My dear friends:
I was recently involved in a conversation about solitude. Over the course of the conversation it dawned on me that we should not speak so much of solitude (singular) as solitudes (plural), because there are different kinds of solitude, and different people experience them in different ways.
Since the lockdown began in March many of us have been experiencing more solitude than in the past. That has brought with it, its own struggles as well as graces.
One way in which people speak of solitude is as me time. This is a time to recharge our batteries and renew our energies. We all need to do this, and we all find different ways to do it. This experience of solitude as an opportunity to recharge and renew has been once of the graces of this season.
For others, and especially for those who live alone, this period of extended solitude has been a time, not of recharging and renewing, but of isolation and loneliness, when work and social routines have become virtual or remote, and physical connections limited to what can happen sitting six feet away from another.
For some this time of solitude has been a time of grace and for others a time of challenge.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, there is another facet to solitude that is neither about solitude as me time, or as isolation. In the monastic tradition solitude is not about recharging our batteries or experiencing isolation but enabling an encounter with the Divine.
We remind ourselves in our Rule of Life that the cell, which is the primary place of our personal prayer, is a place of divine presence and companionship. Like Jacob we say surely the Lord is in this place as we open ourselves up to an encounter with the living God, each time we enter our cells and shut the door. In the monastic tradition solitude enables us to encounter God whose name is Love.
While I have experienced this time of solitude as both incredibly renewing and enormously lonely, I have also experienced this solitude as an invitation to encounter the God who so loves the world. In an unexpected way, that is the solitude I have found most challenging, for as I have encountered the God who is Love, I have come to see the world the way God sees it, through the tears of God’s loving eyes.
Some days, I find the burden of this heartbreaking love almost too much to bear. Yet as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, I know that tears of loving sadness, though they are the story for today, are not the end of the story. He who wept, is also resurrection and life.
The Psalmist reminds us that weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning. In this time of solitude, as I encounter the God whose name is Love, I am coming to see the world the way God does, and I weep. But as surely as I know that dawn will come, I know this time of weeping will one day end, and with the Risen Son we will again know life in all its abundance.
However you experience this time of solitude: as a time of personal renewal, unbearable loneliness, or disturbing encounter, this comes with the assurance of our prayers. We are, as always, grateful for your prayers for us.
Faithfully in God whose name is Love,
These are momentous, stressful times we live in. It may seem that around every corner there’s something to be fearful, angry, or distraught over. Our minds may habitually return to the last article we read, or video we watched, or podcast we listened to. We may feel compelled to stay up-to-date on the latest news, out of a sense of duty, from a powerful curiosity, or a need to be on top of what’s going on so as to feel safe and prepared. And all of this takes a toll on us.
Psychologists have long studied what is called vicarious trauma or vicarious traumatization. This kind of trauma arises not from a first-hand experience of a traumatic event, but from witnessing such an event. Such vicarious trauma has often been seen in professionals who work in fields where witnessing traumatic events or interacting with trauma survivors is common. However, it’s now known that vicarious trauma can also affect those who are regularly exposed to traumatic events in the media. Constant exposure to traumatic events in media has been shown to cause anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear, and feelings of hopelessness. This is especially true for those of us who have a history of trauma ourselves or just happen to be particularly sensitive.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and as children of God that is our calling. Being a peacemaker, which is so needed is these tumultuous times, begins with being at peace ourselves. A big fan of the beatitudes himself, Gandhi once said that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” And Martin Luther King Jr. told us to “be the peace you wish to see in the world.” In other words, one of the very best gifts we can offer a troubled world is letting ourselves rest in God’s presence, resting in the Peace and Joy of Christ.
If you feel yourself caught up in a cycle of fear, anger, and despair, as you digest all the latest news of a world and people in crisis, you owe it to yourself and the world to be kind to yourself, and take a break. And even Jesus needed to be alone every now and then, so you know you’re in good company. In a world inundated with news 24-hours a day, here are some helpful tips on being a peacemaker, beginning with making inner peace:
- Set limits on the consumption of news media, videos, etc. Consider taking a Sabbath from all kinds of media, for a day or even longer.
- If you have trouble setting limits, put notes on the devices you use reminding yourself to ask “Is what I’m doing now nourishing for my soul?”
- Practice noticing patterns in your thoughts and feelings around consuming traumatic news, and take a break when needed.
- Make a list of things that bring you hope, peace, and joy, and practice them.
- If you feel called to do something, then do something! Consider even the smallest gestures that could turn hopelessness and anxiety into action.
- Make time for silent prayer, and practice letting God take on the cares of the world while you rest in God’s presence.
Remember, your greatest contribution to God’s Kingdom is to cultivate the Kingdom within. Stay informed in moderation, be kind to yourself, and be the Peace and Joy of Christ the world so needs.
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
We Brothers recently spent a few weeks at our rural sanctuary Emery House. I am most alive praying out in woods and fields and by water. I love to go out to the northern bluff and then down to the riverbank, especially at low tide and sunset. I am embarrassed to admit I long ignored stepping over the plastic bottles. My excuses included: “It’s not my problem. This is a big job. I just want to enjoy this place.” Something shifted in me the past few weeks. I brought gloves and bags to collect the bottles. As I began to see anew and more, I carried out rusty barrels, tires, and foam.
Though talking more about caring for the environment this year, it felt distant, both abstract and daunting. What could I really do? Collecting trash on the riverbank opens a connection. This is how I can treasure creation right here. See the beauty and the harm. I stand still to gaze and lament at the scene and admit being part of the problem. I see this as lurking grace, God surprisingly starting to change me.
When grace found me at the riverbank, protests against racial injustice and police brutality began springing up round the country. Something has shifted. We are disturbed. Perhaps the pandemic and our leaders’ varied actions increase pressure or permission for us to act differently. It can be inviting stepping up together. I am uncomfortable and disturbed, feeling more daunted and distant by racism. It’s harder to remain with the discomfort, including not knowing what to do. I am trying to listen and learn more. I appreciate Brené Brown’s podcast “Unlocking Us” especially recent conversations with Austin Channing Brown and Ibram X. Kendi. I find Peter Jarrett-Schell helpful reflecting on being White.
While I am sad these days at sickness, loss, change, murder, and injustice, I am also grateful and hopeful. Grateful for what is shifting in us, in numerous peaceful protests and rippling changes. Grateful for what is shifting in me, for surprising invitations, practical steps, and provocative voices. Hopeful because these are glimpses of divine activity echoing past experience. Jesus keeps bringing light especially where we are blind, bound in narrow perspectives, unaware of history or the impact our actions.
Each sunrise and sunset reminds me of God’s loving gaze now and steadfast presence over generations. I sense the Spirit breathing in and through us. I hear an invitation to keep returning to riverbank, going to be refreshed and going with gloves in hand to refresh that treasure. I am also invited to listen to Black voices and reflect on being White, seeking to remain with discomfort.
What has surprised you? What is shifting? What is God’s invitation for you?
We Brothers pray for you and are grateful for your sustaining friendship.
May you be surprised and empowered today with the Spirit’s lurking grace.
My dear friends,
We Brothers have been deeply saddened watching the news these past weeks and months.
First there was the news of the Covid-19 pandemic, shocking us all by the sheer number of lives lost, and upended. As it became clear that the pandemic was affecting communities of color in disproportionate numbers, our shock turned to grief at the sin of racism these numbers revealed.
With the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, our grief turned to despair, and a profound sense of hopelessness as we watched crowds being dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. This sense of hopelessness was made all the greater, as it came within hours of having renewed our Baptismal Covenant on the Feast of Pentecost. There we affirmed the kind of life we want to live that resists evil; seeks and serves all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and strives for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. What we have seen in the news, is not reflected in the words we had said a short time before.
For many, including us, this season has been a time of sadness, shock, grief, despair, and hopelessness. Words seem empty, and hope feels lost. Yet the promise of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of Easter is that hope lives, even when all seems hopeless; and the grace of baptism gives us the means, not only to dream of, but to work for a better and more just world.
The task before us is enormous. Justice and liberty for all will not happen overnight. But each one of us can do one thing that will make a difference in our world. In the days to come, you might want to consider what you can do in 8 minutes and 46 seconds that will bring hope and healing to our broken world.
At a time when words seem empty, and hope feels lost, may the grace of baptism and the gift of Easter, fill us with the courage and will to make them real, and in so doing making the world a more just place.
Know that we Brothers pray for you, for this nation, and for our world.
Your brother in Christ,
James Koester SSJE
Ascensiontide always reminds me of a story my mom loved to tell about my first trip on an airplane when I was six years old. I was so excited because I got to sit near the window, the best place to witness our ascension into the sky. As we rose to our cruising altitude above the big, fluffy clouds I turned to my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “Mama, are we in heaven?” This is not surprising, considering that every illustration I had seen of Jesus’ ascension heavenward had Him standing on a pillow of clouds. To this day the beauty, serenity, and peace of flying above the clouds is ‘heavenly’ in my mind’s eye.
But if I’m honest, my childish understanding of heaven has always made Jesus seem far away. While flying above the clouds seems like a heavenly realm to a small child, technically it is only six and half to seven miles above the earth; a walkable distance here on the ground. Conversely, heaven seems so distant, otherworldly, and infinite to our finite minds. In the Collect for Ascension Day, we pray for the awareness of Jesus fully present to us now and always: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”
Perceiving that Christ abides with his Church on earth is not easy in our COVID-19 world. It seems that in a blink of an eye our world changed. This pandemic has forced us to take cover, to distance ourselves from friends and family. It has shut us out of our places of worship, and thrust us into economic uncertainty. It has revealed weaknesses in our systems of care that have led to even more deaths. There are clear signs of racial and economic inequality, and tension between those who favor restarting the economy as soon as possible, and those who want to be more cautious. Two and a half months into our isolation, we worry about a second wave of the virus. Some of us are restless; all of us are eager to get beyond this. We might identify with the Psalmist as he cries, “How long, O Lord? How long will I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?”
This is why we pray for faith to perceive Jesus’ abiding presence with us. We have faith in God’s Incarnation: that God entered our human experience in the person of Jesus, and that he lived among us announcing the arrival of God’s reign. We have faith that he died a bodily death, and experienced the resurrection of his body. We have faith that Jesus, both divine and human, had a bodily ascension into heaven. Yet the perplexities of this pandemic might seem like clouds veiling our perception of God Emmanuel (that is “God with us”). We gaze up and down, left and right, wondering, “Where in the world is God in all of this?”
Our founder Richard Meux Benson once wrote, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our humanity into the heart of God, and made heaven present to us here on earth. When we make the decision to put our love, faith, and hope in Jesus, we are infused with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us what we need to know and reminds us of Jesus’ promise: I will not leave you orphaned. Jesus abides in the tabernacle of our hearts making heaven present to us, speaking a word of heavenly serenity, peace, and calm in the midst of the storms of life.
One of my favorite hymns in the Hymnal 1982 (#669) begins this way:
Commit thou all that grieves thee and fills thy heart with care
To him whose faithful mercy the skies above declare,
Who gives the winds their courses, who points the clouds their way;
‘tis he will guide thy footsteps and be thy staff and stay.
These faithful words of counsel help me to rise above the perplexing clouds that seemingly veil my eyes from God’s presence. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith to know that Jesus is born in our hearts, that He bears us up to heaven, and that He abides in the tabernacle of our hearts forever. So, “Children of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Heaven begins within you and Jesus abides with you there!
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
My dear friends:
Sitting at Emery House, gazing across the meadow, past the hermitages, and on down to the Artichoke and Merrimack rivers, I am struck by nature’s resiliency. Just a few short weeks ago, this was a very different landscape: the sky was grey, the meadows and fields were brown and dead, the trees were seemingly lifeless, and just looking at the water made me feel cold. Then, everything looked barren. Today, things are different: the meadow is lush and green with new growth, the lilacs are in bloom, the trees resplendent in full leaf, the sky is a pale blue, and the rivers are shimmering. Already I have seen a variety of birdlife that I have not seen here in months.
Over the last two months we have seen other examples of nature’s resilience. As all but essential workers have been sheltering in place, and our ability to travel any distance has been limited to long walks and running necessary errands, air quality in some of the major cities of the world has improved dramatically, because fewer cars are on the road. This has meant that we have seen varieties of birdlife that we don’t normally see around the monastery in Cambridge.
It is my belief that human beings are equally resilient. While Covid-19 has struck deeply and widely across this country, and around the world, upending the lives of every single person, we have an opportunity like never before in our lifetimes. The pain, grief, distress, and trauma of this pandemic are real. But so too is the promise of nature and the hope of Easter.
For the last months, all of us have been going through a painful time of unmaking, as lives, and jobs, and livelihoods have been lost. The disorientation of this season has been profound. The reality is that life as we knew it will never return, and there is much in that for which we will need to grieve. But the promise of nature and the hope of Easter is that in the midst of all this loss, God is making all things new.
As painful as the unmaking has been, the remaking will be equally challenging. But as I gaze across the meadow as it is today, it is the remaking that gives me hope.
As we slowly come to the other side of this pandemic, all of us have an opportunity to begin to remake our lives, and the life of the world in new ways. It is true we have lost much, but so too have we learned a great deal: the importance of friends, the value of community, the wisdom of stillness, silence, and time. As we co-operate with God in the remaking of our lives and our world, these are the things we will not want to lose again. There will be others as well that are especially crucial for you.
As you ponder how you want to remake your life and the world, as we emerge from this time of unmaking and remaking, you may want to reflect on some of the resources available on our website. The chapters in our Rule of Life on community, poverty, silence, rhythm, hospitality and friendship may be especially helpful. Some of the pieces found in the Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living section, such as the ones on kindness, gratitude, enclosureor simplicity might also be worth considering. You may also want to spend some time with us each day as we pray Evening Prayer. A live-stream video of Evening Prayer is now available Tuesday through Sunday on our Facebook page: facebook.com/FriendsOfSSJE/
In closing, I want to express our gratitude for the gift of your friendship and prayers for us during this time. Your appreciation of our ministry during this time of unmaking has been enormously encouraging. We count on your prayers, as we Brothers co-operate with God during this time of remaking.
Just as we know that you pray for us, please know that we pray for each of you.
Yours faithfully in the One who is, even now, making all things new.
James Koester SSJE
Jesus’ arms hold new life. For many years, robins have nested on the wooden crucifix in the monastery cloister. This spring, for nearly two weeks, a mother and father robin have taken turns like a tag team “sitting tight” on the eggs, while the other mate searches for food. Once the eggs are hatched, the fledglings will leave the nest when they are ready for their maiden flight in about two weeks. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of waiting.
Waiting figures prominently in creation. The gestation and development of flowers and trees, of animals, fish, birds and human beings follow a cadence that resists being rushed. In a dark night, you may wish for the dawn to come soon; but, of course, it will come on its own time. We are waiting now for the resolution of the Coronavirus crisis; however for so many of us, that timeframe is beyond our control. Even if we are agents in the resolution of the pandemic – being health care workers, research scientists, government or corporate leaders, or among the countless numbers of people who, by their work, are making life possible for others – we still face an element of waiting for what is beyond our ultimate control. We are working, and we are waiting. We must be patient.
The English word “patience,” comes from the Latin patientia which is a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, sometimes desperately for a resolution. Patience also means dependence, exposure, being no longer in control of your own situation, being the object of what is done. Living life patiently is very difficult to do.
Living life patiently is not the only way to navigate life. Some situations we face in life just now require aggressive responses; however patience also needs to be an active word in your soul’s vocabulary. When the answer is not forthcoming, when something is not being resolved, when the door isn’t being opened, when someone is not acquiescing, when you have lost any sense of controlling your circumstances, there is also an invitation for patience. It’s “to wait, like watchmen waiting for the morning,” (Psalm 130).
Waiting is difficult. You may have a predisposition that you shouldn’t have to wait. But these days we all are having to wait. Pray for the gift of God’s power, provision, patience, that this huge trial we now face also be a time of gestation for new life beyond which you could have imagined. Pray for the strength you need just now to work and to wait.
“I waited patiently upon the LORD;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”
Br. Curtis Almquist
The coronavirus has turned our worlds upside-down. Many of us have lost our jobs, our sense of security, or our loved ones. Our daily routines have been disrupted. The people on whom we depend are now separated from us. Some of us are suffering from isolation, while others of us have too much family or community time! We are all concerned about what this virus will mean for our futures: for our jobs or careers, our social lives, our finances, our organizations or businesses, our churches, and our happiness.
We are finding solidarity with others around the world in our suffering, which may turn out to be a great gift if we recognize our oneness and mutual interdependence. But it is coming at a high cost.
How do we respond to these disruptions, losses and uncertainties? Where do we turn for support and encouragement, for consolation and hope?
In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks intimately and lovingly to his friends, knowing that he will soon be separated from them: “Abide in me as I abide in you,” he tells them (Jn 15:4). He knows that dark days are ahead. He knows their faith will be tested. He knows they will suffer. He tells them to “abide” in him.
We can understand this “abiding” as an expression of deep commitment and intimate communion. The Greek word that is used here in the original text has a sense of toughness about it. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Hang in there with me, and I’ll hang in there with you,” or “Stick it out with me and I’ll stick it out with you.” The word is usually translated as “abide” or “remain,” but it has this edgy quality about it.
I believe his words here are meant to convey both solace and challenge. We can abide in him as a place of refuge and safety. His love surrounds and protects us. It holds us steady and offers a deep peace that enables us to face great challenges with courage and strength. He abides in us. We find our home in him, just as he has made his home in us. We are forever joined in love and communion. As St Paul says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:35-39).
But these words also offer a challenge. The purpose of this “abiding” is to make our lives fruitful. There is work to be done and Jesus tells us that we are incapable of doing this work in our own strength. For this reason we need to be joined to him and to his strength; without him we can do nothing.
I’ve been reflecting on these two dimensions of Jesus’ call to “abide in me as I abide in you,” drawing consolation from Jesus’ nearness in these confusing times, and asking what he wants me/us to do in response to the peculiar challenges of our day. The call is to rest and to respond, to find solace and to find a sense of mission or purpose.
What does “abiding” mean to you? What implications does it have for you now, in these disorienting and uncertain times?
God bless you all,
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE