I’ve got your back

At least that’s what I thought she said. I hadn’t really expected anyone to speak to me just then, as I was leaving the chapel after Mass. So I only just picked up on the fact that someone was talking to me towards the end of the sentence. I apologized to Sr Johanna, who repeated, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’

It was nice to be back at the Abbey, particularly as I was able to be there for vigils, lauds and Mass on the feast of St Benedict. Lucky me! I giggled a bit to myself later, thinking how incongruous it would have been for Sr Johanna to say ‘I’ve got your back.’ But it wouldn’t have been untrue. At least that’s what I think about monastic life. Wherever I happen to be, whether or not I am able to join in, I know that the nuns are praying, seven times a day, for all of us.

I’m grateful for my regular visits; the time I spend in the abbey is a precious gift. I am also grateful, for the abbey–maybe more grateful–when I am not there. When I am not there, especially immediately after a visit, I find myself noticing when it’s time for lauds, or none, or compline. I am always happy if I manage to say compline with the children at 7:50–that’s when compline happens at the abbey.

Still, sometimes life gets busy, and I forget that the office is being sung. Even then–perhaps especially then–those praying have ‘got my back.’

Deo gratias.

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Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

Back home

The retreat at La Ferme was every bit as good, and as challenging, as I had anticipated, and much could be said about it…and will, eventually. At the moment we are in the process of moving, which means not a lot of desk time. Tomorrow I think my desk will go into storage, so no desk time at all for several weeks.
 
To begin at the end of the retreat weekend, though: I discovered, during my stopover at Minster Abbey on Monday, a gem of a book. Written by someone identified only as ‘a monk’ (a Cistercian, if you want to know), it is entitled, The Hermitage Within. Pushed well back between two books on the shelf, its title was hardly visible, but it caught my attention anyway. When I opened it, I found an invitation: ‘[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with him: to nothing else.’ In light of the message of the retreat, which focused on Jesus’ care for the poor and humble, and his own poverty and humility, this struck me as the logical follow-up. (There is more to it than that, of course–on which more later.) The invitation came with a caveat, though: ‘You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become “somebody”, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers’ (p 10).
A hard word in an age of self-promotion. A hard word for a person who has always struggled with the desire to be ‘somebody’–both in the struggle for recognition and coping with obscurity, and the struggle to overcome the desire itself. What amazes me about Jean Vanier is his ability to be somebody without desiring to be somebody. He holds it so lightly, and always looks in the same direction: away from himself, and constantly toward Jesus. One of my very favourite moments in the retreat was Jean concluding one of his talks by saying, almost offhandedly, ‘He’s quite extraordinary, Jesus. It’s important that we get to know him.’ Indeed so, Jean, indeed so. Thanks for helping us with that.
 

retreat

From Thursday to Sunday, I was on retreat, in silence, at Minster Abbey. I kept a record of my time there, and reproduce an excerpt here:

I realized as I sat in the chapel for Vigils this morning that I have hardly reflected at all on the Scripture in which I have been steeped since Thursday afternoon. At first this struck me as odd, since I have long been in the habit of reflecting on the Mass readings, and for many years previous, on the Psalms. So why, when seven times a day I pray the Psalms with the community here, do I not mention the words of the Psalms? As I came up the stairs back to my little room, I thought, because that’s not really what prayer is about. My reflections, daily or thereabouts (whether I write them down or not), are a part of my spiritual formation, to be sure, and a gift that God has given me to keep me close to Jesus. But praying the Psalms does not require that sort of reflection. There is a silence about that contemplation that is inward, and the words–strange as it may seem–give voice not to thoughts or reflections, but to a deep, inner silence. Praying the Psalms is not an act of cognition or emotion primarily, though both may be involved; praying the Psalms is rather an act of obedience. Why do I attend prayers regularly when I am here? No one expects me to come faithfully to Vigils, to stay until the close of adoration following Compline. I do it because it is the Benedictine way of life; it is, in a very real sense, what I have come to do. The daily timetable is an opportunity for an act of submission that is life-giving, that allows me to draw closer to God not by my feelings or my intellect, but by willing obedience.

So as much as I am inspired, cheered, or challenged, by the words I pray and hear in the chapel, I am more deeply restored by participation, by prayer itself. To stand, to sit, to kneel, to bow–in themselves these movements of the body are not significant. But in the daily office they become part of the prayer, they are the prayer. Contemplative prayer is an act of the whole body, in which the words spoken express a deeper silence, and the movements of the body tell of a more profound stillness. Would that all my words and actions were the fruit of such silence and stillness within me.