanctuary light gently calling attention to the fact that Jesus is with us, I want to keep vigil by His side and call attention to Him.  I would like to flicker softly, as a gentle reminder of His presence, no matter where I may be.  So I want to be a candle.

I know I am asking a lot.  I know that in order for the Flame to increase, a candle must decrease.  A candle gives itself for the Fire; it gives its all.  That’s okay.  You see, I want to live my life for God.  I am not so good at the doing of this, but with the grace of God I’m getting better at the wanting.  And I want to be a candle….

“The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were wicked.  Everyone who practices evil hates the light; he does not come near it, for fear his deeds will be exposed.  But he who acts in truth comes into the light, to make clear that his deeds are done in God.” (John 3:19-21)

“The light shines on in darkness, a darkness that did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

(photo 2011 NS) 


Monday, December 5, 2011

the keynote hour

"Our waking hour is more important than we ever dream.  It has in itself the keynote of the day..

"Our first act of the will is the offering of the day with all its thoughts, words and actions..

"Jesus, make my heart, my very soul, one of the happiest homes You have... a home from which no one will ever dislodge You.."
 (from The Living Pyx of Jesus, Pelligrini)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

reclaiming peace

"First thing in the morning, prepare your heart to be at peace; then take great care throughout the day to call it back to that peace frequently, and, as it were, to again take your heart in your hand...

"If you happen to do something that you regret, be neither astonished nor upset, but,
having acknowledged your failing, humble yourself quietly before God and try to regain your composure... 

"Say to your soul: ‘there, we have made a mistake, but let's go on now and be more careful.’  Every time you fall, do the same." (St. Francis de Sales)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

the morning bell

"Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim Your praise." (Liturgy of the Hours, morning)

Like a nun or monk in a monastery, I have the intention of spending a good deal of time in my "choir stall...."  returning throughout the day to that inner place of prayer. 

But intentions are wispy things.  They drift by and are soon forgotten, being nothing more than daydreams until they're turned into actions.  I've found that I make the transfer from intention to action best by baby-stepping. So here's my plan.  I am going to try to work on one of the "times Sister goes to the choir stall" at a time, striving to incorporate that into my day before I work more intensely on other choir-stall-appointments. 
I had intended to begin with Lectio Divina, writing about what it means (to me) to give a block of time each day to God.  Yet I realize that not only I - but you - are in a season of ever increasing busyness and blessed interruptions, so I've decided to save that until after Christmas (consider this an announcement of "coming attractions!").  I will begin instead with the first light of morning, and do some personal baby-stepping toward remembering to pray as soon as I open my eyes each day.  I'm sorry to say that my lagging, sleepy mind needs reminders.  Often these are bits of paper taped to mirror or alarm clock calling me to PRAY!!!  These are my monastery bells, ringing out the news that I have the privilege of beginning another day with praise. 

Between whatever "baby step reports" or insights there may be in the days just ahead, I look forward also to doing some Advent postings of photos I've set aside for this time of year.  I hope you'll have time during this busy season to continue looking in, for I will be here!

God willing, I'll see you tomorrow.  May God grace us to begin the day in praise. 

Text not in quotes

(photo of light through trees by Linda M)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

in the choir stall

"I will sing and chant praise…" (Psalm 57:8)

It is morning in the monastery.  Sister silently enters the chapel and takes her place in a choir stall, a chair made exclusively to be a place of prayer. 

As the hours move on, Sister will come back and back to the choir stall.  Mid-morning, afternoon, evening, just before bedtime… here she returns to chant praise, participate in Mass, pray with Scripture, meet hour after hour with God. Sister begins and continues and ends her day here.  She answers the bell’s call to prayer when she feels great and when she has a headache.  She comes to the choir stall when she feels close to God, when she's distracted, and when her spiritual life seems barren and dry. 

I have learned that, in the cloister of my heart, I, too, have a "choir stall."  Mine is a portable place of prayer, traveling with me to supermarket, airplane, mall.   I can "sit down" in this prayer-chair regardless of surroundings, seeking God's touch upon my life and on the lives of those around me.

There are no bells to call me to the choir stall.  I must build reminders into my own life.  For me, discipline is quite difficult; therefore, I find the following practices helpful.  Actually, I find them personally necessary if I hope to keep my life focused and on track:

Upon awakening in the morning, I can enter my choir stall by beginning my day with a prayer.  This is the framework upon which the rest of the day will be woven. 

At some point during the day, I try to set aside a block of time to spend with God.  I spend time in prayer with Scripture. It may also be possible for me to go to Mass or Adoration. "Even if your daily life in the service of mankind is overburdened with work, it has to include time devoted to silence and to prayer…. Learn to pray! "  (Pope John Paul II) 

Throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening, I use brief prayers to return me to my choir stall.  I turn my heart to God with inward phrases of prayer, no matter what I am doing or where I happen to be.  "Jesus, I trust in You…"  "Holy Spirit, be my guide…."

As I begin various activities, I can enter the choir stall by offering my actions to God and imploring His aid.  "O you who fear the Lord, praise Him in the places where you are now.  Change of place does not affect any drawing nearer to God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you." (Gregory of Nyssa).

As I retire, I close the day in my choir stall.  "Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace."  (From Liturgy of the Hours, Night Prayer).

Lord Jesus Christ, I ask You to form in me a habit of prayer.  Draw me to meet with You day after day, no matter what my circumstances, in the choir stall of my heart.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

and so I shall

God is worthy of praise, I wrote two days ago.   The Sisters who went on with prayer, unruffled by noise, have remained examples to me of how God can be praised in the midst of distractions.   

But boy oh boy.  How tough it can be.  I suppose no one reading this realizes that Advent can be a busy season (yes, I’m smiling as I write this).  There are plans to be made, cards to be written, gifts to be bought, and dozens of et-ceteras.

I spent today engrossed in the et-ceteras.  It wasn’t until tonight that I realized I’d been absolutely hammered by the THUDs.  All too often, the noises distracting my prayer are not coming from the outside.  They’re right here in my head.  They are “did you buy this?” and “you forgot that” and “you HAVE to deal with this issue right NOW” thud-thuddings.  At such times, I feel my mind has jammed up like mid-city traffic at rush hour. 

One thing that helps me in the midst of a day like this one is to offer prayer whenever it occurs to me that I haven’t been offering it.. After all, it is never too late to begin anew.

“Let your prayer be very simple.  For the tax collector and the prodigal son, just one word was enough to reconcile them with God.”  (St. John Climacus)

God is worthy of praise, whether my distractions come from outside or from inside.  If I haven’t spoken with Him in hours, I can do so at the very moment I think of it. 

And so I shall.

Text not in quotes

Monday, November 28, 2011

So Very Cloistered, Here

Of all my retreats in the (physical) cloister, one was particularly fruitful.  This could have been surprising given the circumstances.  The monastery was not in mountains or meadow, but situated in the middle of a bustling city.  That was okay with me; there was a lush cloister garden separated from the streets by high brick walls.  My plan was to sit with Bible and journal and gather together scattered threads of thoughts and prayers.  The sounds of traffic around?  No problem.  I looked upon those as bits of background noise.  I would spend the day with God, in peace.  A nearly ideal set up for serenity.  
That is, until the band. 

From a campus nearby, there were sudden sounds of an outdoor concert.  A LOUD outdoor concert.  I sat in the garden surrounded by trees, holy statues, birds, and THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD.  Perhaps it would have been less unsettling if I could have heard ALL of the music; as it was, I only heard the thuds.  Thud thud thuds out of context, setting my nerves on end.  Suddenly ordinary street sounds began to unsettle me.  How long had there been planes flying overhead, one after another, and so close-by?  The city seemed filled with sirens.  Voices shouted, just outside the enclosure walls.  Hmmpppf, thought I.  However could I pray? 

And then it was time for the Office of Prayer.  A bell rang, the Sisters gathered.  As a retreatant, I joined them.  We began the chant.  One Sister quietly closed shutters to hush metallic thuds.  That didn’t help, but the nuns sang on, undaunted.  “O Lord, open my lips”THUDTHUDTHUD“and my mouth shall proc”THUDTHUMPTHUD “…laim your praise…”

I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of it all.  Sirens, traffic, shouting, planes, THUDs, chant.

But more than that; I was struck by beauty.  By the intense, amazing, astonishing beauty of it ALL.

One Sister said, just before I left after retreat, that she was sorry I’d been there at such a noisy time.  Oh no, I assured her; I had been there at the perfect time.  I had seen the analogy of “the cloistered heart” in a whole new way, not in spite of the noises, but because of them.  No matter what went on outside, the Sisters were there to praise God, and they would do it undaunted.  Probably they didn’t “feel” very prayerful as they chanted praises they could barely hear, but they were singing to Another, and He could hear them.

Surely there are days when any one of them doesn’t “feel prayerful,” but she comes at the sound of the bell and she praises God, for He deserves it.  He deserves praise and worship with the whole of one’s being.  No matter the noises, no matter the weather, no matter the situations around any of us, God is worthy of praise.  Period. 

God is present, and no matter what goes on all around, He is worthy of praise.  Period.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

the road less travelled

“To walk in the presence of God is to walk in the paths of His good pleasure and not by the way of the flesh... not in self-esteem, our own will and judgment - but in the way of the divine will... " (St. Jane de Chantal)

“Let your eyes look straight ahead and your glance be directly forward.  Survey the path for your feet, and let all your ways be sure. Turn neither to the right nor to the left.  Keep your foot far from evil.” (Proverbs 4:25-27)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

a castle within

“O Lord, grant me the grace to know how to enclose myself within this little heaven of my soul, where you are present.  There you let me find you, there I feel you are closer to me than anywhere else, and there you prepare my soul quickly to enter into intimacy with you.  Then the soul, understanding that all the things of the world are but toys, seems all of a sudden to rise above everything created and escape it, like one who takes refuge in a fortified castle to be safe from enemies.” (St. Teresa of Avila)

 photo on this post copyright E Shuman

Saturday, November 19, 2011

finding the grille view

Sometimes I look at the world and feel unsettled.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so grateful to have grillwork. I am glad to be able to respond to world upheavals, physical conditions, relationships, the media, and my own anxieties “through the grille.” 

Again I think of the word practice. As one who’s been trying for 20 years to “see and respond to situations through the grille,” I know that learning to find the view through the grille takes practice.  In the analogy of the cloistered heart, our grillwork is the will of God as it’s revealed to us in Scripture and Church teaching.  Fine.  But how does that work in “real life?”  How is it put into practice?

I compare it to the way things work for a cloistered nun meeting visitors in the foyer.  Sister stands at the grille, looking out at whoever stands before her.  The foyer is a public part of the monastery, accessible to almost anyone.  In my monastery, I see the "foyer" as my mind.  I invite thoughts there by what I see and hear, but I have little control over things that come uninvited.  If I get on a bus, go have a haircut, walk into a store… all sorts of things push in.  They’re like salesmen invading a monastery foyer.  They can be quite insistent, especially if they’ve had success in selling to me before.  Oh, and so many of them have!

Through the grille, they display catalogs of their wares.  “Have you worried about this today?” the thoughts ask. “Look at this new line of fears - tailor made just for YOU!”  

God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)  I ask God to impress this truth upon me.

“But consider the pain you’ve been feeling!!” the thoughts insist.

"I consider the sufferings of the present to be as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18).  I recite this bar of my grille over and over.

“…But look at you!  You are weak and helpless and poor!”   

“In Him Who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything.” (Philippians 4:13).   Maybe I'll write that grille piece on paper and tape it to my mirror. 

And on it goes.  Finding the view is not easy.  I try every day; I fail every day.  But with every “success,” it seems the grillwork grows stronger before me.  It is how God invites me to meet the world.    

“During this changeable life, one must preserve a steady and imperturbable evenness of spirit.  Although everything may change around us, we must keep the serene glance of our soul constantly turned to God. ” (St. Francis de Sales)


Friday, November 18, 2011

from the cloister garden

“The affections and passions of our souls are to be judged by their fruits.  Our hearts are the trees, the affections and passions their branches, and their works and actions are their fruit…. A good tree bears good fruit.” (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout life)

(photo copyright © 2010 N Shuman)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

virtue inhabited

St. Francis de Sales taught about what he called the “little virtues.”  I look at these today with longing, perhaps as a monastic aspirant might view the habit she hopes to someday wear.  Unlike a dress and veil, however, virtues cannot be thrown on once and for all.  They must be cultivated.  They must come to life as I “wear” them – just as a tunic moves from place to place once a person is within it. 

Perhaps virtues could be said to be “inhabited” by the person practicing them. 

Certainly they can, with practice, become the habits of a cloistered heart. 

“Humility, patience, gentleness, kindness, forbearance, mildness, calmness, good temper, heartiness, pity, ready forgiveness, simplicity, frankness and so on.  These virtues are like violets growing in a shady nook, fed by the dew of heaven and though unseen, they shed forth a sweet and precious odor”  (St. Francis de Sales, quoted in Living Jesus, edited by Gerard Quinlan, p. 405)

(photo copyright N Shuman )

Monday, November 14, 2011

In the Habit

Imagine this:  a woman just entering monastic life prepares to don a habit for the first time.  She looks at the pieces of fabric folded neatly on a table before her.  Soft  veil, long dress, layers of material she has waited to wear.  Her new habit smells like it was dried in the sun and pressed with just a hint of starch.  It carries the scent of the wind. 

She picks up the dress and slips it on, sliding it down over the stained orange jumper she wore through the enclosure door.  She lifts the veil onto her head, covering a tattered woolen hat.  The veil snags on her mismatched earrings, but never mind.  She’ll get used to all of this, in time. 

Certainly the scene I've just described is ridiculous.  But let us consider this....“Clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12).  I look at these and other virtues and find myself desiring to “wear” them.  But if I make deliberate choices to boast as I pretend to be humble, or if I'm cruel even as I write of mercy, I am simply hiding one kind of clothing under another.  I’m applying a layer of veneer.  I am in need of a habit exchange. 

Habits are actions acquired over a period of time, with repetition.  I ask myself:  would I like to cast off lifelong habits of self-seeking in order to let God clothe me in the habit of seeking His will?  Am I willing to turn in my habit of laziness in exchange for diligence in prayer?   For me it remains a constant struggle, and I take heart in knowing I am not the only person to have faced it.  “I cannot even understand my own actions,” wrote the apostle Paul.  “I do not do what I want to do but what I hate… what a wretched man I am!  Who can deliver me from this body under the power of death?  All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 8:15-25)

I pray to cast off my threadbare, tattered vices and see them as the worthless rags they are.  I pray to outgrow them, and to - through prayer and practice – develop habits of virtue.  I pray to be clothed in the habit of a cloistered heart. 

“You must lay aside your former way of life, and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. You must put on that new man created in God’s image, whose justice and holiness are born of truth.” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

(painting La Religieuse, Henriette Browne)



Saturday, November 12, 2011

yes, cloistered here

My goal is to go through the world carrying Jesus in my heart.  To remain cloaked in an atmosphere of prayer wherever I may be, whatever I happen to be doing.  Not unlike an astronaut, I carry the oxygen of my Homeland with me, breathing it in and out with every silent prayer.

I wonder: can it change a family, a workplace, a city if a person is praying in the midst of it?  Of course it can; of course it inevitably does.  Such is an apostolate of a cloistered heart, carried into first one family and then another, into a market, onto a bus.  It is “living Jesus” no matter where one happens to be.

"Always remember… to retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others.  This mental solitude cannot be violated by the many people who surround you since they are not standing around your heart but only around your body.  Your heart remains alone in the presence of God.” (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

to face the dark

Sometimes I look out “through the grille” toward a great deal of darkness.  I find war, confusion, poverty, godlessness, persecution, my own difficulties, anxiety, and a shocking celebration of sin.  I may be distressed that such things even exist.  I can feel terrified by the dark.  However, if Jesus is in my soul, I have the Light.

If I am in a physical cloister filled with light, what happens when I look out through the grille into a darkened foyer? 

Does darkness flood in through the "grillwork," turning my light into dark? 

When dark and light encounter one another, there is really no contest. 

Light is always the winner. 

"There is One greater in you than there is in the world."  (1 John 4:4) 

“The Light shines on in darkness, a darkness that did not overcome it.”  (John 1:5)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

cloistered..... here?

"May the God who is all love be your unchanging dwelling place, your cell, and your cloister in the midst of the world.”
 (Elizabeth of the Trinity)

Photo by Linda M., New York 

Monday, November 7, 2011

positively, grillwork

Somehow the mental vision of each circumstance “crisscrossed,” as if seen through actual grillwork, reminds me that the circumstance is outside my cloistered heart, not within it.  The occurrences, chaos, temptations that at times surround me are all outside my cloister.  My body can be injured, attacked, invaded by illness, entered with a surgeon’s knife - but the cloister of my spirit, wherein God dwells, is inviolate.

Often, panels of monastery grillwork are constructed of vertical and horizontal strips of wood.  Thus, these can be said to be made up of little “crosses.” When I look at such grillwork, I am reminded of plus-signs.  I find this an appropriate image, for the Cross would be nothing but negative if viewed from a purely worldly perspective.  It would be seen as a giant minus sign, a symbol of defeat.  Yet seen through the grille of God's will, it is absolute victory. 

" His most holy passion on the wood of the cross merited justification for us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #617).  The will of God is where the picture turns from negative to positive image.  

And the Cross of Jesus Christ is the greatest "plus sign" the world has ever known.



Sunday, November 6, 2011

the grille

I have entered the enclosure door, crossed the threshold, taken the step.  Like a potential nun having come into the cloister, I take a look at my surroundings.  One of the first things I may do is glance back over my shoulder.  I still see the outside world (or at least the foyer)… but now I see it through a grille.

The grille is a powerful symbol.  I would go so far as to say that, in the cloistered heart way of life I’m describing, it is the important symbol.  It is a place of separation and, just as importantly, it is a place of encounter.  It is only through the grille that some cloistered individuals (in a number of communities) connect with the world. 

And you know what?  Every human being has been given, by God, a way to connect with the world.  A way to see situations correctly; a way to interact with others appropriately. 

God invites each one of us to view and respond to every person and every circumstance through His will.

We do not have to guess what that will is.  God has revealed it to us.  Scripture and the authentic teachings of the Church make up the bars of our grille.

Am I facing a hardship?  I can face it through the grille. “God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him…”  (Romans 8:28).   

“We do not fix our gaze on what is seen but on what is unseen…” (2 Corinthians 4:18).  In days to come, may God open us more fully to the grillwork of His will.


Friday, November 4, 2011


Yesterday I quoted St. Paul of the Cross, who exhorted us to “make aspirations to God.” What does this mean – to make aspirations to God?

Aspirations are brief prayers that can be lifted to God inwardly, wherever we are and whatever we may be doing.  They’re an ancient monastic practice, but are particularly practical for those of us striving to keep our hearts fixed on God in the midst of a bustling world. 
"These brief ascents of the soul heavenward, these liftings of the mind and heart to God, briefly but frequently: this is what enables the monk… to live a life of prayer and intimate union with God.  As the monk goes about his daily duties, he… gives himself to this practice of terse but frequent prayer.” (Wilfrid Tunink OSB, Vision of Peace, pp. 277-278)

“The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always…  This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation:  that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Jesus Christ.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2668)

“All aspirations are better when they are brief…. As we draw in the fresh air and breathe forth that which is exhausted, so we draw God into the soul and breathe forth self into the arms of His mercy.  Blessed is the soul which does this, for then it lives in God and He in it.”  (St. Francis de Sales)

With practice, I can learn to remain in active communication with God no matter where I happen to be.  As I join throngs of shoppers in the mall, ride the subway, take care of laundry, drive through rush hour traffic....  I can keep my heart attentive to God…..

“My God and my all!” 

“Jesus, I trust in You.”

“Lord, have mercy on us.”

"My God, I adore You."

“Jesus… Jesus…. Jesus…..”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

the chapel

One night I found myself alone in a chapel during a thunderstorm.  Except for flashes of lightning coming through a stained glass window, only the glow of a sanctuary light provided illumination.  Yet how secure I felt!  How secure I was.  In the midst of the storm, I was in the Presence of Christ and I was safe. 

In the midst of personal storms, where do I find security?  When adversity strikes, when fear bares its fangs, where do I go for safety?   In the chapel, a sanctuary light told me: “Christ is here.”  Golden Tabernacle - glowing light - “Christ is here.”  I saw no visions, felt nothing out of the ordinary.  But my faith assured me: “Christ is here.” 

The first place a potential nun or monk is likely to go upon entering a monastery is the chapel.  It is here that we find the center of monasticism, because Jesus is the Center of cloistered life.  To miss this truth is to miss the point of the cloistered heart.  

Jesus is with me.  I must simply cultivate ways to remind myself throughout the day that:  “Christ is here.” 

"Faith tells us that our heart is a Sanctuary, because it is the Temple of God, the dwelling-place of the Holy Trinity.  Let us often visit this Sanctuary, and see that the lamps are alight - that is to say, Faith, Hope and Charity - and frequently stir up our faith when we are studying, working, or eating, when we go to bed, and when we rise, and make aspirations to God.” (St. Paul of the Cross)

“We are, each of us, a Living Cathedral.  Each is his own chapel.  And provided we are in a state of grace, God lives and dwells within us… we must live and act as if we were dwelling in a church in the presence of the Tabernacle.” (The Living Pyx of Jesus, Pellegrini & Co., Australia,  1941)

(photo in this post was taken by “RG” in chapel of Toledo Visitation Monastery, Ohio, 1992)


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

enclosed in love

"I know well the plans I have for you, says the Lord; plans for your welfare, not for woe!  Plans to give you a future full of hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11) 

The will of God is an expansive enclosure.  Much more lush and bountiful and filled with life than I may have thought.  I once considered it confining, limiting of my “fun.”  Now I see it as protection from the natural consequences of rebellion and sin.  

I spent much of yesterday chasing a toddler who was trying to get past boundaries I'd set for her.  If she slipped past these, she’d be in danger of falling on her head, swallowing small objects, chewing a harmful shiny coaster.  Yet it is amazing:  the (few) places I blocked off were the only ones she gravitated toward.  “No” was my magic word which, in her ears, seemed to be heard as “go for it!!!!” One thinks of the Garden of Eden….

Behind this child, as she focused on nothing but boundaries, was a roomful of toys and books that she normally enjoys for hours.  But she had a hard time seeing them, because she was suddenly charmed by the areas where she was told not to go.  I looked upon her with great love, realizing that hers is human nature.  God looks upon me with love even greater.  And surely He is saddened when I ignore His bountiful blessings in order to pursue attitudes and actions that can cause me harm.

Around every corner in the “enclosure” of God’s will there is a taste of bountiful blessing.  In my "cloister garden," there are surprises beyond every turn.  For the truth is:  the really good things of life are open to me.  They are right here in my enclosure.  If something is off limits, it is only because it would be harmful to me or to someone else, in this life and/or the next.  If I don’t understand why I’m told not to “go there” or “do that,” it’s because – well, I’m not as “smart” as God.  I am not as wise.  

Compared to God, I am very little.  I thank Him that He provides protection for me.  I thank Him that I am enclosed in love.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

welcome home

I step over the threshold into God’s will and the welcome is immediate.  Perhaps all of heaven bursts forth in celebration.  Whether or not I feel any different, the truth is that I have been met with great love.

“Suddenly, when I had consented to the sacrifice with all my heart and all my will, God’s presence pervaded me… I felt that His Majesty was enveloping me…. I saw that God was well pleased with me and, reciprocally, my spirit drowned itself in Him.  Aware of this union with God, I felt I was especially loved and, in turn, I loved with all my soul…. I spoke much with  the Lord, without uttering a single word.  And the Lord said to me, ‘You are the delight of My Heart; from today on, every one of your acts, even the very smallest, will be a delight to My eyes...'  My earthly body was the same, but my soul was different; God was now living in it with the totality of His delight.  This is not a feeling, but a conscious reality that nothing can obscure.”  (St. Faustina, Diary)

God will not be outdone in generosity.  If I've taken even one step toward Him (no matter how timid the step, no matter how faltering), I can be sure that He is reaching out to receive me.  I am enfolded, encompassed, and totally embraced by Love.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

one specific step

The person entering physically cloistered life does not stick her head in today and leave her arms and legs dangling outside to be cloistered at a later date.  She is either in or she’s not.  And yet we can give ourselves mostly to God and leave parts of our lives dangling outside that surrender.  At least, that’s how it is for me.

Making the decision to embrace the will of God is not a once-for-all-time-thing, of course.  We re-decide, circumstance by circumstance.  But there is something about at least making a decision.  One specific step.  I have found that grace comes with making this decision.  I tell God I want to live according to His will… and then in circumstance after circumstance, I find that His grace abounds.

Sometimes I imagine myself standing before an enclosure door.  I consider.  I vacillate.  I feel afraid.  I want a print-out of all that will be asked of me before I give my “yes.”  I’m trembling, second-guessing, halting, looking back, shuffling, straining.  Then, timidly, I stick one toe forward…

…and it’s as if He suddenly, tenderly, picks me up and carries the rest of me inside.  Even those flailing arms and legs. 

“Jesus, I give You my whole heart and my whole will.  They once rebelled against You, but now I dedicate them completely to you…Receive me, and make me faithful until death.”  (St. Alphonsus Liguori). 

I am the Gate. Whoever enters through Me WILL BE SAFE.” (Jesus, quoted in John 10:9) 


Saturday, October 29, 2011


The step from world into cloister has long intrigued me.  One leaves “here” and goes “there.”  But one doesn’t just tiptoe over a threshold into nothingness.  Anyone taking such a step has carefully considered the “there” to which they are going. 

At this point I need to do one paragraph of defining, in case anyone reading this is not familiar with the set up of monastic life.  In every monastery, of nuns or of monks, there is an area normally reserved for residents of the monastic community.  This is called “the cloister” or “enclosure.”  Some communities observe what is called full (or papal) enclosure.  This means that those residing therein live within their specified enclosure for life.  That’s right:  they go in, and under normal circumstances they do not come out (there are exceptions, of course, like for medical care).  This doesn’t mean they never see the sun again; often enclosures are rather vast places, always including some outdoor areas and occasionally even encompassing meadows or streams.  The cloistered person also still sees family and friends, meeting with them in parlors and meeting rooms.

It can be awfully strange, for those of us not called to it, to consider a life of full enclosure.  But in the analogy of the cloistered heart that we will be using here, the idea of enclosure is extremely important.  There IS an enclosure into which we are invited.  It is a genuine enclosure, one that goes beyond all of our loftiest mental images.

The fact is:  if we’re human beings, we are called to live within the will of God.   

In the analogy of "the cloistered heart," I am invited to live within the boundaries of God's will as a nun would live inside her enclosure.  A potential cloistered nun does not set the boundaries of enclosure for herself, saying that she really prefers other areas, thank you very much.  No, she accepts them as they have already been set up... or she goes elsewhere.

I look around, today, at the boundaries of my enclosure.  I don't have to map them out for myself; they are clearly defined for me in Scripture and in 2,000 years of authentic Church discernment. 

Sometimes we can fear the boundaries of God's will, worrying that they'll sap all joy and pleasure from our lives.  The saints tell us otherwise. 

“Our happiness consists in knowing and doing His holy will.” (St. Jane de Chantal)

“Freed from the heavy burden of my own will, I may breathe freely under the light load of love…”  (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)

“The height of loving ecstasy is when our will rests not in its own contentment, but in God’s will.” (St. Francis de Sales)

“Do you want to be free?  Then free yourself by your own act; have no will but God’s will.”  (La Trappe in England by a Religious of Holy Cross Abbey, 1937)


Friday, October 28, 2011

everything else is not enough

The life of a cloistered nun or a monk represents Totality.  Risking everything.  All one’s eggs in one basket.  No ifs, ands or buts.  Or, as Mother Mary Francis PCC so perfectly put it, “God is enough!  God is enough!  And everything else is not enough..”

It is the Totality that so draws me.  How I have wished I could just step over a threshold, dividing world from cloister, and be done with complacency and compromise forever.  I am not so na├»ve as to think it’s that simple, certainly.  But “out here,” where there are no bells to remind me to pray, where Mass is not offered daily in my own home, where the entire structure of life doesn’t revolve around God, I forget and slip and get distracted and grow very, very lazy. 

Is there help for me?  (yes, there is)  Am I the only person who has ever longed to live totally for God in the midst of the world  (no, I’m not)  Can I, in my busyness, find a way to look at life as God wishes me to – not as the world is constantly pushing me toward? (absolutely I can).  He Who calls also graces.  He does not ask of us what we cannot give. 

“Go and bless the Lord for the favorable inspiration He has given you to withdraw yourself from this great and wide road that those of your age and profession are accustomed to follow…”(St. Francis de Sales)

“You have, as it were, a poustinia (poustinia is a Russian word for hermitage) within you.  It is as if within you there was this little log cabin in which you and Christ were very close…within yourself you have made a room, a log cabin, a secluded place.  You have built it by prayer…. You live in the marketplace and carry the poustinia within you.  That is your vocation… The Lord is calling us to stand still before him while walking with men.” (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia, Ave Maria Press, 1975)

In days just ahead, I hope to look more thoroughly into this cloister of the heart.  I hope to live more fully in each “room” of it than I ever have before.  “God is enough!  God is enough!  And everything else is not enough.” The words ring through me this night like a bell.  I know them to be true. 

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