Laurie Haller launches ‘Recess: Rediscovering Work and Play’

Launch of Recess by Laurie Haller in Birmingham Michigan

IN THE PHOTO: Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin reads from Laurie Haller’s ‘Recess’ at the launch event.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

One of the joys as Editor of ReadTheSpirit is helping our readers discover inspiring authors who are just launching their first books. As Editor, I’ve published nearly 400 in-depth interviews with authors since this online magazine was founded in 2007.

On Saturday, however, my role reversed and I appeared off-line as one of the “celebrity readers” at a spirited launch event for Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose, the newest book from Cass Community Publishing in the heart of Detroit. Our national headquarters are here in the metro-Detroit area, so I was able to join with other media professionals—in person for a change—as we all helped Laurie literally take the stage and figuratively step onto the national stage, as well.

Cass Publishing, which is headed by the entrepreneurial pastor Faith Fowler, has a mission to transform lives among Detroit’s most challenged families. Faith works with folks who have lost their jobs and, in many cases, their homes; folks who never learned to read properly and finally are retraining themselves as adults; folks who have a wide range of disabilities and find themselves marginalized.

The launch of Laurie’s Recess represents the second major Cass Publishing campaign—and any authors or media professionals reading this column today should beat a path to Faith Fowler’s door (or at least the Cass Community website) for a chance to learn from a master.

Faith turns book launches into big, splashy celebrations of diverse regional communities. She requires attendees to put money behind their interest—she sells tickets to her launch events. And, the crowds always seem to enjoy the show—as well as the feeling that they are becoming a part of a far larger and very hope-filled story. (Here is our report on Cass’s first major launch, headlined “We’ve never seen a book launch like this!”)

The event on Saturday actually was the second event in the current campaign to celebrate the release of Recess. With each new book, Faith organizes regional appearances for her authors and a January 17 event already had taken place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In advance of each event, Faith and her team reach out to media professionals in each city, inviting them to become a part of the program. TV, radio and print journalists are honored to be asked. They realize that a Cass launch event is, in effect, doing good for the world by raising awareness and funds to aid needy families.

Most importantly, these events are fun!

Attendees leave a Cass event wishing someone would provide a soundtrack recording they could play over and over again. Yes, the celebrity readers are terrific, but Faith always makes sure there’s a diverse showcase of local musical talent, as well. On Saturday, the musicians ranged from an a capella women’s quartet with a haunting version of a Dolly Parton song to a dozen women providing a meditative interlude on Tibetan “singing bowls,” and from rafter-rattling Gospel music to a stirring classical performance on pipe organ.

Why we need Recess …

Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal ProgramIf you are already are intrigued by this story, then you understand why we need a book like Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose. On many levels, this is a perfect book to match Cass’s blend of creativity and hard work in helping men and women improve their lives. This memoir by Laurie Haller tells the story of a crisis in her own personal and professional life some years ago, when she decided to take three months away from her work as a pastor to travel in the hopes of reclaiming her original vocational passion.

This was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program (which currently is welcoming a new round of applications, by the way).

Laurie Haller signs her book Recess at launch event

Laurie Haller signs books and greets her readers in a quiet alcove after the launch event.

On Saturday, the audience was reminded, again and again, of the widespread need for the insights in this book. Flipping opening the pages of Recess, readers found a personal note from former Michigan United Methodist Bishop Donald Ott, who writes: “Call it a book if you must, but for me Recess reads like a deeply revealing diary. Laurie Haller has a remarkable gift of linking everyday occurrences to her deep, yet always seemingly elusive desire to always, everywhere, and with everyone, live with and like Jesus.”

The emcee of the launch event—Alicia Smith, the 7 Action News This Morning anchor on one of Michigan’s major TV stations—talked about the widespread need for this kind of honest guide to renewal.

One of the readers finished an excerpt from the book in which Laurie describes her goal in her pilgrimage this way: “to listen to God, to discover who I am underneath all the crud and then become the person God wants me to be.”

As Smith returned to the stage as emcee, she talked to the crowd about the universal need to “discover who I am underneath all the crud.” Smith said, “Isn’t that something we all need to do sometimes?”

At another point, Smith asked men and women in the audience to raise hands if they have felt the kind of stress and burnout Laurie struggles with in this memoir. A forest of hands shot up.

“In this book,” Smith said, “you’ll find yourself taking this journey with Laurie.”

(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 InterviewsChurch Growth

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

Johann Christoph Arnold interview: Finding happiness in aging

Cover Johann Christoph Arnold Rich in YearsHIS WISDOM about family life and peacemaking has circled the globe; more than a million copies of his books have sold in dozens of languages. Now, the aging teacher and peace activist Johann Christoph Arnold turns to lessons about the spiritual treasures of—aging itself. In an inspiring and fun-to-read new book, Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life, the spiritual head of the Bruderhof community shares what he has learned from his own life—and the lives of many other people—about finding happiness in old age.

“Old age”—it’s a phrase avoided like the plague in most books about growing older, which are aimed mainly at avoiding or denying the aging process. But, Arnold always has been a radical teacher and, in Rich in Years, he explores the provocative idea that happiness can grow even as our bodies lose our youthful physical abilities. Talk about counter-cultural teaching!

Arnold was raised in a radical, courageous tradition. His grandparents—Eberhard Arnold and Emmy von Hollander Arnold—were deeply inspired by the Salvation Army movement in Germany in the early 20th Century. Later, they gathered with friends and launched a new kind of communal Christian community, based on Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Their Bruderhof (place of brothers) was founded in 1920 along with a famous magazine now called Plough. The Arnolds eventually learned of another communal Christian community with roots in the 1500s, the Hutterites, and Eberhard visited their communities in North America as he shaped the new Bruderhof.

The Bruderhof’s pacifism and defense of religious minorities in Germany, including the Jews, led to Nazi persecution. Eberhard Arnold died in 1935 after a procedure in a Nazi-run hospital and the entire movement fled outside of Germany, eventually resettling years later in the U.S. The official Bruderhof website describes the group’s history and its life, today, in more detail.

Arnold, now 73, has been an almost Zelig-like character—present at many milestones of peacemaking since the mid-20th century. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; he traveled occasionally with Pete Seeger; he has met and talked with world leaders in many settings, including at the Vatican.

Here are highlights of ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Johann Christoph Arnold …

HIGHLIGHTS OF
OUR INTERVIEW WITH
JOHANN CHRISTOPH ARNOLD

Photo of Johann Christoph Arnold © Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.

Photo of Johann Christoph Arnold © Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.

DAVID: Let’s start with a little bit about the Bruderhof today. I don’t see a membership total online. And what is your title with the group?

JOHANN: I am the senior pastor. The community I’m in is about 350 people. We have around 35 communities all over the world. We are about a total of 3,000 people.

DAVID: I also see various short “bios” of you online, but most aren’t up to date. What are the numbers now? Your age? Your number of grandchildren?

JOHANN: I’m 73. We have 43 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

DAVID: And, here’s one more question that’s so common that your website addresses it in a video: What’s the difference between your communities and the Amish?

JOHANN: There are a lot of similarities, but we really believe in going out to all people and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus—just like Jesus asked his disciples to go out into all the world. The Amish are more withdrawn.

DAVID: You’ve got YouTube videos featuring Bruderhof men and women talking, on screen, about the movement. That’s a big difference between you and the Amish.

JOHANN: We believe in using technology, providing it really serves God and his kingdom.

DAVID: You’re one of the most prolific authors in America. So, do you use an e-reader these days?

JOHANN: No, I do not read e-books. I like to have a real book in my hands. A real book is a thrill to hold! We have a huge library of books. We believe in libraries of real books and not in e-book libraries.

DAVID: I know that you are very proud of your history. Your newest book, which we are recommending today to readers, quotes your grandfather in a couple of sections. But I wonder: Today, in 21st-century America, what kind of connection do you feel to the founders of your movement so long ago and far away?

JOHANN: I would say there are many, many similarities. In my grandparents’ time they did speak out against Hitler and for the Jews and that took a tremendous amount of courage. The German people were gripped by fear—and there was a real threat of being sent to concentration camps. So, when people spoke out, as my grandfather did, this took real courage.

My family did have to flee Germany. We eventually had to go to Paraguay and then because of a dictatorship there, we came to America because we believed here in America we could practice our beliefs. And, to a large part, this was possible.

Sadly, American society today also is gripped by quite a bit of fear, since 9/11 in particular. Fear binds people. Fear shuts up people. We need courage today to lift up the true American spirit. … I see too many people who try to stand up for something today finding that they are marginalized. So, yes, what we are experiencing today in America has similarities to what my grandparents experienced.

DAVID: The Bruderhof is known as a “peace church” and you have been personally involved in peace and civil rights movements. You marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South. You’ve been involved in anti-war movements. Do you see yourself as an isolated voice coming from the Bruderhof? Or do you see yourself as part of a larger community of activists?

JOHANN: We are very much part of a much, much bigger picture. God is great. God constantly creates something new, something moving. We want to be involved wherever we can work with people, together, for a more positive society.

Pete Seeger was a friend of mine and one of the last things he did was to review my newest book, Rich in Years. I was with Pete Seeger at many rallies over the years, against the death penalty and on other peace issues. He was an incredible man! If anyone should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, it should have been Pete Seeger. He was a man of peace and I thank God that I knew him and worked with him.

(After his recent death, ReadTheSpirit published a tribute to Pete Seeger’s life.)

HAPPINESS IS:
‘Another day to love and to serve’

DAVID: Your way of talking about the peace movement—serving people wherever there is a need—touches on the central theme of your newest book, Rich in Years. That book is about what I would describe as “the gifts of aging.” The subtitle says it’s about: “Finding peace and purpose in a long life.” And the most important lesson you teach in this book is: As we age, our happiness depends on the service we provide to others.

Toward the end of this new book, you write about your relationship with your grandmother, later in her life. There’s even a lovely photo of her in the book, leaning down so a little girl can kiss her cheek. With the photo are Emmy’s words: “Each morning when I wake up I am happy because I have been given another day to love and to serve.” She was quite a model for you, wasn’t she?

JOHANN: My grandmother’s life was incredible. Here was a woman who was only married for 27 years and then lived as a widow for 46 years and she had a great dignity. People just loved and appreciated and flocked to her. She had an incredible long life and her memory was pretty much good until the very end. She died when she was 96.

I am thankful that we spent so many years with my grandmother. My grandfather died in a Nazi hospital. He had a leg fracture and then there was a surgery, and he never recovered from that. He died. It was never quite proven what happened, but I do know that the Nazis definitely had an eye on my grandfather. But my grandmother was able to flee and lived a very long life.

DAVID: Such a person, who survived Nazi threats and was essentially driven as a refugee around the world as a result, might have wound up quite bitter about life, quite fearful. But that was not the case with your grandmother.

JOHANN: She had very happy years right up to the end of her life.

DAVID: And, in your book, you point out why you think her life was so happy.

JOHANN: She was so happy because my grandmother believed in service; she believed in doing good deeds for anyone she encountered: a child, a grown up, a guest. She constantly was thinking of other people. In that way, she was an incredible inspiration to me and to many others. She left a legacy for younger people, today, that if you want your life to count for something, you will serve as a role model to others. Throughout her life, she was a role model to thousands.

DAVID: I have been reporting on religion and spirituality for nearly 40 years and in my library of books about the spiritual side of life, I can find very few that focus on the “gifts of aging.” Most books on aging are about how to avoid it or to deny it. The main example from this other point of view is Joan Chittister’s book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.

Why did you decide to write such an unusual book—about the gifts of aging?

JOHANN: My wife and I, whether we like it or not, are also becoming senior citizens so we thought it was time to explore this and to contact other senior citizens to see how they made out. I was richly rewarded in realizing that—these old timers who have been married for 40, 50 or 60 years—they were able to do this because they had a firm belief in God and believed in what I call the old values.

I did find another book about aging that I found very helpful: Billy Graham’s Nearing Home: Life, Faith and Finishing Well. I found that book incredible. It inspired me. I read it before I started writing this book and it was inspiring to me as I put my own book together.

DAVID: Your book radically challenges our assumptions as Americans about what aging should be like. There’s a popular TV advertisement, these days, in which the actor Tommy Lee Jones is selling a financial-planning service and asks viewers: “Can you keep your lifestyle in retirement?”

For most Americans, that involves a whole lot of consumption. We measure our success largely by how much we own and can afford to keep buying. Instead, your book argues that real success—real happiness in life—depends on how much service we provide to others.

JOHANN: Yes, David. And I include stories about people who have found this to be true. There’s a story in the book about Vincent and Jean DeLuca, an elderly couple I met when Vince was in his 60s. They ran a family business until they both were in their 80s. So here are two people, who left their business in their 80s—but they didn’t sit home. In the book, I write: “Now that they are no longer in business, they spend their days volunteering locally, mentoring younger volunteers and inspiring them to work hard in whatever vocation they might choose. As Vince and Jean get older and physically weaker, it seems they get spiritually stronger.” This is an incredible story.

DAVID: That’s really a central theme: even as they get physically weaker, they get spiritually stronger. You tell about lots of other people, in this book, but let’s bring this back to your own life. You’ve lived a life of service yourself.

JOHANN: When my wife and I married, we decided that our marriage would be one of service to other people, via counseling, teaching, working together with others and enjoying being with other people. We have now been married for 48 years and in many ways, life is getting lovelier each day. Life is not boring! Every day you find new outlets where you can share with someone a little bit of joy. Jesus said that if you simply give a stranger a cup of water, you will be rewarded in heaven and that is our hope. However long God has for us, we can make a slight difference in somebody’s life with each day we have.

WHY FORGIVE?
‘Forgiveness … frees us.’

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

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

DAVID: This is such a refreshing message in a world where people often talk about the rampant fear and anxiety in our lives. This leads me to the central theme of your other recent book, Why Forgive? Before people are able to free themselves up to embrace this life of service you describe, a lot of us have to get past these heavy weights we carry around of hurt and anger, right?

JOHANN: Yes. Fear and anxiety are so widespread today. But you know, Alan Paton, the famous South African writer said that if an injury has been done to you, no matter how heinous, there is only one way to recover and that is to forgive. That is the kind of message that I and others have been trying to get out to Americans, and trying to get into our schools. And, when I have been out speaking about this, I have seen a real hunger for forgiveness and for nonviolent forms of conflict resolution.

DAVID: A common misconception about forgiveness is that it’s the same thing as conflict resolution. But it’s not. In your writing—and in other classic writing on forgiveness—this process is really about us, as hurting individuals first. We forgive by giving up our lingering thirst for vengeance. We give up our hurt, to the extent that we can. And we do this, whether the offending party participates in reconciliation—or not.

When we publish this interview, we’re also going to publish a column by the writer Benjamin Pratt about forgiveness, which he describes as “Clearing Boulders.”

Forgiveness begins inside each of us. Am I saying that correctly?

JOHANN: If we don’t forgive, we die of a cancer of bitterness and the cancer of bitterness kills as thoroughly as any other threat to life. Bitterness can destroy the lives of the most beautiful people simply because they cannot forgive. When I am in front of groups at schools, I say, “When we forgive: Everybody is a winner. When we don’t forgive: Everybody is a loser.” This is simply the message of Jesus. In Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus says we should forgive 70 times 7 times.

DAVID: You’re talking about love replacing bitterness.

JOHANN: Wherever the love of Jesus overwhelms one person, the angels in heaven will rejoice and that is something to be thankful for.

If someone really does a grievous thing against me, then I have a choice of either being very hurt, very offended, wanting justice at all costs—or forgiveness. But first I have to realize that it is wrong for me to carry all of this bitterness around with me. We must realize: If I forgive my enemy, then I am not doing my enemy any favors. The one I do a favor to is myself.

If I don’t forgive, I am a bound person. I am consumed by the person who has hurt me. I am consumed night and day by him. If I forgive, I let go of all that. I do myself a favor by forgiving. That’s difficult to understand for many people.

DAVID: In Why Forgive? you pose the challenge this way: “Forgiveness is power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. Each of us holds the keys to forgiveness in our hands. It remains to us whether or not we choose to use them.”

WHERE IS HOPE?
‘Wherever people start working together’

DAVID: Are you an optimist about America and Americans these days? Or are you worried about our future?

JOHANN: That’s a beautiful question. I have always been an optimist all my life, even when things looked very very bad. Wherever there are people there is reason for optimism because God is at work in every human heart and can change it in an instant. Wherever people start working together, there is reason for optimism. One of the most optimistic guys I met was actually Pete Seeger. He was always was optimist and always saw hope and always was excited about something new. In the same way, I want to be excited about new things each day.

DAVID: You often speak to children and youth. What are you trying to teach them?

JOHANN: I have been in schools where there were thousands of students sitting in gymnasiums in bleachers and filling the floor and what thrills me in this sea of faces is seeing each child’s face. What we need to understand is that each one of these children is a unique story. We need to show interest in the stories of other people, of each person. When I talk to these groups, I say: “I am here because your story is important.” Then I point out to them role models they could look to: Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa. I tell the children: “You will become the world’s next leaders. It is important that you grow up to become the next role models.”

This all begins with thinking of other people, first. There is a reason and a purpose to life in this world—and the time we live in this world is so short, David, so short. Even if we live a long life—it is so short. We had better be active each day, doing something of service to others.

DAVID: I think we’ve come full circle, talking about your life and your work and your two most recent books. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

JOHANN: Tell your readers that they are in our prayers. For us, prayer is the strongest weapon that God gave us in our arsenal to use and it is the most underused weapon. With prayer we can change the world.

MORE ON THE BENEFIT OF SERVING OTHERS

Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is devoting a series of columns—in The OurValues Project, this week—to the value of helping others. In his first column, he reports on a five-year University of Michigan study that shows significant benefits in the lives of people who choose to help others.

MORE ON JOHANN CHRISTOPH ARNOLD
AND THE BRUDERHOF

Johann Christoph Arnold edited the volume in the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series that collects his grandfather’s most important writing. The book, Eberhard Arnold: Selected Writings, is available from Amazon.

You also can learn more about Rich in Years at The Plough website.

Johann Christoph Arnold’s colleagues report the following about the historic Plough magazine: “Plough Publishing House, founded in 1920, is an independent publisher of books on faith, society and the spiritual life. We’re based in Walden, New York, with branches in the United Kingdom and Australia. After 12 years online-only, Plough is re-launching in 2014 with a fresh team, enthusiastic backing, and a mission to contribute to the renewal of both church and culture. In addition to serving up views and insights online, we’ll launch the Plough Quarterly, a new magazine with in-depth essays, stories, poetry, and reviews. To be notified of developments, sign up for Plough’s weekly updates.” (See the lower-right corner of this Plough homepage.)

The Plough editors add: “Appearing in print and digital editions, Plough Quarterly aims—in conjunction with Plough’s books and online publishing—to build a network of readers and writers with a common vision. As an ecumenical magazine, it will regularly feature Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Quaker, and Jewish contributors, as well as occasional Muslim, Buddhist, humanist, and other voices who in fresh ways bring out aspects of Jesus’ message.”

(This interview was 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 InterviewsGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

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

Retreating (close to home!) by Cindy LaFerle

THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending books by poet and  journalist Judith Valente. (And, don’t miss Judith’s own column on 10 steps toward rediscovering peace.) However, when we read such stories, we might get the mistaken impression that retreats are only for well-to-do people who can travel great distances. So, we invited author and columnist Cindy LaFerle to share this chapter from her book Writing Home about a simpler solution she has found.

Retreating
(Close to Home)

By CINDY LaFERLE

Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Four times a year, I indulge in a ritual that puzzles my neighbors, not to mention my family.

It goes something like this: I rise at dawn on a weekday and load my car with two large tote bags—one crammed with books, the other with pajamas and a toothbrush. I back out of the driveway quickly and disappear for twenty-four hours. The next day, I come back looking as if I’d spent a full week at five-star spa.

My sacred escape, as I call it, is a mere twenty minutes from home, but seems a universe away.

“So, did you have fun at the monastery?” my husband teases when I return.

My hideaway isn’t exactly a monastery—but it’s the next best thing. Secluded on a wooded estate in Bloomfield Hills, Manresa Jesuit Retreat House remains one of the best-kept secrets in my part of Michigan. It’s where I go when my shoulders lock up and I can’t quite silence the white noise buzzing in my head. It’s where I turn when I feel unappreciated, uninspired, overtaxed and overwhelmed.

No, Manresa doesn’t offer facials, glycol peels, pedicures or therapeutic massages. And while the historic Tudor-revival mansion graciously opens its meeting facilities to business functions and networking events, it remains, at its heart, a place for the spirit. Religious artwork and gilded icons decorate the hallways, while Stations of the Cross and Catholic statuary anchor its manicured acres of tranquil garden paths.

And nobody goes home hungry. On a recent overnight retreat, three church friends and I enjoyed heaping portions of “Jesuit cuisine”–a divine menu of real comfort food, including roast chicken, green beans, and divine, buttery mashed potatoes. And, as we quickly discovered on a midnight kitchen raid, there’s always a plate of homemade cookies left for snacking.

After dinner, my friends and I usually set aside time alone for reading and reflection. While I also read inspirational literature at home, I enjoy this genre most in the sanctuary of my private room at Manresa. (The paneled library downstairs, in fact, is where I first discovered the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen.)

Spending just a few hours this way, I feel as if my frazzled parts had been gently polished and refastened.

I highly recommend retreating to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Women, especially, need to give ourselves permission to step aside for a breather, even if our loved ones think we’re being unsociable, or, heaven forbid, neglectful. Our devotion to family and career seldom allows time to quench the soul, and few of us have a quiet place where we can pause to refuel.

Unlike health spas, where the lodgings are typically deluxe, religious retreat houses offer minimal amenities. Expect no television and very few distractions. Manresa, for example, enforces periods of silence that must be respected by all guests.

A spiritual retreat can be held in any secluded location, but be sure to plan well in advance. Leave secular worries behind and cell phones turned off. And if you’re not attending a guided retreat, prepare your own list of spiritual activities–group discussions, personal journaling, meditation, or prayer focus.

Wherever you retreat, your aim should be to return to your daily responsibilities with fresh perspective and a renewed spirit to share with others.

Care to read more?

Look around your region of the U.S. for retreat centers that are open to the public at a reasonable cost. Because retreat centers vary so widely, you might try asking a pastor, rabbi or imam in your area about sites they may recommend. If you ask friends from a similar religious background for suggestions, you’re more likely to feel comfortable when you arrive.

This column was reprinted with Cindy’s permission from her book Writing Home, which ReadTheSpirit also highly recommends. You’ll also enjoy her regular columns at www.LaFerle.com.

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Categories: Great With GroupsNatural World

President Barack Obama honors Nelson Mandela’s courage

U.S. Senator Barack Obama meets for the first time with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, on May 17, 2005, at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Photo by David Lee Katz, released for public use.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama meets for the first time with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, on May 17, 2005, at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Photo by David Lee Katz, released for public use.

U.S. President Barack Obama honored Nelson Mandela, upon news of his death, with this statement that was carried by news media around the world:

At his trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela closed his statement from the dock saying, ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

(Read an excerpt of Mandela’s original address in a second ReadTheSpirit post.)

And Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man.

Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us—he belongs to the ages.

Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa—and moved all of us.

His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings – and countries – can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humour, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable.

As he once said, ‘I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears.

And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.

To Graca Machel and to his family, Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathy and gratitude for sharing this extraordinary man with us. His life’s work meant long days away from those who loved him the most. And I only hope that the time spent with him these last few weeks brought peace and comfort to his family. To the people of South Africa, we draw strength from the example of renewal and reconciliation and resilience that you made real.

A free South Africa at peace with itself—that’s an example to the world. And that’s Madiba’s legacy to the nation he loved.

We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.

For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived—a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice. May God Bless his memory and keep him in peace.

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Categories: Peacemaking