Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

Looking up to the altar, my head began to spin--the vision of the monks gathering, the smell of incense, the blue and violet of the windows all began to swim together, and I found myself sitting down to make it stop. I was overheating, but did not know what to do.

It’s not overstatement to say that the woman standing next to me suddenly seemed to know what I was thinking and what was happening to me. She leaned in and whispered “I can go out the door with you if you would like. You look like you need to rest--are you ok?” I looked up at her blurry face, thankful she understood my embarrassment at interrupting the service, and could only choke-- “But I want to take communion.”

She knew better.

“Ok--I will take you to the front--on the side there’s a chair you can sit on and wait, and it might be cooler there. I’ll get you some orange juice. Don’t worry.” I nodded, and took her hand, like a child, and let her lead me. She disappeared, and suddenly I found myself involuntarily crying--I realized I needed more coolness, more rest, and my belly became taught as my breathing became shallow, quick--I could feel a panic of movement from the baby. The woman sitting next to me looked worried. Quickly the woman helping me came back with a small cup of orange juice and a simple poultice of cool water to place on my neck. She whispered again. “Look--I will bring you downstairs to a cooler space, and I will come back and take communion for myself and get you yours, and we’ll pause and pray together. It will be ok.” I nodded, and let her lead me again. As soon as were out in the hall I thanked her tearfully, and she explained-- “I knew what you were going through--you see, I am a pediatric nurse!” The providence of this was too much--I could not help but cry more and say thank you over and over. I felt foolish for crying, but she said--it’s ok--I can’t believe you’re holding together so well. Your body was trying to make up for what it wasn’t getting and working hard to stay cool--you should not feel bad at all.

To say she was a guardian angel may sound melodramatic, but considering I was 32 weeks pregnant, I think you understand how I suddenly felt as though God had directly sent me a message of comfort and protection. My thank yous were both for God’s touch and for my new angel, Rocky. A great name to boot!

The way Rocky handled herself--professionally, calmly, unselfishly--is the epitome of generosity of spirit. She gave of herself without reservation, stayed attuned to my needs, and used her knowledge and understanding and mindfulness of others in need. I only got to speak and pray with her briefly, and then she was off to attend to her duties at the monastery with a special group retreat she was on with the Lay Cistercians.

I think now of the many different ways I have experienced generosity of spirit, and I hope they are as manifold for you as they have been for me. My prayer of gratitude is that this multitude of experiences has really helped shape my faith. I have had many experiences in which monetary or material generosity have made such a huge impact, and have always felt sustained by this. Unique moments which tie us together as community, in relationship with each other--these can be priceless in a world filled with selfishness.

This little guide I have been following suggests some other ways: “Admit your mistakes, compete with one another in showing respect, support one another's weaknesses of body and behavior, be forgiving, serve one another, and refrain from grumbling.” These are all solid ways to show this generosity any of us can take on. Notice how humility is a necessary ingredient? In any relationship humility can indeed make all the difference in the way we reach out, connect, help. Consider how practicing even just one might make an impact on your life. I hope to be a Rocky to someone else all my life, and give back what has been abundantly given me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BE in the moment

It’s so easy not to be present. I think of all the times I have watched TV and had a conversation, or talked to someone on the cell phone and walked and managed something else at the same time. Looking around, I see people do this everyday (much to my dismay when I see people chat or text as they drive). How many things do we miss as we fill our moments with multitasking?

I recently had the privilege of attending a retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where I learned about St. Benedict’s Rule, and found myself reflecting on the tenet of “attending the present moment.” This sense of attending is an important part of the deal--this requires commitment on our part. There’s something refreshing about a retreat, where we can set aside our usual worries of the everyday in favor of tending to our souls.

I thought of this in my “monastery moment”--I sat in the courtyard of the abbey and listened to both the birds and the monks sing. The steady cadence of the chanted psalms inside at Vespers, familiar to me, combined with the cheerful chirp of the many birds preparing for evening, swooping through the trees. The men sing antiphonally--two groups facing each other, singing parts of the psalms to each other one by one. That sobering chant that resonated through the Abbey seemed more muffled for the humidity, and I struggled, big with child, to stand for a bit, to listen and watch more carefully. The sun sets beyond the trees in the courtyard; it grows darker by the minute.

What happens when I get home to an inordinately loud TV, the temptations of the internet, and the business of busy-ness that threatens to take over my consciousness?

In practical terms St. Benedict’s Rule calls for “being attentive to the people and situations before us,” as Tomaine highlights in that pamphlet we’ve been following. In keeping with this the monks take vows of stability and obedience, attending the present moment in a more ordinary way. Those of us committed to the lay life can do the same in our families and communities. We create stability for each other in our everyday actions, and are obedient to each others’ needs as they arise; in this practice we develop what God calls us to do in community, and this is a way to tend our souls.

So--I listen to my friend as we lunch together and consider life over sandwiches. Or I respond with mercy and grace to a request for help from a student, or from family, or from my church and city communities. Even the little things which make our lives stable for each other--grocery shopping, cleaning, serving meals, sharing ideas--can have real impact on our soul-work if we accept and let it mix with the more extraordinary ways God connects to us.

Accept that which is right in front of you--enjoy it, wonder at it, learn from it. In that acceptance may we find the presence of God.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Balance and flexibility

I have always hated folding laundry. I used to scrunch socks together and not really care how shirts got folded in an effort to get them into my drawer, if I was industrious, as quickly as possible. The drudgery and time consumption of household tasks used to really irritate me, and I know I am not alone.

Since getting married, though, and sharing some of this work, I have found, oddly, a kind of Zen to folding--sitting quietly on the bed neatly arranging, finding sock mates (mostly), folding and rolling shirts in my husband’s military style. I accomplish this order out of chaos while my husband might be grilling our dinner or vacuuming and feel a two-fold sense of accomplishment: teamwork and then this uncanny feeling of accomplishment with even the small things of everyday life.

Reflecting on the next Benedictine tenets--balance and flexibility--fits in nicely with doing laundry and folding and accomplishing the everyday in part because we all need to do these ordinary things, but perhaps we do not all see them as moments for prayer, as parts of a well-balanced life. The ways we get through our days in the simple things can help establish something more powerful in our connection to God and to each other.

Balance and flexibility can come even in the tenuousness of human relationship. Consider a balance of self and other--of connecting from within to God who seeks us within our hearts and of seeing our fellow humans--family and committed friendships, those beloved to us--as God who seeks us through their hearts and souls. We have to grow adept at recognizing God’s Word come to life, from church to porch to dining room to wherever--and this practice builds in us a flexibility.

Of course, we do not always find what we expect. It may be there’s a sacredness waiting to happen in strife, argument, discord. As with all things these do not last, and must lead to resolve. We become channels for resolve, if only we show flexibility in the ways we see ourselves and one another. This seems the hardest part.

This world God has given us provides so many opportunities to start a practice of balance that leads to flexibility. Balance time and you might be flexible with it later on by spending more time with a friend who needs an ear and open heart, or a child who tugs at your sleeve, or a spouse who needs simple patience and understanding after a bad day. Balance a practice of body, mind, and soul by exercising, reading, and praying--however briefly each day--and this would create a flexibility between mind and body that forges an invisible flexibility between this physical self and the soul. I know I feel better when I strive for this each day.

That’s where our practice takes root and bears fruit and helps create, as Rev. Dr. Tomaine says, “a grace and unity that bring our thoughts and actions into harmony.”

In that case, I turn folding underwear, walking the treadmill, meditating quietly or in a beautiful and unexpected moment--all into prayer. Maybe you will find yourself in that Zen moment, building a spiritual earthworks, a vessel to fill your life with God’s real grace.