Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Whatever your faith and whatever the season, Marcia Falk has blessings, poems and spiritual guidance to help you through a time of reflection and renewal. Her new book is called, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a series of reflections, readings, blessings and prayers appropriate to each day from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. But this book also is full of timeless spiritual wisdom, eloquently signaled in these concise lines. Consider this eight-line reading that Falk calls “Turning the Heart.”

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

and the river, ever-
so-slightly, rising.

.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARCIA FALK ABOUT ‘THE DAYS BETWEEN’

DAVID: Your website, MarciaFalk.com, describes you as “Poet, Painter, Judaic Scholar.” We will include a photo of your book’s front cover, which features your watercolor-and-pencil work, called “Gilead Apples.” Your career is so varied. How do you describe your overall body of work to audiences, when you tour and talk about your new book?

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

MARCIA: I would say that I am a creative artist, a poet and a translator with a strong scholarly background in the work I do. I’ve brought together the literary world and the world of scholarship in my work interpreting and recreating Jewish liturgy from a non-hierarchical perspective. I don’t just sit down and write liturgy. Everything I do is based in the tradition.

DAVID: Evidence of your very thoughtful process is that your books take many years to complete. Probably your most famous book—at least one that has been on my own reference shelf for many years—is your rendering of The Song of Songs.

MARCIA: That has been in print for almost four decades and it has migrated through a number of publishers over the years. It is available today from Brandeis University Press. I began that work when I was a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Stanford, independent studies in three different areas at once: I was in a poetry translation workshop and I was doing an independent study in American poets and then—and this is the most important thing—I had decided to go back and study the original Hebrew Song of Songs, which of course I had known since childhood in my Jewish background.

I remembered The Song of Songs as very musical and lyrical and I already loved the book but I had never studied it. It is an extremely different book linguistically. I worked with a Bible scholar, sitting together and reading this book. I researched every word and phrase and never thought about translating it. I was just absorbing the book. And then one night my translation workshop had an evening when we were sharing our work. When my turn came, I said, “I don’t have anything to show. I’ve spent all my time studying this wonderful book and it’s completely taken over my life.” I began to talk about The Song of Songs and how they couldn’t understand this aspect of it from the King James Version or they would miss this aspect in the Revised Standard Version. I was talking to them about what’s in the original Hebrew.

That’s when I realized that I really should translate this book that had become such a big part of my life. And, that took me years. I went to Israel. I wanted to study at the feet of the great Bible scholars there. I wanted their approval that I was on the right track. Eventually my translation became my doctoral dissertation, the translation accompanied by a commentary.

DAVID: That’s a terrific story because it conveys to our readers the great care and the long years you spend on your work. Let’s point out that I’m certainly not alone in praising The Song of Songs. A very long list of great literary lights have praised that book, including Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote about your book, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”

So, then, leaping forward to the mid 1990s, you produced the big Book of Blessings.

MARCIA: I actually began writing that book in 1983. It was a 13-year project; The Book of Blessings finally came out in 1996. That book is a recreation of prayer for Shabbat, the Sabbath, and for weekdays. My impetus for doing that book was a deep frustration with the patriarchal focus of traditional prayer that was so unsatisfying to the point of being painful for many Jewish women and, it turns out, many Jewish men as well. When it was published, that book created a pretty big stir in the Jewish world.

Then, in 1996, I thought I would dive right into the next volume, which would be for the high holiday season, because that is the time of year when more Jews enter the synagogue than at any other time of year. But The Days Between, which just was published, took another 18 years.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion and cross-cultural issues for 40 years now and I am fascinated by this thoughtful, long journey represented in your work. There is a great deal that evolves and matures in us as we go through the years. I talked about this issue, this spring, with the writer Barbara Brown Taylor and asked her why five years had passed between books.

Barbara laughed at that and said: “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

MARCIA: There are many reasons it took me so many years: raising a child, needing to make a living as a professor and many other things. But the main reason was that this needed to evolve in my mind and heart. I needed to really grapple with what this very difficult liturgy was all about. The themes of the high holidays are extremely profound and they are at the core of all of human endeavor.

It took this many years to complete, really, because I needed to live long enough in the world—and needed all of the experiences that come with birth and grief and growth and renewal and all the things that make up a human life through those years. I needed to grow through all of that. My living was seeping into my poetry all that time.

DAVID: I hope that readers of this interview understand that, while your book is Jewish and ideal for Jewish readers, this book also can be appreciated as an inspiring and spiritually challenging reader for non-Jews as well. As I was preparing for our interview, Marcia, I was also balancing hours of visiting my father in hospice care. He’s at the very end of his long life, now, and I found many passages in your book just electrifying.

Let me read one prose passage from the opening of the book that really helped me in my own reflections right now. You write: “Positioned between dawn and dusk, dusk and dawn, we live between past and future because we cannot live in them; we cannot act in them or change their outcomes. In this sense, past and future don’t exist for us: only the time between them—the present time—exists.” And then you continue a few lines later: “How do we live with the knowledge not just of our own mortality but of the truth that we cannot hold on to anything? How do we keep from succumbing to despair?”

I underlined those lines and turned down the corner of that page. That summarizes, so eloquently, the spiritual challenge we all face at times of major life transitions. It certainly was very helpful to me in the midst of hospice care with my Dad. I read those lines aloud to him.

MARCIA: To me, that’s the best reward as an author—to hear that kind of response from a reader. I should also mention that it’s been very interesting to me that, wherever I speak about this book, hospice workers in particular come up to me and I see how engaged they are. I feel very gratified that the book is of use to those in hospice. I think that hospice workers are doing something extremely important in our world world.

DAVID: I think it speaks, even more broadly, about how these timeless truths and insights—these blessings and prayers—can touch many lives whatever one’s faith might be. So, let me close our interview by asking: What do you hope general readers will take away from reading your book?

MARCIA: For my Jewish readers, I hope I’m bringing a new entry into Judaism. I also hope it will reveal something for non-Jewish readers as well. I hope it touches people and enriches their paths through life. We’re all human beings and we’re all in this together.

In this book, I am dealing with big themes that speak to and for all of us. Of course, I’m doing this in Jewish language and metaphor—but ultimately for any religion or tradition to meaningful, it has to be dealing with the universals of human life. No religion works unless it is really talking to the whole community of humanity.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish

Interview with poet and PBS journalist Judith Valente

Overworked? Overwhelmed?

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Overall, you need Judith Valente.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, my own long career has been blessed by working with other journalists around the world. I have known Judith for decades and she was among our first author interviews when we founded ReadTheSpirit magazine in 2007. At that time, we were recommending her book Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul.

You may feel that you know Judith, already, because of her many appearances as a journalist on PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly and because of her occasional NPR stories that reach a national radio audience.

Today, we are talking with Judith about two new books, perfect for the depths of mid-winter. In them, Judith writes from two perspectives about finding peace in the midst of a chaotic world. The books’ titles capture these themes. The first is, Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith. The second is, The Art of Pausing.

AND—Don’t miss the links at the end of this interview, which point to two inspiring columns about steps you can take to find greater peace in your life.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JUDITH VALENTE

DAVID: Let’s start with the dramatic scene that opens Atchison Blue: your first morning at the Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. You arrive as a polished, veteran journalist and speaker, who the sisters have brought in as a teacher. Yet, you find yourself overwhelmed.

JUDITH: I went to the monastery in 2007 to give a presentation on poetry and the soul, both at the retreat center the monastery operates and at a Benedictine college down the road. But, I was arriving at the monastery during a very hectic period in my life. I was working so hard and doing so many things that, when I arrived, I realize now that I was exhausted—mentally, physically and emotionally. On the morning I was supposed to start speaking to this retreat group, I went into the chapel alone and just sat there surrounded by these beautiful blue windows. I wondered how I was going to stand up and tell people about nourishing their souls when I hadn’t nourished my own soul in weeks.

In the chapel is an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms and the words, “Omni tempore silentio debent studere,” or “At all times, cultivate silence.”

The paradox I had been living stared me in the face: I had been traveling across the country and talking to people over and over again about the need to cultivate a contemplative life—without making time to develop my own interior life.

Something very strange happened at that moment. I began to weep. That is totally out of character for me. I don’t do that. And, in that moment, I realized: This monastery has a way of reaching out to me that I can’t get from the self-help books lining the shelves at Barnes & Noble that argue we can have it all if we just keep charging forward. As a result, I began working on these new books about how important it is to cultivate silence, or pausing, to nourish the contemplative side of life.

DAVID: I’ve known you for years and you are the very definition of a senior journalist: smart, self-assured and articulate. It’s a remarkable image to think of you sitting in this chapel, weeping. As our readers are thinking about this interview, they probably can envision a moment when they were trying to keep their own self-assured world together—and things just overwhelmed them.

JUDITH: That was a huge moment for me as a woman and as a journalist. I’ve always understood that we must keep our emotions in check. What I discovered in the monastery was that the women living there were not afraid to be vulnerable. They have almost zero façade in their lives. Here I was: a journalist who is used to meeting people every day and trying to spin whatever they’re telling you into a good story. Suddenly, I was surrounded by women who have no spin. They’re completely open about their own flaws and shortcomings.

DAVID: We meet some of them in this book.

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

JUDITH: Yes, I write about an early encounter with sister Lillian Harrington, this 90-year-old sister who was so honest with me about her own life. She understood that she was talking to me, a journalist, and yet she didn’t hesitate to say that she had misgivings about her choice of a religious life. She doesn’t always find it easy to believe there is a life after death, she told me. We can’t be sure of it, she said. She was so open that I found this refreshing. That honesty opened the curtain for me to be a little more vulnerable myself. I was not prepared to be so deeply moved both by the stories that the sisters told and the lives they lived.

DAVID: Readers will find themselves swept into the pages of Atchison Blue, I think, by just this kind of story. And, along with our interview, we also will publish that column you’ve written about your visit to the monastery and 10 insights to ponder about finding peace in one’s life.

JUDITH: Here’s something that isn’t in the book, which we had to cut out to make the book a manageable length. I spent time with one sister who had been a well-respected part of the community for many years: Sister Loretta Schirmer. She had held a number of leadership positions and, at one point, I went into her room to talk with her. She was nonchalant and almost dry in her recitation of all the positions she had held over the years.

Then, she began talking about working as a seamstress and that, very late in life, she was now helping her community by sewing and repairing altar cloths and garments for the sisters. As she talked about this work, she began to cry. “My sewing is the one thing I have left that I can give to my community,” she said.

And, I began to cry, too. At that point she was 87 and was still determined to serve her community. I remember the tears were just streaming down my face. That was totally unprofessional to be crying like that, while I was talking to her as a journalist. Yet, I was just moved to tears by this women who had held so many very important positions over the years—and, yet, even at the point in life when I met her, she still was focusing her life on service, the service she could still provide.

DAVID: I just typed her name into Google and we’ll share a link to her obituary with our readers. Sister Loretta died in May, 2013.

A TIME-TESTED SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE

DAVID: You explain in Atchison Blue that the whole culture of these communities dates back many, many centuries. We really are reaching back to the early men and women who went out into the desert to achieve more spiritual focus in their communities. In other words, this isn’t some kind of new spiritual technique you’re teaching.

JUDITH: That’s right, this isn’t some new-wave-voodoo we’re discovering. This really is the art of our faith that dates back to within a few hundred years of Jesus living on this earth. Monastic life was a reaction against the codification of Christianity by the state. These desert fathers and mothers were trying to get back to what was essential in Christ’s message: service, prayer, praise, and simplicity. This is what Jesus emulated in his time on earth and they were trying to remove themselves from the system that was emerging as the state, the Roman Empire, legitimized Christianity.

DAVID: It’s rather surprising to many people to discover that these communities have survived—and many are thriving—all over the U.S. They’re in other parts of the world, too. Most of us have simply overlooked them.

JUDITH: I would put it more strongly: Monasteries are the best open secret in our world. They’re right there, yet many people do overlook them. Or, people may be aware of them, but may think that these are people who want to be completely removed from the world.

In fact, hospitality toward strangers is a major monastic value. People can go to virtually any monastery in America as a guest. Try it. Ask to stay there as a guest for a few days, or even a few weeks. You can participate in the prayer life of the community, the Liturgy of the Hours. This is even true at Trappist monasteries, some of the most cloistered monasteries. And, of course, most monasteries welcome people as volunteers for short periods and even for long periods.

THE ART OF PAUSING
SHARING PRAYERS IN HAIKU

Click on the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: This leads me to your other book, The Art of Pausing. If Atchison Blue is an introduction to the whole idea of visiting monasteries—then The Art of Pausing is more like a little spiritual toolkit to tuck into your bag as you go about a busy day. Is that fair to say, do you think?

JUDITH: Yes. As a really busy person myself, I saw the need for people like me to have a little book we can carry around to read bite-sized bits of contemplation in the middle of our jam-packed days.

DAVID: You say “bite-sized.” We should explain that the book’s format is a short haiku on the left-hand page, matched with a short meditation in prose. The titles of each two-page set is an attribute of God. This idea cuts across religious boundaries. For example, Muslim devotions revolve around the 99 Names (or attributes) of God.

Some of your titles are God, the Straightener; God, the Protector; God, the Unity; God, the Patient; and God, the Opener.

JUDITH: I am a poet, but it takes a long time to write a good poem. There are poems I’ve worked on for more than a year and I’m still not satisfied with them. But I can write a Haiku every day. So, in working on this book, each day I would pause for a short period of time; I would try to connect in a deeper way with the world around me, and I would write these three lines of a haiku.

DAVID: Tell a little bit about how this idea took hold.

JUDITH: As a reporter, I was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemane to do a news segment on the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. I was introduced to Brother Paul Quenon who also happens to be a poet. He had known Merton. He told me that one of the things he does as part of his daily practice is to write a three-line haiku. After meeting him, I asked if we could exchange haikus; and he thought that was a fabulous idea. So, we would send each other our daily haiku.

The two books actually are interrelated. While I was with the sisters at Mount St. Scholastica, at lunchtime they would begin eating with a reading from what they called the Book of Days. Each one was a couple of lines from scripture and a brief reflection on it. This was just enough—a moment of contemplation—in the middle of each day.

That’s where I got the idea that we should put a haiku together with a brief reflection and, with Brother Paul Quenon, we finished this book for busy people who need a way to offer just a moment of contemplation in their otherwise hectic day.

You’d be surprised how many people are telling me that this book inspired them to try writing a Haiku every day!

DAVID: It’s a form of poetry with a mixed heritage. Students in school are assigned to write them by their teachers. Sometimes, I think, people wind up pretty skeptical of this form of poetry. But, I like the form. In fact, I’ve taught workshops for journalists on long-form writing that start with assigning each writer to summarize his or her project in a haiku. If they can accomplish that, then the long-form prose they are writing flows naturally from a central focus.

JUDITH: As ancient as haiku is—it’s a perfect art form for the Twitter generation. There are a lot of people who’ve contacted me through Facebook just so they can send me their haiku.

I’m very pleased to see this catch on—and it’s a point I make in the introduction to the book. We hope people will start writing these little three-line holy sentences everyday and will begin to exchange them. We hope people will find a friend who also likes the idea. If you don’t know each other very well, you will after the daily haikus go back and forth.

SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES FOR THE FUTURE

DAVID: I find both of these books inspiring, because they demonstrate the vitality of monastic wisdom for our contemporary world.

JUDITH: That’s something I hope more people will understand. And I admit that I used to think of monastic living as a throwback. It was like: “Will the last living monk turn out the lights.”

Now, I look at this wisdom and these experiences as a light into the future. These men and women represent a window into values we desperately need in our society. They emphasize community over competition, consensus over conflict, simplicity over consumption—and silence over the constant nattering that surrounds us today.

DAVID: Let’s close with another example.

JUDITH: Here’s one I can share: There’s this little saying I learned at the monastery: Before I begin speaking, I ask myself three questions. Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? And, is it necessary?

Now, when you start applying that standard to what comes out of your mouth, you’re going to be a lot more quiet than you might have been.

And here’s another one: They don’t do this anymore, but for decades the sisters had a practice whenever two or more sisters were assigned to perform a task. They would bow to each other and say: “Have patience with me.”

I’ve often mused on how much more pleasant my work would be if, before I start an assignment, I bow to the producer, to the audio technicians and to each person I encounter and ask, “Have patience with me.”

That’s such a counter-cultural idea, yet it is so central to monastic communities to see and to honor the sacredness in the other person.

DAVID: And that’s a perfect sign that I should stop asking you questions and recommend that our readers learn more from your wonderful new books Judith. Plus, you’ve sent us a column that shares even more of these insights about finding peace. So, let’s move right to the next links …

Care to read more?

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

GET THE BOOKS! Click on either of the book covers shown with today’s story—or there are text links to Amazon in the introduction to today’s interview.

JUDITH’S REPORTING: Make a point of finding and watching PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly. In addition, Judith works both regionally for public radio and occasionally you will hear her reports on NPR stations nationwide.

CONTACT JUDITH: Her personal website, www.JudithValente.com, has more information about her books, the events where she appears, and also contains further information about contacting her and following her on Facebook.

PLEASE SHARE THIS INTERVIEW WITH FRIENDS: Click on the blue-“f” Facebook buttons or the small envelope-shaped icons to share the news about Judith Valente and her work with others.

Looking for renewal close to home?

FROM JUDITH VALENTE: We’re very pleased to share a special column by Judith Valente, today, that describe 10 Steps Toward Peace that you may want to ponder in your own life, this year.

FROM CINDY LaFERLE: This week, we also are publishing a column by author Cindy LaFerle about a simple solution she has found to making retreats a more regular part of her life, each year.

(This interview was originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

10 Steps toward peace with author Judith Valente

Dire news headlines and votive candlesTHIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending two new books by poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. So, you’ll want to read our full interview with Judith. In addition, we invited Judith to write this column describing some of the basic steps toward rediscovering peace in our lives. This personal story by Judith opens with a scene from her new book Atchison Blue and then shares 10 insights to ponder.

Conversatio Morum:
A Pilgrimage Toward
Peace

By JUDITH VALENTE

If we are very lucky in life, we arrive at a moment that launches us on a journey of discovery. Having grown up in the shadow of New York City and spent much of my career in Chicago, I could never have imagined that my journey of discovery would lead to a place as strange to me as Atchison, Kansas, and to a Benedictine monastery on a hill.

In the spring of 2007, I was feeling very dry in my spiritual life. Like many Catholics, I despaired over the clergy abuse scandal and the increasingly politicized statements by our bishops that seemed aimed at pointing to the splinters in everyone else’s eyes but their own. In the public arena, so-called Christians seemed bent on dividing the world between insiders and outcasts.

More to the point, perhaps, there were many broken places in my own life that needed healing. As a new wife, I struggled in my relationship with my adult stepdaughters. At work, I found myself embroiled in a silly, totally unnecessary conflict with my supervising producer. My weekends were occupied with travel to different cities to give presentations on my first book, Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul. All of these commitments left me with little time for prayer, reflection or rest.

Then a door opened. I was invited to give a workshop on “Touching the Sacred through Poetry” at the retreat center of Mount St. Scholastica, the Benedictine women’s monastery in Atchison. I arrived feeling exhausted—mentally, physically and spiritually. The morning I was to give my presentation, I sat alone in the oak-limned chapel. I wondered how I was going to speak to a retreat group later that day about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks.

Sunlight streamed in through beautiful blue stained glass windows. Silence saturated the room. I happened to look up at the stained glass window in front of me. There was an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms. Surrounding him were some words in Latin: omni tempore silentio debent studere. I reached back into my high school Latin and did a rough translation. “At all times, cultivate silence.”

Suddenly the paradox I had been living stared me in the face. I had been traveling around, talking and talking, trying to help others live a more contemplative life. But in my own life what was missing were moments of silence and solitude when I could simply listen and be. Without those moments, I was losing drop by drop the inner resources I needed to do my work well and cultivate an interior life.

I didn’t have any grand plan for changing my life. I only knew that something nameless had shifted inside of me that morning in the chapel. Whatever it was, I wanted more of it.

I began carving out a few days each month to spend at Mount St. Scholastica, learning from the Benedictine sisters what it means to live a truly contemplative life. I don’t profess to have arrived (Eureka!) at the truth. As a Desert Father once told a young monk, “The spiritual life is this: I rise and I fall, I rise and I fall.” That is also the way of conversatio morum, what Benedictines refer to as conversion to the monastic way of life. And that is perhaps what I felt the first stirrings of that day in the chapel.

Since then, I’ve come to understand conversatio doesn’t spark a sudden tectonic shift in the way we live our lives. It isn’t an earthquake, but more like the slow etching water makes on a shoreline. It is, as my friend Sister Thomasita Homan once put it, “a continuous conversation with life.”

Conversatio involves developing certain habits of the heart that then inform our daily living. Every day, as I read the newspaper and listen to NPR, I think the same thought. How different the world would be if each one of us was living out just one of these monastic habits of the heart. Would we have experienced the reckless self-interest that led to the economic collapse a few years ago if we did as The Rule of St. Benedict urges, what is best for others first? Could we avoid the vitriol that poisons our national discourse, that paralyzes our democracy if we practiced the principle: Be the first to show respect to the other. Would corporations drop their employees’ insurance coverage simply because they can, if their managers understood that the true task of a leader is the care of souls. Would the immigrant stranger be walled out, or welcomed as The Rule says all guests should, as Christ? Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they truly may be served as Christ is the kind of health care reform The Rule envisions. Would the current debate over “Obamacare” change in tone if the monastic view of care of the sick became society’s as well?

It seems facile to try and reduce Benedictine spirituality and a monastic view of life to a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People-type list. Conversatio is, after all, not a to-do list, but the work of a lifetime. Still, there are certain Benedictine values I try to keep daily before my eyes, like guideposts on a long, narrow and sinewy road. It is that spirit that I offer a few of them here.

Ponder them.

See if one in particular fits your life right now. Sometimes one will speak to us at a certain time of life, others will appear more meaningful at a later period. Conversatio is never static. The way is always unfolding before us. I rise and I fall. I rise and I fall.

Listen

It has always intrigued me that the first word of The Rule of St. Benedict isn’t pray, or worship or even love. It’s listen. And St. Benedict takes it a step further. He asks us to listen with “the ear of the heart.” We tend to talk at and over one another. Just watch any cable news channel. During the government shutdown, some political leaders suggested what was needed was more talking. I believe what is needed was more listening. St. Benedict wisely suggests we listen to the youngest voice as well as the voice of experience.

Prayer and Praise

Work and pray, Ora et Labora, is the Benedictine motto. And prayer is the main work of any monastery. Monastic men and women begin the day with the moving gesture of running their fingers across their lips in the sign of the cross. They pray, “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the first words they utter each morning and it’s a call for praise. For me, it’s a reminder that our days are made not for grumbling, self-criticism or worry, but for praise. How can we make all of our actions a form of praise? Can we make of our day one extended prayer?

Silence

In the age of 24-hour TV, silence is a disappearing commodity. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter are a form of visual noise. The Rule encourages esteem for silence. My friend Sister Micaela Randolph of Mount St. Scholastica once taught me this handy practice. Before you open your mouth to speak, she said, ask yourself three questions: is what you are about to say true, is it kind, and is it necessary? “There is so much talking that goes on that is utterly useless,” the great monastic writer Thomas Merton once said. “The redwoods, the sea, the sky, it is in these you will find answers.” In other words, in the silence, everything begins to connect.

Humility

Interestingly enough, the longest chapter in The Rule of St. Benedict is on the practice of humility. The very word runs counter to our American instincts. But humility isn’t the same as humiliation. It derives from the Latin root humus, which simply means “of the earth.” There is a wonderful custom at Mount St. Scholastica in which before they pray, the sisters bow to one another. In the land of the easy handshake and the quick hug, the bow says, “I recognize the gifts in you, and I acknowledge my own limitedness.” There was also an old and beautiful custom at Mount St. Scholatica in which a group of sisters, assigned to a task, would first bow to one another and ask, “Have patience with me.” I often muse how pleasant my work day would be if at the start, I bowed to my colleagues and they to me and we asked each other to please have patience with our human failings.

Balance

Like many professionals, I suffer from a chronic condition: over-achieverism. That is why I’m so drawn to another Benedictine motto, succisa virescit: cut back, it will grow stronger. Whenever I visit Mount St. Scholastica, I love to visit the vineyard. The grapevines are wonderful plants. They will grow and grow without much outside help. But they won’t produce much of value without the careful attention of the vinedresser, who must periodically radically cut back the vine’s branches. For someone like me, always trying to accomplish five tasks at once, it’s a reminder to regularly survey my life and cut back on excess activities so I can re-focus on what’s essential. Succisa virescit. Cut back, it will grow stronger.

Stability

Our society puts a premium on mobility. Perhaps because of our frontier history, mobility often equates with progress. Monastics turn that idea on its head. They each take a vow of stability to remain at one monastery for life. As someone who’s lived in four U.S. cities and three European cities over the course of my adult life, I’ve developed an appreciation for stability. It’s the idea of grow where you are planted. Or as a Benedictine friend once told me. “You do not need to go elsewhere because everywhere is here.”

Hospitality

There was a lovely tradition in ancient monasteries that whenever a stranger appeared at the door, the gatekeeper was to respond, “You blessing, please.” Visitors received this greeting regardless of whether they were perceived as friends or suspected of being enemies. Of all the mandates in The Rule of St. Benedict, the call to treat all guests as Christ is one of the clearest. No matter what our politics, The Rule calls us to respect the immigrant, the refugee, and all of society’s marginalized people. Hospitality in The Rule also extends to a compassionate concern for the sick. But hospitality does not end with works of mercy. The Rule also calls us to a hospitality of spirit and of mind. Can I be hospitable to ideas that don’t fit neatly into our established world view? Can I listen with the ear of my heart to people with whom I don’t usually agree?

Beauty

Often you will find lovely gardens surrounding monasteries. I once asked the prioress of Mount St. Scholastica why that is so. Benedictines have always cultivated gardens, she said. Gardens remind the world of the need for beauty. Gardens require care and The Rule asks us to bring that kind of careful attention to all areas of our lives. Regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected,” St. Benedict says. It is a reminder that everything we encounter deserves our attention. Our natural world, most especially, is ours in trust. As the writer John McQuiston notes, “Everything we have is on loan. Our homes, our businesses, rivers, closest relationships, bodies and experiences. Everything we have is ours in trust and must be returned at the end of our use of it.” Nothing is to be neglected, most especially, beauty.

Community

A recent study found that America is becoming a politically segregated society. Red states are becoming redder, blue states bluer. Americans increasingly live amid others who look, think, and vote just as they do. St. Benedict eschewed the solitary life as a hermit in favor of living in community, but the kind of community he envisioned was quite different. It was one where members checked their wealth and pedigree at the door. Age and education didn’t matter either. What mattered was that a person was willing to join hands with others within community in seeking God. Each was to receive according to his need, bearing each other’s weaknesses with patience. It is what still matters in monasteries today. Is each member seeking to build the others up, rather than tear them down? Are decisions made through consensus, not conflict? Is each member helping the other find the true self? St. Benedict recognized that we don’t become fully ourselves alone, or solely in the company of like-minded individuals, but in a community of many different kinds of people, each adding their own foibles, perspectives and strengths to the mix.

Contemplation

We know it when we experience it. But contemplation is one of those words so hard to define. “Living mindfully, looking beyond the obvious” is how the Benedictine writer Joan Chittister once defined it. For me, the life of contemplation is a lived life. It’s a promise of not arriving at your death bed wondering what the heck this life was all about. “Be where you are and do what you’re doing” is the description Mount Sister Imogene Baker once assigned to it. I like what my friend Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani once said. “Contemplation is just a big fat word for gratitude.”

Care to read more?

ReadTheSpirit magazine is recommending two of poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. You’ll want to read our full interview with Judith to learn about these two inspiring books.

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Remembering Nelson Mandela 1918 to 2013

This is the official photo of Mandela casting his vote in the 1994 elections. It was the first time Mandela had voted in his life. It was taken at Ohlange School, Inanda, Durban by the IEC's official photographer, Paul Weinberg. It is one of only two images of this event.

This is the official photo of Mandela casting his vote in the 1994 elections. It was the first time Mandela had voted in his life. It was taken at Ohlange School, Inanda, Durban by the IEC’s official photographer, Paul Weinberg. It is one of only two images of this event.

The world is awash in memorials and remembrances of Nelson Mandela. ReadTheSpirit, here, offers some texts, columns and reflections on his life and the struggle for freedom in South Africa that you won’t find without our help. Please, remember, reflect and recommit yourself to peacemaking …

HONORING NELSON MANDELA’S COURAGE

U.S. President Barack Obama honored Mandela, on behalf of the American people, quoting from Mandela’s famous 1964 address to the court that ultimately convicted him and sent him to prison for nearly three decades. We have the complete text of Obama’s remarks, courtesy of the White House. Then, we also have an extended excerpt from Mandela’s own historic address to the court that convicted him, from 1964.

INTERVIEW WITH MPHO TUTU

In their book Made for Goodness, Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu welcome us into their South African family—a courageous community of relatives and friends who produced one of the great miracles in modern history: the end of Apartheid. This 2010 author interview, we get Tutu’s perspective on the historic events that unfolded out of South Africa. In a separate piece, Mpho Tutu also provided her perspective on the movie, Invictus.

MANDELA, INVICTUS & OTHER MEDIA

In 2011, we marked Mandela’s 93rd birthday, which coincided with the 200th birthday of William Makepeace Thackery, the acid-penned writer who originally composed Invictus. AND, if you’re thinking of watching Invictus to honor Mandela, you’ll also want to read faith-and-film writer Ed McNulty’s review—and discussion guide—to that film. Then, in addition to that Invictus study guide, Ed McNulty immediately posted an additional column, reflecting on a wide range of films and other media related to Mandela’s career.

“HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG?”

The ultimate film documentary on the decades-long campaign to defeat Apartheid is Have You Heard from Johannesburg, a truly monumental achievement produced in part for national PBS airing in 2012. Read about this documentary and you may also want to follow links in the story to PBS’s website, where you can find out more about the production.

SEAMUS HEANEY & “THE CURE AT TROY”

In remembrance of Mandela and celebration of his legacy, we are likely to hear lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem, The Cure at Troy, which was written at about the time Mandela was about to be released from prison. Here is our story, written when Heaney died, about his frequently quoted poem. If these lines intrigue you, then you’ll also want to look back to a poem written by noted peace activist Ken Sehested called The Deuteronomist, which echoes Heaney’s and Mandela’s spirits.

SOUTH AFRICAN CENTENNIAL & INTERFAITH CONNECTIONS

In 2010, Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column marked a centennial celebration in South Africa, including a number of key interfaith connections.

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Categories: PeacemakingUncategorized

Prayer from Abraham Lincoln for Thanksgiving

LINCOLN scholar Duncan Newcomer has contributed many of the fascinating materials indexed in our Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. Drawing on Lincoln’s own words, from various texts, Newcomer has assembled this special prayer, perfect for use at Thanksgiving—the national holiday our 16th president established. Of course, you are free to widely share this prayer. Click the blue-“f” Facebook button, or the envelope-shaped email icon, or print this page and pass it around.

Inside the Lincoln Memorial Washington DCPrayer from Lincoln
at Thanksgiving

So, we must think anew,
And act anew.
We must disenthrall ourselves.
We are not enemies,
But friends.
We must not be enemies.
We cannot separate.
There is no line, straight or crooked,
Upon which to divide.
We cannot escape history.
No personal significance, or insignificance,
Can spare one or another of us.

The mystic chords of memory
Will yet swell the chorus of union
To every living heart
And hearthstone,
And again touch
The better angels of our nature.

 

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Categories: Great With GroupsHolidays

Walt Whitman on the loss of Lincoln in the poem that became his most popular: ‘O Captain! My Captain!’

Walt Whitman by Matthew BradyO Captain! was Walt Whitman’s single most popular poem during his lifetime.

Wikipedia has a biography of Whitman, but the essential details are these: Whitman had family and friends in the front lines of the Civil War. He volunteered as an Army nurse and worked with the wounded and amputees. He also was a great admirer of President Lincoln. His harrowing experiences poured into his poetry. Before Whitman’s death in 1892, O Captain! My Captain! was the only one of his poems available in book-length poetry anthologies. So, Whitman’s far more complex and powerful When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was largely unknown until many years later.

In his biography, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, Jerome Loving describes the enduring popularity of Whitman’s poems about Lincoln’s death, writing: It was Whitman’s passion for the president as the redeemer of the Union and its democracy that makes the poetry so successful as a national eulogy, turning a monologue into a dialogue with the American reader. Also at work is Whitman’s mourning for Lincoln as the commander-in-chief of his beloved soldiers, who suffered and died as Lincoln now was. It was probably the poet’s intense involvement in the hospitals that made Lincoln’s death so monumental to him. … For him, Lincoln’s death symbolized the war’s most profound loss.

On the specific influences behind O Captain!—Justin Kaplan writes in, Walt Whitman: A Life, a biography that won the National Book Award: Among (the influences were) his early glimpsing of Lincoln as an archangel Captain and also the widely circulated newspaper report that the night before he was shot Lincoln dreamed about a ship entering harbor under full sail. “He had had that very dream before every great national success,” George Templeton Strong noted a week after the assassination, “and he was certain he should hear of some great piece of news within 48 hours. A poet could make something of that.” The poet also may have found some clues in Moby Dick, where Starbuck pleads with the doomed Ahab, “Oh, my Captain! My Captain! Noble soul! Grand old heart! … How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again.

Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer, for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, draws on Whitman’s O Captain! for a moving sample sermon he calls A Captain in the Storm.

Here is …

Walt Whitman’s
O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

O captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Care to read more Whitman?

We also have the complete text of Whitman’s longer poem on Lincoln’s death, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

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Categories: Peacemaking

Fran McKendree: How we are called to Awakening Soul

Fran McKendree photo used with Awakening SoulBy FRAN McKENDREE

“God, put me in the midst of what you are doing, run me over with your presence, and allow me to bless what you are doing.”

This prayer is one of the touchstones of my morning meditation, as I begin my waking time each day. Humbling, grounding and enlightening, a reminder that I have work to do, that I do not do this alone, that this work, when I get my “small self” out of the way and stay true, can lead to what Michael Meade calls “threads of meaning—hints of purpose.”

Each morning this is a threshold crossing—moving out into the world, carrying in my heart the desire to live into the fulfillment of my calling. Over time, I have come to learn that deep in my heart is a yearning to create space where, with others, we might be fully present to the wonder, mystery and unfolding of our journeys.

Music—singing, making music or connecting with the music that’s already there, as Victor Wooten would say—is one of the shorelines where my yearning finds a home. So, I am continually searching the horizon for opportunities to connect through soulful music. In 2011, with the wise counsel and support of my wife, Diana, and other trusted friends, I formed with my colleague Ann Holtz the partnership we’ve call “AwakeningSoul.”

Our hope and underlying purpose in this endeavor is to create and host gatherings that offer:

  • Sanctuary—respite, a safe harbor where we know our anchor will hold fast in the rising, ebbing tides;
  • Sustenance—a banquet of wisdom, truth-telling, mindfulness and new awareness;
  • Inspiration—knowing we are not alone on our journeys, emboldened, invigorated, grateful and encouraged as we head back into our worlds.

For our first gathering, “A New, Ancient Harmony,” in December of 2011, we invited as presenters my dear friend John Philip Newell and poet Judy Brown, someone new to my circle but whose work I greatly admired. I wanted very much to have an intergenerational music ensemble and was thrilled to include Lindsey Blount, Charles Milling and Duncan Wickel. Rounding out our group, in between these young adults and me came River Guerguerian, a world renowned percussionist and beautifully creative spirit.

Our “weaver”—skillfully and artistically shuttling the waft and warp of the community we were forming was my fellow sojourner Brian Prior, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Certified Spiritual Director Diana McKendree and Brian led workshops for us as well; Diana offering an exploration of dream work, Brian focusing on living into our gifts. Ann handled with deft skill all the details, “nuts and bolts,” and design challenges that came our way.

John Philip led us each morning in his gentle, soul-searching way toward a lasting connection with all that we hold deepest within our hearts. Judy brought her gift of word-shaping to help us all remember to hold space in the kindled fires of our lives where “the spirit, knowing just how it wants to burn, can find its way.”

Our participants gave us in return the raising of their beautiful voices in song, the gift of their lively, spirited and profound conversation, full of hope and excitement, and most graciously, their trust and gratitude. Our musical ensemble brought to life all that was dancing around in our hearts and guided us at other times on the pathway toward that rare and mysterious glade we call stillness.

RETURNING TO AWAKENING SOUL IN NOVEMBER 2013

This November we’ll host our second event, “Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.” We have invited Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright to be our presenters. Lauren is an author (Girl Meets God and Still), a professor at Duke School of Divinity and an Episcopal priest. Jerry is a Jungian analyst, pilgrimage leader and Presbyterian minister. We’ve asked them to join us, not because they have “the answers,” but because they speak with integrity, courage, wisdom, humor and vulnerability;

“The things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. Something has shifted; something has moved; you are looking for God and you are looking in ways that you hadn’t known to look before.”
Lauren Winner

“Each generation must embrace the image of the Divine which best expresses the experience of the Divine. A god image which is not continually dying [transforming] is not worthy of our worship, since god images which do not change become idols.”
Jerry Wright

Our music ensemble will return to lift us once again, and Brian, Diana, and our other gifted, tireless support team will be bringing all their energy. Our evenings this year will be devoted to exercises that will lead us into deep, meaningful conversation. Our intention is that we are preparing the shape—we know that this gathering will only emerge fully with the energy, creativity, soulfulness and generous spirit of those who join us…. a community of seekers.

Read the Spirit has been for me a wonderful café—bustling with incredibly passionate and articulate seekers, yet offering a quiet corner for savoring the moments of “ah ha-ness” that sparkle each day, like light dancing off a prism in a kitchen window on a sunny morning. The folks I have met through this online magazine, regulars and drop ins, have been inspirational. I hope and pray that our Awakening Soul gatherings shine from that same prism, and that our time together and the paths we travel will be enlivened and enriched by our shared love and desire to continue to seek those “threads of meaning and hints of purpose.”

READ MORE in our overview of the November 2013 Awakening Soul gathering, which includes links to learn about dates, location and registration.

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Categories: Peacemaking