Dispatches from the monastery

I wrote for our Nuns & Nones #surpriseweresoulmates series on some reflections from my summer experience here with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. I’ve been so inspired and energized by each of our conversations here – and am excited to deepen & widen our dreamings in Erie and beyond.
Read more here.


Wisdom Well highlight: Grace Lee Boggs

Every Friday, for my work with a spiritual formation project, I uplift one gem from our “Wisdom Well” to highlight for participants. Here’s this week’s…

Grace Lee Boggs. Chinese-American woman, public philosopher, feminist and activist. She died in 2015 at the age of 100 – and lived her life committed to social change. She was based in Detroit, and her legacy lives on through the ‘James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership,’ which was started with her husband James Boggs. One of my favorite quotes from her is: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.” A few links to learn more:

  • A piece she wrote on her philosophical (and spiritual / religious) journey – a favorite of mine, ever since I found it several years ago!
  • A recent re-publication of a book of conversations with Grace and three close friends/collaborators – “Conversations in Maine” : Following the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, four veteran activists, Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs, and Lyman and Freddy Paine, came together to rethink revolution and social change. Posting tough, thought-provoking questions, the recorded dialogue among these four friends ultimately serves as a call to all citizens to work together and think deeply about the kind of future we can create.
  • Her On Being interview – on living a ‘Century in the World’

Her understanding of revolution + evolution, as well as contemplation + action, live on today. How do these ideas live in you?

CHWR: Learning our histories and writing our future

Today’s the last day of the Conference on the History of Women Religious, hosted by the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame. Archivists, historians, Sisters, and others all gather to share research, methodology, and most importantly – stories – for 4 days. This year’s theme is “Commemoration, Preservation, Celebration,” uplifting the histories of women religious in order to orient us – all of us – toward more just and peaceful futures.

In a keynote address by Eileen Markey, author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura, she commented that by studying the histories of women religious, we are also studying the histories of social movements. Sr. Maura Clark, a Maryknoll Sister murdered in 1980 in El Salvador, is a perfect example of that. Further, from Sisters involvement and leadership in sanctuary and solidarity efforts of the 1980s, we can learn about how to show up at today’s border, where immigrants and children are in inhumane conditions and dying in their journey toward peace and freedom. We need to study these social movements, she said, in order to do it again. We need to re-vitalize these revolutionary spirits that Sisters have been throughout history, in our own context and culture. We need their stories, in order to save our lives today.

Eileen said that we’re living in a “kairos moment,” a moment of possibility, for the preservation and celebration of these stories. Now is the time to learn these stories. And if it’s not yet time to share these stories, then preserve them now so that one day we can come back and ask the right questions in order to learn from them. No matter what, Sisters and their collaborators need to know that their stories are worth celebrating – and learning from – for all of us.

Earlier in the day at the conference, I presented on “Learning & Stewarding Sisters’ Stories for the Next Generation.” In my talk, I shared about Nuns & Nones, and how our vehicle for story transmission between Sisters and millennials is through relationship, trust, and community. It is in spaces of gatherings that we come to learn one another’s stories of their own individual self, their community, and their tradition. And then I talked about my Foundress podcast project, where I am recording interviews with women religious about the stories of their female founders, and how they still shape spiritual and community life. In that project, the vehicle for story transmission is audio/oral, and because of that, I hope it will be able to reach a new audience – an audience unfamiliar with Sisters and their histories, but will still surely be inspired by their lives committed to contemplation, community, and justice.

After I talked about the Foundress project, someone asked me who my intended audience will be. And I immediately thought of all of the community builders and spiritual innovators that I know. Mostly young-ish people, between 25 and 45, who are building communities outside of traditional religious structures, but still communities that are committed to connection, action, and “something more.” Because especially people like us – who are often creating our own stories – could learn from the stories of the people that have built up these communities of the past.

As I’ve been here, sitting in the company of Sisters and historians who hold these stories and histories within them – within their minds, within their spirits – I’ve seen what can help shape young people today in our own processes of becoming and creating. Whether it comes through learning the stories of the Sisters in your city, or reading books like Eileen Markey’s, A Radical Faith, or comes from live-in experiences like our pilot residency in Burlingame or my own summer experience with the Erie Benedictines, what I know is that we need these relationships in order to help shape our own collective futures.

And what comes through those relationships is new stories that we can then create and write together – to inform and inspire us for the challenges and the mystery ahead.

If there’s one action step or take-away I can encourage to people energized by this call, it is for you – or your community – to record and document your stories, of the past and the present. Sit down with a Sister or a few Sisters and interview them. Record them. Capture some wisdom so it can live on in ever unfolding, new ways. And in doing so, keep in mind that Sisters and collaborators alike are participants in a journey of co-creation of our collective future. It is by sharing stories with one another that we can start to imagine a rough draft of the future to come.

A little life update.

Whew, friends. It’s been a busy few months! Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

0C1744B2-25AB-49F6-95C0-0ED5633CA6A6proudly holding my fancy diploma 

Well – first and foremost! I finished my last semester at Harvard Divinity School, and graduated on May 30, among close friends, mentors, and family. Our multireligious commencement service was the embodiment of HDS’ beauty – students shared from their spiritual traditions and Cornel West preached fire from the pulpit. My last semester was the best yet, soaking up the community, taking great classes (“Spiritual Formation in Community”; “Contemplative Prayer in Christianity”; and “Religious Literacy, Journalism, and Media”), and even getting *a little* involved on campus. Some highlights include presenting one of my papers at the Krister Stendahl Symposium, hosting two Nuns & Nones events on campus, and growing closer with incredible mentors and life-long friends. To spend two years of my life focused on intellectual curiosity and spiritual growth is a gift I can never give enough thanks for – and to do so alongside students and faculty that I’m proud to know is the blessing of a lifetime. Because of this place, I’ve actually been able to live into my dreams, I’ve fallen in love with another community, and stretched myself beyond imaginable.

7D556FBB-CA91-4AAA-9EF7-281631F5DB3C“Power Up” a piece by Sr. Corita Kent, dedicated to Fr. Dan Berrigan, who used to stay at Kirkridge while he hid from the FBI

Between finals and graduation, in my three weeks off during May, I went on four different retreats. The first was at Kirkridge Retreat & Study Center in Bangor, PA, where about 30 of us convened to discern and dream about the future of retreat centers – how we can both be lights to the world…and keep the lights on. Then, that weekend I went up to Scarborough, Maine, with the Boston Community Leaders Cohort – a group of colleagues and friends – for rest and play. The following weekend, I went to Mercy-by-the-Sea for a retreat led by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. There with my Nuns & Nones friends, we sang as we planted seeds, we talked with our kin (trees, plants, animals) outside, we watched the flower moon rise as the group recited poetry from heart, and we listened to what the earth is asking of us – to leap, to jump, to dive into a new way of being and living together. From Madison, CT, we ended this retreat-marathon with the Nuns & Nones crew up on Mount Desert Island in Maine, outside of Acadia National Park, where we mostly worked but also just got to soak up time with one another. May was a beautiful and challenging month – full of transformative conversations, quick transitions, and just a bit of stillness amidst the great movement.

F5367391-7BA7-4512-8E66-E1FB64F9FBB6My welcome card and welcome flowers to the monastery

And then! After a flurry of family time, graduation, and packing up my life — on June 2nd, I moved to Erie, PA, where I am living with the Erie Benedictine Sisters and am the 2019 Joan Chittister Intern for the summer (and watching a heck of a lot of beautiful sunsets over Lake Erie!). In this role, in addition to continuing my work I’m already doing like Nuns & Nones, I’ll be exploring creative, modern ways to bring monastic wisdom to spiritual seekers of all generations. One project I’ll especially focus on is the Foundress project, where I’ll be sharing stories of women religious foundresses as modern feminist archetypes we can learn from in our own times. Additionally, I’ll be co-teaching an e-course with Sr. Linda Romey, osb on “Seeking God in Community.” In it, we’ll explore questions like: What do our wisdom traditions teach us about community? In our increasingly digital age, can we find meaningful community online? And what is community for – what larger purpose does it serve in our lives and in our society?
(If you want to sign up – click the link of the text of the e-course!)

Finally … I think I have the heart-space to finally make this update-post because this past week, I had a real retreat – one I wasn’t facilitating, and I wasn’t working at – for the first time since starting divinity school. As a member of the community at the Mount for the summer, I got to join the Erie Benedictines for their annual Community Retreat. 

5F01385A-28EF-47C1-A331-F1812ADA7DE0one of the spiritual traits we explored was beauty – so I picked up watercoloring

It’s a time when Sisters, oblates, and friends come together for silence, prayer, rest, teachings, and spiritual formation. This year was a special treat because it was led by Erie community member Sr. Joan Chittister. Each of my days generally followed this structure: breakfast in silence; sitting meditation at 8:15; community prayer at 9am; lecture from Joan at 10am; lunch in silence; reading and a nap in the afternoon; lecture from Joan at 4:30pm; community prayer at 5:30pm; and dinner – no longer in silence. After dinner, we went back into silence, although most nights we found excuses to keep chatting, like taking walks down to the lake to watch the sunset. It was a restful rhythm, and full of stimulating and challenging talks by Joan. In each session, she told a story of a sister from Erie’s past, and she explored what quality that Sister represented, discussing its spiritual, psychological, and sociological aspects and implications. We were then given work books to reflect on how that quality shows up in our own life. So – 5 days / 10 Sisters / 10 qualities later – my spiritual formation in the monastic tradition is just a tad deeper. Between Joan’s teachings, and reading her 1990 book Woman Strength at the same time, I feel like I’ve just received a crash course in monastic spiritual tradition and Erie history. All you holy women, come and be with us… All you holy women, thank you for letting me be with you this summer.

IMG_3262On Rachel and I’s drive to Erie from Boston – we went to a rest stop off the Mass Pike and picked up a Sunday edition of the NYTimes to see our friend Sarah’s face right there on the cover of the Style section. 

In the meantime, Nuns & Nones is keeping us busy as ever. We were featured in the NYTimes, the third installment of the Global Sisters Report pieces came out, and Duke Divinity did a Faith & Leadership story on us. And we also launched the loveliest social media campaign: #SurpriseWereSoulmates. We’re writing blogs on there for the first time – which can be followed here. More and more and more is happening every day, it feels like, so truly – I’m just trying to keep up with it all right now.

Ah – deep breath – here I am. Amidst life’s excitement, I am grounding myself in this magical, monastic community for a couple months. Seeing what happens – following the spirit. I’m hoping to soak it all in – joining for community prayer and meals, hanging out for game nights and bonfires, volunteering at their events and saying ‘yes’ to any invite I get from a Sister. I’m not planning on blogging personally too much – would rather let it all live within me first. But I do hope to be able to share with friends through letters and certainly over coffee-dates in the months to come.

011C7AE7-EA91-49E2-A787-C77F6B0E2113Sunset over Lake Erie – a (nearly) nightly ritual for me here

Thanks y’all for being interested. What a life, what a dream.

The Land and the Waters are Speaking. Are we listening?

No, we aren’t. We don’t even know how to really hear, anyways. Or, more accurately, we’ve forgotten.

Last night, I went to an event at Harvard Divinity School titled “The Land and Waters are Speaking: Indigenous Views on Climate Change” exploring the spiritual implications of our planetary crisis. As the event description states about the two speakers/storytellers: “Two indigenous leaders – Nainoa Thompson and Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq (Uncle) – have both been identified by their communities as messengers who are sharing their wisdom with us as we try to heal this broken world together, and they will guide us through these challenging questions as they reflect on their traditions and spiritual practices. Storytelling is a form of bearing witness to change as we contemplate what it means to be responsible citizens in the Anthropocene.”

These two, along with the program hosts, including Terry Tempest Williams, created a sacred space in the midst of those academic halls last night. Those of us in the filled-to-capacity room were riveted by Nainoa and Uncle. Time fell away, and we were in their stories. It can be rare to feel so vulnerably human when you’re in the midst of an institution like Harvard, but they made it so last night. I’m so grateful my time here has overlapped with Terry’s visionary way of making this space meaningful far beyond our own academic pursuits.

When I got home from the event, I wrote 8 or so haikus, pulling language from the speakers as well as my own reflections. Here they are:

(Mostly) Haiku’s about The Land and Waters are Speaking

Will we listen, or
have the wisdom to hear
what they say?

These voices have been
too long ignored in these halls
but today, they are
our storytellers

An elder takes you
by the hand and walks you through
the window of time

He was our teacher
helping us learn and grow
over 30 years

You cannot protect
what you do not understand
listen to the earth

Well, how shall we live?
Ancient teachings, modern times
You are worth loving.

The implication
of climate change, of our home
is right inside you

Can you imagine?
Melting the ice in your heart
It can change the world.

Loretto Community Visit, Day 4 – Spirit, transformation, and Gethsemani

My day started and ended with prayer. At 6:30am, Mary Swain and I walked out to the chapel in the woods for thirty minutes of silence. Later this morning, at 10am I went to mass at the Loretto Church. This evening, we were at the Abbey of Gethsemani and attended 5pm vespers followed by 7pm compline. Four times for prayer today alone! Who have I become?

Anyways – today started with the same 6:30am walk as yesterday, but today as we walked out, due to the “spring forward” time change, instead of walking in dusk light we walked in the darkness. The night sky was clear, and Mary pointed out to me the planets and constellations. She said the stars feel like friends because they’ve spent so many mornings together. As for this morning ritual of a walk and silence, it seems that Mary has been doing this since Cedars of Peace opened in 1978. But when asked about what it’s about for her, she says it’s not about any deep or profound prayer – it’s simply about showing up. Maybe orienting ourselves and our time toward God is all we need to do in our spiritual lives.

After we got back from our morning walk and silence, the sun started to rise, and I watched it through my window as I sipped coffee and read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. It was an idyllic morning.

From there, I went to Sunday mass, where Mary was giving the homily (and playing the organ, for that matter). And – by the way – today was her 79th. birthday. I’m mostly including these details because Mary seems to be a woman who does it all and remains grounded the entire time. It’s exactly why I love to hang out around these women. They all seem to have this spirit.

Speaking of this spirit, after mass I talked with a Sister who casually mentioned that she founded a Women’s Spirituality Center in Santa Fe, NM. It was open for 8 years, and really had a profound impact on her and the women who came through its doors. This is why I’m particularly drawn to the narrative thread of Foundresses in women religious orders. One foundress seems to inspire the next; there is a spirit of founding that is very much alive in religious life. And it’s a founding that recognizes both life and birth, as well as new life and resurrection.  The Sister who founded the Women’s Spirituality Center said that after 8 years they decided to close it, and hosted a grieving ceremony. Her attitude wasn’t one of sadness but acceptance; the organization ran its course, and served its need. It was time to find the next need and ministry. This spirit of founding and re-founding has shaped not only religious life as a whole, but the many ministries that have come out of religious communities as well.

Back to the day. The sun was finally out, so Susan and I went on a walk before lunch, around Mary’s Lake and then through the cabin she built that she and JoAnn now live in. We reflected on this shared work we seem to be a part of – the questions that are guiding us, but are so much bigger than us. The questions that seem to hold us as we move around inside of them and figure out what its asking of us.  The same threads have been pulling on both of us – the signs in religious life and in spiritual life that there is a new form of community life aching to be born. Neither of us – nor the projects we’re a part of – know what that is, but we’re going to keep experimenting, and talking, and dreaming into that future. Like we see modeled in Susan and JoAnn’s cabin, which was built out of the trees and clay and stones from the very land it stands on, transformation is possible. Something found in nature can be used for building walls of a house; old kneelers can be used as interior siding; a wheel from a wheelbarrow can be repurposed into a dish hanger. Just like nature, and just like this cabin, we are capable of transforming and being transformed.

Over lunch, I met Jessie and Andy – a married couple with a foster child – who moved from Colorado onto the motherhouse grounds two years ago in order to live in community with the Loretto’s and in order to live more sustainably. They’re now dreaming up even deeper and bigger possibilities of community life in Loretto. Again, transformation is possible.

After lunch, Eleanor, the archivist, and I went to the Merton room with Cecily Jones’ poetry – from her collections “Mostly for Promise” and “The Porch of Possibility.” From these books, Eleanor read poems Cecily’s poems about the history of the community. The poems are sometimes told from the perspectives of these founding women, and sometimes told by current-day Sisters. Each poem embodies the spirit of this place as one of founding and re-founding, always open to seekers and searchers, as we all accompany each other along the journey.

Late afternoon, a few of us went to the Abbey of Gethsemani – only 15 minutes down the road – to visit with monks and explore this home monastery of Thomas Merton. When we arrived, Brother Michael greeted us, and brought us to see Merton’s gravestone. Since he is the celebrity of Gethsemani, and the Abbey is a pilgrimage site largely due to the fame that Merton brought to it, I thought that he might have a special location or at least a special marker. But I was glad to find that he fit in just like any other brother. And from the stories we heard, he really did have a humble presence, so much that novices wouldn’t realize that “Fr. Louis” was actually Thomas Merton.

From there, we went up to Merton’s hermitage, where he spent his last couple years before he died. Brother Paul met us up there, and showed us into the hermitage, which functions today as a retreat spot for the brothers. Before we walked in the door though, Paul asked us to turn around, so we could see the most important part of the hermitage: the view from the porch. Inside, there’s a small chapel, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. As we were sitting down, Paul’s next request was that we play “Merton Roulette” – as the guest, I would pick one of his personal journals and we would open to today’s date in that journal. We read the entry from March 10, 1962. And of course, it spoke to me even in today’s context.

Then the six of us, three from Loretto, two brothers, and myself, just sat down in a circle in the hermitage to talk. We talked about the role and relevance of monasticism today; we talked about “new monasticism” and Nuns & Nones; we talked about silence, pilgrimage, and work; we talked about the monastery’s Fudge Department while enjoying some of it ourselves. Though mostly lofty topics, the brothers always brought it back to moving, personal experience, and most importantly, they brought in a light-hearted sense of humor. I could feel the presence of Merton in the space, through these two individuals that he had spent time with before his death in 1968.

After Vespers back at the monastery chapel, the six of us shared dinner in the visiting room – wine, bread, cheese, and fruit. We heard stories from Michael and Paul about Merton and their conversations. We also talked about his close friendship with Mary Luke Tobin, the pivotal leader of Loretto in the 1960s. I brought up the Merton Center for Creative Exchange that Mary Luke created as an event and discussion space in her basement to honor her friend, and that it eventually ended up at the Loretto Motherhouse. I asked if he spoke about this vision for creative exchange, but Paul mentioned instead his vision for the hermitage, which he intended to name Mt. Olivet. He wanted the hermitage to be a space for writers, artists, intellectuals and activist to come together and engage with one another. While Merton died only a couple years after the hermitage opening, it has certainly still lived into that vision ever since. It feels like we just got a small taste of that vision in the hermitage today.

I’ll close with this story. Michael, reflecting back what he read in the Nuns & Nones article from Global Sisters Report, said that it seems like there’s something special happening there. There’s some sort of seeing between the communities of Sisters and millennials, a deep recognition in the other of their inner light. He said it reminded him of Merton’s epiphany on Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. I looked up the piece tonight, and feel immensely grateful for him to see Nuns & Nones alive in this excerpt. I will end with Merton’s words from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”