Words from today’s pages:

“. . . the contemplative habit of mind can encourage ordinary citizens to tolerate the free expression of different points of view even when these conflict with their own.”
— Howard Woodhouse, from the Introduction, In Praise of Idleness

Wow.  Maybe our current dysfunctional state of name-calling, bullying, and mud-slinging is a symptom of our lack of contemplative time.  Bertrand Russell’s essay on idleness was first published in 1935.  In the introduction to the Routledge Classics edition of In Praise of Idleness, Woodhouse summarizes Russell’s thesis this way:  a contemplative habit of mind fosters social harmony.  When we do not take the time to pause and reflect, we act in ways that undermine tolerance and freedom of expression and respect for diversity.  He says these unreflective actions result in a “risk of immobility, namely, a stick-in-the-mud attitude resulting from a refusal to consider alternative viewpoints or courses of action.”

Russell’s insights seem prescient. We see these locked-in, recalcitrant, defiant attitudes everyday when we read the news.  It’s scary.  Could it be because our lives are simply too busy and filled with distracting and competing and nonstop images?




“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.  I love a broad margin to my life.  Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.  I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.  They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The view from my front door

I envy the woodsy view from Thoreau’s front doorway.  I am not enamored of the view from my own front door, looking out on our scraggly lawn and garden to a residential urban street of closely standing houses.  Even our view of the sky is made imperfect by telephone and cable wires.  Our bushes and trees on the borders of our lot are unkempt and wild, but they provide some measure of privacy even in the city.  So thankfully our windows, at least, are free of curtains.

When my sister visited recently, she turned a chair around from facing into the dining room to instead face out the window.  This was her spot to sit while sipping her morning cup of coffee.  This simple action made me realize how easy it would be to be more aware of the outdoors.  How many days have I spent inside, going about my life, without noticing the sunrises and sunsets or clouds passing by!

Thoreau’s quote reminds me to invite revery and contemplation into my days.  I am ashamed at how rarely I spend time in our yard.  I like the idea of using our yard as an outdoor living space, an extension of our house.  I will have to spend the winter dreaming up ways to make this a reality by next summer.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”
— John Lubbock, The Use of Life

“Living artfully, therefore, might require something as simple as pausing.”
Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

“The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive.  The great opportunity is where you are.  Do not despise your own place and hour.  Every place is under the stars, every place is the centre of the world.  Stand in your dooryard and you have eight thousand miles of solid ground beneath you, and all the sidereal splendors overhead.”
— John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril: The Complete Writings of John Burroughs

What Nature Reveals

August 1, 2010

"Benedictine prayer is designed to enable people to realize that God is in the world around them." Joan Chittister

“Morning and evening, season by season, year after year we watch the sun rise and set, death and resurrection daily come and go, beginnings and endings follow one another without terror and without woe.  We come to realize that we are simply small parts of a continuing creation, and we take hope and comfort and perspective from that.”
     — from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister, OSB

Nature can be another catalyst for contemplation.  Here are some photos taken during my contemplative walks around the grounds of St. John’s University:

Grace upon grace . . .

Tiger lily

"The world laughs in flowers." e e cummings

"Consciousness of God is perpetual prayer." Joan Chittister, OSB

"The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Faith sees a beautiful blossom in a bulb, a lovely garden in a seed, and a giant oak in an acorn." William Arthur Ward

Dragonfly poses for backside view


Natural necklace of lavender blossoms

Chipmunk in a tree

Thistle down

Reflections in the lake on my walk to Morning Prayer

Dandelion wishes

“We have to learn to be mindful that creation belongs to God and we have only been put here as its keepers.”
     — from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister, OSB

Contemplative Spaces

July 31, 2010

“Benedictine spirituality is more intent on developing thinking people than it is on developing pious people.”
     — from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily:  Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister

"Contemplation is the pursuit of meaning." Joan Chittister

 St. John’s University was a beautiful environment, which fostered reflection and contemplation.  It was the perfect place for our retreat. 

The morning light streams through the facade of stained glass, St. John's Abbey Church

Interior, St. John's Abbey Church

A short tunnel leads to the monastery's private, enclosed garden

Campus trees in the morning sun

I hiked 1-1/2 miles along a lakeshore trail to the small Stella Maris Chapel

The Great Hall, St. John's University

Patterned reflections in a hallway at the Abbey Guest House


“To empty one’s mind of all thought and refill the void with a spirit greater than oneself, is to extend the mind into a realm not accessible by conventional processes of reason.”
     — from The Language of Drawing by Edward Hill


Art as Prayer

July 30, 2010

"Art is a medium for prayer."

Making art on our day of silence

The “Praying with Imagination” retreat allowed time for making art, both alone and in groups led by our artist-in-residence, Peggy.  Art can be another contemplative practice for enlivening our senses and deepening our spirituality.  Peggy taught us how to make bound blank books, which she described as “containers.” 

I made these blank books as containers for the expression of my art.

One of my goals for the retreat was to practice portrait photography.  I wanted to make a photograph of each participant, portraits that would reveal (not steal) a small slice of their souls and spirits.  I find it very challenging to make compelling photographs of people.  It’s difficult to intrude with your camera and still be sensitive to the subject’s privacy.  I’m sure I tread on a few toes.  I still have a lot to learn about portrait photography, but I was pleased with the way I captured the depth of character of some of my retreat colleagues.

My “final” art project was a slide show of photos documenting my experiences during the week-long retreat.  I presented it after our farewell banquet.  But I wanted to explore painting and drawing, too, and I did find some time to do some sketches and watercolor paintings.

My watercolor paintings

Ink drawing from one of my flower photos

Painting copied from a favorite print and another ink drawing

More sketches

I was so inspired by my fellow artists.  Here is some of their spectacular work:

Peggy's handmade book

Rose's calligraphy and handmade books

Anna's calligraphy and handmade books

A page from Barbara's Journey Daybook

A Confession

July 28, 2010

Small side chapel in St. John's Abbey Church


I don’t know what I think about God. 

I was a tiny bit concerned about the prayer portion of the retreat because I find myself extremely resistant to all of the male identifiers for God in the Bible and the traditional Catholic prayers of my childhood — “Father” this and “Lord” that, “kingdom” and “King.”  God is a mystery to me — a benevolence, a Light — but none of these words adequately express how I approach a definition of God in my mind.  But I do know in my heart that God is not just a “He.” 

So I was very reassured during the retreat by two comments in particular that resonated with me.  The first was a passage from John 1: 18, which we discussed during a morning prayer practice:  “No one has ever seen God.”  And the second came during Kathleen’s discussion about pursuing a more contemplative life, when she said, “Renounce your thoughts about God, for God is beyond all thoughts.”  

St. John's Abbey Guest House, a wall of light and shadow


I can be okay with leaving God undefined in my life. 

Emerging from the clouds into the great, infinite blue