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.