Monday, April 30, 2012

The Language of Habits

Over the years, I've heard numerous discussions about habits.  Speaking as a layperson who has never had the opportunity to wear one, I offer my humble perspective.  Which is:  I personally find a habit to be a striking witness.  

It seems an external thing, and of course it is.  But a habit speaks volumes to the world around.  And I wonder: could it even speak to those who wear it day after day?  After all, we humans are affected by symbols, probably at levels beyond what can be discussed in words.

What does a habit say to me when I see it?  "I have found God to be worth the gift of my whole life," it tells me. "Nothing on earth is as important as He."

I think back to once when I'd been visiting a convent.  I was escorted to the street by a Sister wearing the same graceful habit her foundress wore in the 1600s.  As I got into my car, a gentleman passed by on the sidewalk and saw Sister across the fence.  He spoke to her, then stopped to talk.  Sister graciously stood to chat with this man (someone she had apparently never met), and as I left I heard the man say he was a former Catholic.  This gentleman seemed to be launching into a particularly important discussion - perhaps one which would affect him long after he walked on. Yet the meeting would have not taken place had this woman not been clearly identifiable as “Sister.” 

As a cloistered heart, I wear - and speak - the language of habits.  We've talked of this before in these pages.  To look at our original post on this, click on this line.

In the meantime, today I'm checking on the condition of my habits.  Am I in the habit of responding to persons and situations with love, kindness, generosity of spirit?  Am I in the habit of spending time with God in prayer?  May God clothe me ... and allow me to be seen.... in the habits of a cloistered heart.

“Do you see how little it takes to become a saint?  All that is necessary is acquiring the habit of wanting to do the will of God at all times.” (St. Vincent de Paul)

“Clothe me, O eternal Truth, clothe me with yourself, that I may run my mortal course with true obedience and the light of holy faith…” (St. Catherine of Siena)

“I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.” (Isaiah 61:10)

(Herbert James Draper painting US public domain)

© 2012 Nancy Shuman

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Witness from a Lamb

As we are reminded, today, that we have a Good Shepherd willing to lay down His life for each one of us, I again pass along words from our friend Joy:

“This morning in my quiet time, I was given this image in my mind of The Good Shepherd and myself....

“I was one of many of His lambs following Him, but, oh, so often I would wander off the path.  I was a stubborn, dumb, curious little lamb and Our Lord was constantly having to come and find me and rescue me from some trouble of my own making that I was getting into; to the point where He finally put a bell around my neck so He could come to my aid. 

“As I’ve matured in my spiritual life and have grown on my journey, I am now a full grown, mature sheep.   He has been able to remove the bell from my neck because I no longer wander off on my own, but stay very close to Him, never leaving His side.  As He would sit and rest on a big rock at the side of a lake with all of His lambs safely around Him, I would come and lie by His side as close as I could, touching Him, comforting Him, and longing for His touch.  He would lovingly reach down and stroke me, reassuring me and comforting me in return.  I have no desire to ever leave Him.   I will try not to wander away again, but always stay at His side and on His path of obedience. 

“But still and all, knowing and trusting that should I, in a weak moment, veer off of the path again, I know He will never give up on me, or tire of coming to me and bringing me back to His side.”

In the cloister of God's will, we are not left to fend for ourselves.  We have Someone tending to us, constantly loving us; Someone rescuing us from harm and setting us on the right path over and over. 

He never tires of caring for us.  He never, ever tires.  

"I am the good shepherd.  I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me, in the same way that the Father knows Me and I know the Father; for these sheep I will give My life.... I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.  No one shall snatch them out of My hand."  (John 10:14-15, 28)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Lighted Path

Our friend Joy went on retreat recently, and brought back the following rays of light...

"In the monastery, there were lit pathways and grounds with the safety and security of the tall brick wall surrounding us.  I can just see in my mind these lit pathways all around the enclosure within God's will, and how we are called to walk these paths that would otherwise be too dark, uneven and dangerous in places. 

"But by depending on the glow that comes from the ever so gentle light that washes over our way and guides us safely though the obstacles that lie on our path to the finish, we are thankful and even happy that this obedience is there for us.  It is easy to see when we have the light guiding us along, but if we veer off on our own and without this light, we are on our own to face whatever difficulties lie in the unseen.  

"Because of our free will and self love, we think we know best and we become a little adventurous - breaking free of the loving way that God has prepared for us.  Hopefully we soon realize our mistake and see our fault and run back to the loving safety of the light that has never gone out.  It has ever remained where it was, calling us back to the easier path, the way that is lit with God's love."  

"A lamp to my feet is Your word, a light to my path."  (Psalm 119:105)

"If we walk in light, as He is in the light,we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of His Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin."  (1 John 1:7)

"Let us walk in the light of the Lord!"  (Isaiah 2:5)

Text not in quotes

(Georges de la Tours painting public domain)  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Monastery on Wheels

“When you use the analogy of the grille of God’s will and imagine yourself protected by it, you really do see things in a new light. I think a perfect example of this was when I placed myself there on my 40 minute drives back and forth to work, battling very unpleasant traffic. Suddenly it didn’t matter if everyone seemed to try to push me out of the way - I was alone with God and nothing else was of any concern.” (Jane)

Jane's words capture perfectly, I think, the "whereabouts" of heart-cloister.  For each one of us, cloister of the heart is where we happen to be.  I know I say this over and over... because, frankly, I need to be reminded over and over.  

Reading Jane's words tonight, I am struck by the fact that she placed herself behind the grille of God's will.  It was a conscious decision.  Because of this choice, Jane's car became a monastery on wheels.  It was as if grillwork had been stretched across her windshield.  

Through the noise and the bustle and the rush and the traffic, her gaze was set firmly on God.  

"Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, Who inspires and perfects our faith."  (Hebrews 12:2)

Text not in quotes

Monday, April 23, 2012

No Need for Mirrors

Under normal circumstances, there are no mirrors in cloisters.  To me, this makes a great deal of sense and provides rich food for meditation.

The cloister is not a place for self-focus.  One's eyes must begin to turn, there, from self to God.  That is the point.

"This is the aim in religion, for in this consists Christian perfection:  to die to self so perfectly that we can say with the apostle:  'the life I live is not my own; Christ is living in me.' (Galatians 2:20)."  (St. Francis de Sales)

"Fix your eyes on Jesus."  (Hebrews 3:1)

(painting in US public domain)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Heaven in the Midst

I've been doing a lot of work in the "Basics" page above!  But again, I say it is blessed work, and certainly conducive to prayer.  

I would like to share just a bit from today's treasure hunt.  This is a sample of material you can find in the page entitled "quotes," at the top of this screen.  I want to share this right away, right here in a post ... for as a long-time homemaker and now a very busy grandmother, I certainly identify with what follows...

"We must try to converse with God in little ways while we do our work... we should purely and simply reveal our hearts as the words come to us."  (Brother Lawrence)
“I find a heaven in the midst of saucepans and brooms.” (St. Stanislaus Kostka)

"For the humble lay brother (Brother Lawrence), prayer was the consciousness of the continual presence of God.  This realization never left him, whether he was cooking eggs in the kitchen or kneeling in the sanctuary.  In order to be with God, he said, it was not necessary to remain constantly in church; man's heart, too, could be his oratory."  (Walter Nigg, Warriors of God, Alfred A. Knopf)

May our hearts continue to be oratories of prayer...  "oases" of praise to our God in offices, traffic jams, subways, carpools, malls, soccer games, grocery lines.  May we be able to find heaven in the midst of saucepans and brooms.  

("The Figurine" painting by W. Paxton, 1921.  Now in US public domain) 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Thank you for your generous confirmations that indeed, we do need an "oasis in a world-gone-frantic." These have been an encouragement as I've continued gathering treasures at a sometimes rapid pace.

I must say that the "digs" are personally rewarding. After all, I'm not working in the barren sunbaked desert as I do this.  I don't have to sift through sand to find the treasures we seek.  Oh no.  I am soaking in the life-giving waters of Scripture, basking in the fragrance of Church teaching, being soothed by balms of saintly serenity.

And the best part is:  I get to pass it on! 

One thing I should mention:  if you ever happen to look for one of the titles in the list above and find it seems to disappear for a time - this doesn't mean that one of our trees has gone missing!  It probably means I am working "in that tree" (!) at that moment.   Apparently a "stand alone page" gets pulled from what you can access while I'm writing in it.  It will appear again, once I've finished adding new "finds."

Thank you for sharing this oasis!  May it be a refreshing place of refuge for all of us in the midst of a frenetic, busy, arid, and all-too-often-godless world.

Back to the dig for me.  You're invited to keep checking the titles above (across the page) for ongoing updates. 

(now where did I put that shovel.....?)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Only Willows

"I recommend to you holy simplicity. Look straight in front of you and not at those dangers you see in the distance. As you say, to you they look like armies, but they are only willow branches; and while you are looking at them you may take a false step. Let us be firmly resolved to serve God with our whole heart and life. Beyond that, let us have no care about tomorrow." (St. Francis de Sales)

How often I've been terrified by "willow branches."  Such wispy, tender, fragile things; but when seen across a distance they can loom large and ominous against a shadowed horizon.  They bend and sway in the wind, their leaves rustling against one another.  To an active imaginer, why... they positvely hiss.

My terrifying willows, of course, have never been of the grows-by-a-riverbank variety.  Still, I am often surprised when the armies I see in the distance turn out to be gentle gifts, planted in my "cloister garden" by the generous hand of God.  I've made many missteps trying to avoid the "willows."  You'd think by now I would have learned.

With this in mind, I'm beginning a project of gathering "pieces of grillwork," through which I can learn to keep my focus on God and on His will for TODAY.  I would like to share the fruits of such gatherings with you, and I'm doing so by adding more "stand alone pages" to this website.  It is a project barely begun at this point, but I invite you to check out the start of it (like looking at the plans for a building, perhaps!), and to watch each part as it unfolds.  You can do this by clicking on any one of the topics in the above list lined up across the top of this screen (scriptures, prayers, quotes, etc.).  When you want to come back here to the blog, just click on the word "Home."  I expect to update these areas daily for awhile.

I think we all need a bit of an "oasis" in a world-gone-frantic.  My hope is that this blogsite can be a place of holy rest, where we can focus for a moment on Our Lord in the midst of our busy lives.

Scripture tells us to direct our thoughts to "all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise."  (Philippians 4:8)

With that as a directive, I now go on a joyous hunt for treasures with which to fill our thoughts....

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jesus, I Trust in You

The rays of His Light have broken through.  Pierced aridity, shattered a hardening heart, put darkness to flight... and all with a single aspiration uttered again and again.  

"Jesus, I trust in You." 

It is, perhaps, my favorite aspiration; its every word is filled with power.  I said I would let you know how my distracted attempts at prayer were going, and I'm happy to report that I have, in some ways, been praying unaware.  This morning I realized how automatically my heart turns to Our Lord in the midst of everyday life, often without a conscious decision on my part.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this awareness broke through on Mercy Sunday.

I used to have a wristwatch with an hourly alarm.  Each time it chimed, I'd pray inwardly: "Jesus, I trust in You."  No matter where I was or what I was doing, this little beep served as a monastery bell.  It was good training.

Is there value in simple, quick prayer that's so "automatic?"  I would say that indeed there is.  I have formed the habit of aspiration(s) by an act of my will, and Jesus (in His mercy) meets me much more than half way.  

Like someone groping along in the darkness of a cavern, I move one step at a time, my way lit by the beams of prayer, my trust placed in the knowledge that there is Light.  I may not always be able to see it, but I believe in the Light.  Once in awhile, the Light breaks through with majestic power, as happened when Jesus appeared to St. Faustina and revealed the rays of Blood and Water flowing from His Heart.

Jesus shatters darkness, deception, sin.  Jesus breaks through walls of unforgiveness, woundedness, distraction, fear.

Jesus is Mercy.  Jesus is Love.

Jesus, I trust in You.

"The Lord gave his blessing, and the rays extended over the whole world....  I heard a Voice: 'This Feast emerged from the very depths of My Mercy, and it is confirmed in the vast depths of My tender mercies.  Every soul believing and trusting in My Mercy will obtain it.'"  (St. Faustina) 

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

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wandering. Restless. Trusting.

Sometimes I feel as if my prayer is going nowhere.  Or that I, myself, am going nowhere.  It's not that I've moved beyond the boundaries of God's will.  It's more that I feel my prayer is going nowhere within those boundaries. It seems as if I'm stuck in one spot, spinning my spiritual wheels, having lost the sense of following God, my mind continually bombarded with distractions, distractions,  distractions....

At such times (and I am presently in one), I sit to pray and feel I am "doing" nothing.  I go to Mass and struggle not to fidget through the readings.  My mouth prays words from a psalm while my mind is on a thousand things.   My emotions are flat, worried, disoriented, restless, sad.  

Today I found help .. and a definite sense of companionship ... from Brother Lawrence.   

"You aren't the only one to be distracted from the presence of God," he writes in his eighth letter.  "I understand completely.  Our minds are so flighty.  But remember that our God-given will governs all of our strength.... 

"I think the remedy for the problem is to confess our faults to God and humble ourselves before Him.  It isn't necessary to be too verbose in prayer, because lengthy prayers encourage wandering thoughts.  Simply present yourself to God as if you were a poor man knocking on the door of a rich man, and fix your attention on His presence. 

"If your mind wanders at times, don't be upset, because being upset will only distract you more.  Allow your will to recall your attention gently to God.  Such perseverance will please Him. (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)

"Allow your WILL to recall your attention to God."  By an act of my will, this day I decide to trust God to recall my attention.  My mind may (will) wander.  Any "sense" of following God may not be present.  But today I renew my decision.  I ask for grace to make use of the many aspirations I've found helpful in the past, and I go forward to practice God's presence.  I shall trust that He IS leading.

I'll let you know how it goes.  

"And know that I am with You always..."  (Matthew 28:20)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Zapped, Gratefully

Some years ago, I had occasion to talk with friends about how we discerned boundaries enclosing us in the will of God.  I thought of invisible fencing, where the "fence" is actually a kind of current.  One does not see such boundaries, not with the eyes.  Such "fencing" can only be detected if we make a move to cross it. 

I feel the zap of the invisible fence when I start to head out of God's will.  Inside me there is a "zap," a pricking of conscience, an uneasiness that tells me: "No.. head back.  Stop."

Invisible fencing is not fatal.  It is possible to endure the discomfort and cross over the "fence."  Sometimes I do this.  I move out of what I know is God's will in spite of the warnings.  Paying no heed to pricks of conscience telling me to "stop, don't say that; don't snap at this person; don't give in to anger," I go right ahead.  And the jolt gets worse.  Then I find myself outside the "enclosure," stuck, stranded, feeling sour, aware of having moved away from God.

I am thankful for the zaps, every one of them.  They help me find the boundaries; they hedge me in and keep me safe.  My fencing is the will of God as revealed in Scripture and Church teaching, the word of God is my rule of life.  I must become so thoroughly acquainted with the Truth that I will feel "zapped" when I move away from it. I cannot find my boundaries if I don't know God's word... (adapted from book The Cloistered Heart)

"Conscience is a judgement of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1778) 

"In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice.  We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross.  We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church."  (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1785)

(Laurits Andersen painting 1903.  US public domain) 


Monday, April 9, 2012

Your Cloister, the City Streets...

"Your convent will be the house of the sick; 
your cell, a hired room;
your chapel, the parish church; 
your cloister, the city streets...
your enclosure, obedience;
your grating, the fear of God; 
your veil, holy modesty."  
                                      (St. Vincent de Paul)

                                                                                                                                                  public domain photo

Saturday, April 7, 2012

We give You Thanks, O God

"We give you thanks, O God, we give thanks, and we bless your Name; we declare your wondrous deeds."  (Psalm 75:2)

A truly
 Blessed Easter 
to you 
and yours

                                                                                                                                                                                      Painting by Carl Senff

Thursday, April 5, 2012

May We Not Forget

My preference for realistic religious art, I realized some years ago, goes beyond just personal taste.  In 1993, I wrote the following meditation in my journal… 

It is easy to accept shining, sterile depictions of Jesus’s passion.  It’s easy to prefer silvered crosses with a victorious Christ upon them, for these do not ask much of us.  ‘Take up your cross and follow Me’ can be distant words then, words from which we are insulated by a safe coating of bronze.

His body did not shine that day, so long ago.  He hung from a very real wood cross, He hung bruised and sweating and blood-stained.  His knees were scraped, His face contorted with pain.  Smells were of blood and dust and just-hammered metal.  There was no upbeat music that day; there were no songbooks, no guitars.  There were just the moans of people dying and friends watching them die.  There were crowd-sounds, possibly a joke or two, the occasional slap of a whip striking the ground.  Soldiers held back mourners and yelled out commands and probably thought about what they would do after work.

Overhead, a few clouds gathered.  Rain came then, soaking onlookers and washing rivulets of blood into the ground.  Three men hung dying that day, on crosses not made of silver.  They were pierced through with nails not coated with gold.  Three men writhed in pain that day, they sweated and bled; two of them were heard praying, and all of them died.  

And how grateful we can be that the scene has been removed from us, safely tucked away in time, safely burnished, safely incensed.  How safe it is to hear the words ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ when looking at a cross made of silver, when meditating on a resurrected, stylized and sterile Jesus.  Yes, He was resurrected and yes He is crowned.  Yes, He lives today; He is not dead any longer.  Yes, it is appropriate to celebrate His rising, for risen is how He lives now among us. 

But no, it is not appropriate to totally forget the price He paid for our redemption.  No, it is not appropriate to ignore the love poured out on us at Calvary, nor to ignore at what cost we answer the call to ‘come, follow Me…' 

It is easy to count the cost when that cost is only Mass on Sunday and no meat on Good Friday.  It’s easy to embrace crosses of silver.  It is easy to forget to repent, to forget the love of so great a Lover, to forget to reform my life and allow my own selfish will to be crucified today... 

Text not in quotes

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Her Guarded Sorrow

"Various lovers were present at the death of the Savior.  Among them, those having the greatest love had the greatest sorrow..... But His sweet Mother, who loved him more than all others, was more than all others pierced through and through by the sword of sorrow.  Her Son's sorrow at that time was a piercing sword that passed through the Mother's heart, for that Mother's heart was fastened, joined, and united to her Son in so perfect a union that nothing could wound the one without inflicting the keenest torture upon the other.  When her maternal bosom was thus wounded with love, Mary not only sought no cure for its wound but loved that wound more than any cure and deeply guarded the shafts of sorrow she had received because of the love that had sped them into her heart.  Continually she desired to die of them, because her Son died of them.

"For, as all the Holy Scriptures and all the learned say, He died amid the flames of charity, a perfect holocaust for all the sins of the world."  (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God VII)

(This post is linked to Pay it Forward.  I regret that I haven't learned how to put buttons in a blog post, but you can click here for the link.. and the button is in my sidebar)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Seamless Gift

Our friend Rose once wrote "I remember reading, I think from St. Teresa of Avila, that obedience to one's superior is more meritorious than all the self-imposed mortifications, fastings and prayers.  Then I realized my superior is really my vocation as a wife and mother.  Therefore, my duties and responsibilities of motherhood must come first.  And, done with the right intentions (as St. Francis de Sales says, 'for the greater glory of God'), all my actions are lifted up in prayer." 

Rose has been blessed with many children, and now children-in-law and grandchildren.  She lives "cloister of the heart" quietly, generously - and I would say "seamlessly" - as her cloistered life blends smoothly with her life of service to and enjoyment of her family.  Family and living as a cloistered heart do not in any way conflict for Rose; they are entirely complimentary.

My experience has been the same.  In weeks to come, I hope to look into some areas of complementarity - in my own life and in the lives of  others who want to live totally for Christ in the midst of a busy, scrambled, charming, distracting, demanding, at times exquisitely beautiful - and at times unnerving - world.

With this already in my heart, I find it a kind of confirmation that our recent "Listening for the Bells" post has been re-posted (with my permission) on the beautiful blog THE FEMININE GIFT.  The ladies there share from the perspective of young women living for Christ in the world, whether they be single or married.  This is very much in line with my own perspective (except that in my case you can, ahem, leave out the "young" part).  I encourage you to visit them at (click on a picture or title in their blog to open an entire post).

In the meantime, we will continue over the next few days with our Lenten meditations.  May Our Lord lead His Church into a holy Triduum. 

For prayer and meditation:

"We must try to converse with God in little ways while we do our work... we should purely and simply reveal our hearts as the words come to us."  (Brother Lawrence)

"Your adornment is... the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the unfading beauty of a calm and gentle disposition.  This is precious in God's eyes."  (1 Peter 3:4)

(Henriette Browne painting in US public domain)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ourselves the Branches

"Let us run to accompany Him as He hastens toward His passion, and imitate those who met Him then, not by covering His path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before Him by being humble and by trying to live as He would wish.  Then we shall be able to receive the Word at His coming and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us....

"Let us spread before His feet, not garments of soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him.  We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before Him.  Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of His victory.

"Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children's holy song:  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the king of Israel"  

(St. Andrew of Crete, from Liturgy of the Hours for Palm Sunday, Catholic Book Publishing Co. NY, 1976, pp.419-420)

(painting from unknown source)