Friday, March 25, 2011


It is difficult to get up during a blizzard at the end of March and go to work. This is true. My workplace, where most of the people (nuns) live right where they work, does not have snow days. So on Wednesday morning, Steve drove me the mile to work in the 4WD Subaru, and it was fine.

We all feel quite put upon, and the people in Chicago and Pennsylvania who woke up to an inch of slushy snow have nothing on us. We got about seven inches, and with the temperatures staying below freezing (well below at night, in the single digits), it's not going to suddenly disappear. The broadcasters, who were in full "flood watch" mode, are still putting out reports, but the crests are delayed now, and in a way, this might slow down the flooding or make it less severe--or more, depending on who you listen to.

One thing I like about a late snow like this is that the birds have returned. I feel for them, but figure they must have enough resources to get through a slight setback like this. I mean, spring IS coming. It's a geological certainty. 

In the meantime, we get to listen to the birds in this still-white, silent world. We can see the sand hill cranes, which returned last week, in stark contrast to the frozen wetlands. And in the morning when I look out the window, I see all the tracks of little creatures making their way down our prairie paths.

There will be no more cross-country skiing for us, so the birds and small animals and deer get the landscape, and they seem to follow the trails we made. It gets the imagination working.

Here is a poem I wrote about 5 years ago, when my apartment looked out on a small lake. It is about cross-country skiing, and it's true that when I'm skiing I still am always looking for signs of animals or hidden animals.  It was written earlier in winter, but the tracks made me think of it today.

Why I Cross-Country Ski

I am out here for the two deer
who hide behind the smallest scrap of yellow:
the mother stands and watches me,
from this distance so like a dog
until she prances, and even then--
until her child bounds toward her,
hooves to haunches with his quick heart.

Last week on an inch of powder
I saw their sweet tracks circling
objects poking through the lake,
their tiny regular footfalls meandering.
I know somewhere they lie down
and the snow hollows a bed beneath them.
I think they are not bothered by cold.
It may be they like this season best of all.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Centering Prayer

Yesterday I attended an all-day workshop at Saint Benedict's Monastery's Spirituality Center on centering prayer with Sister Katherine Howard. It is something I've been wanting to do for a while, and because it is Lent, it seemed like a good time to begin this kind of prayer practice.

Centering Prayer is a type of contemplative prayer. It is "apophatic" which means prayer without images. The idea is to simply be in the presence of God, to rest in God's love and experience it, to get beneath the river of ordinary consciousness and allow thoughts and feelings to flow by on the surface while you are deeper, at the center of your being, a place that is occupied by love.

The method is simple. Sit in a chair or on a cushion in a relaxed pose and close your eyes for 20 or 30 minutes. Introduce yourself to the process with a brief prayer-- I have just been affirming my belief that God is present to me and that at my center is God's love, and announcing more or less "here I am" to turn from the cares of the day and be present. The practitioner of centering prayer also takes a word with him/her into the prayer, a word that doesn't necessarily matter in terms of its meaning-- it is not a word to be meditated on or contemplated. The word is "the symbol of our intention to consent to God's loving presence and action within us. The word serves primarily to indicate our consent and at the same time it is a way of letting go 'thoughts' we may have become engaged in."

The word I'm using is "ruah," a Hebrew word for spirit or breath, associated for me with the Creation in Genesis and the breath/spirit of God breathed into humans to animate them. It is the only "object" I have with me behind my eyelids, and I carry it to the back of the space and set it down, turning to gaze inward. As thoughts and feelings and physical sensations come, I let them go. It helps that it is not an English word, or a word I use often. I don't get attached to it.

The point is not to banish thought or have no thoughts-- thoughts are part of being. The point is to detach from them, let them flow at a different level. When I alight on a thought or find myself associating to further thoughts, I turn back to my word, acknowledge it and place it again at the back of the space (it is like a movement in Tai Chi for me right now, like lifting and sweeping, intentionally directing my consciousness), and turn again to the meditation space.

I've often thought this kind of prayer could be good for me, but I've also known it would be challenging. I like insight and thinking and I like words and metaphors. But I also know that I have had exactly two very deep religious prayer experiences, one in high school and one in college. And in both, I entered the prayer completely burdened, overwrought, and with deep longing. And in both-- in very different ways-- the experience that transformed me can only be described as an experience of God's love both in me and perceived in others. In one, an actual deep prayer experience, where an hour seemed only a minute, I was in fact in a cavernous space, a wide and dark space where I actually experienced the sensation of resting in God's love and being actively consoled. The second crept up on me gradually and was unexpected when it arrived-- a joy that lasted for nearly two weeks  -- an answer to months of daily prayer on my knees asking God to help me understand/experience "the joy of the Lord."

My experience, of life and of religion, is often one of stress and burden. I have an over-developed sense of responsibility, and a fear of failure and, worse, being scolded. I don't take criticism very well either! The stakes are always getting raised, although of course it is only I who am doing the raising. And I never detach. I am not even sure I know what that means. I excel and then I crash and take some time off and return, refreshed if not renewed, for another round. I don't think life needs to be experienced that way.

I hope I will have the discipline for this. I know I can only benefit from practicing 20 minutes of letting thoughts glide through my consciousness and letting them go, as I seek to more deeply experience God's love.

For more on Centering Prayer, click here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Seed Planting

Today is the day to start my seeds. It is 10 degrees and the wind is howling, but spring is predicted to begin with temps in the 50s by mid-week. I imagine in the time before climatologists, people just had to go by the Almanac or habit, ignoring the weather outside and believing spring would come soon.

I've never had much luck starting tomatoes inside, but this year my friend Connie is starting my tomatoes and I'm starting her peppers. I've been reading my seed packets carefully to see what can be planted "as soon as the soil can be worked." I did buy some plastic tarp tunnels to use for early warming of seedlings when I put them outdoors, mostly hoping to protect some from the winds we get out here.

Yesterday, Steve and I took his daughter to the airport for her spring break and then we went to IKEA for a light fixture for the kitchen (which is almost, nearly, not-quite completed) and dinner at the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe. I had black barley risotto with roasted winter vegetables that was wonderful-- exactly the kind of food I want to make from my harvest. We drove back first through rain, then driving snow. We both agreed it was the absolute ugliest time of year-- what snow remained was black with soot and mud, and all that was exposed was dead, dirt patches. You don't notice the fields and woods and prairie and lake; you just feel "highway." Going at 50 miles per hour, you realize how far from even the outer edge of the Twin Cities we are.

It's been a long time since my last entry, and I'm conscious of that. Everything this time of year feels worn and old and we're all just waiting for spring. We're still watching movies at night, but it feels like that's all we do, and so not worth commentary. We don't have much to say to each other, and it feels like the world is just cold and waiting for something.

Ash Wednesday, very late this year, on March 9, was one sign of promise. We now enter The Church's springtime. And as we enter, it's a season of hard boiled eggs and tuna melts, of austerity and focus on God. Next weekend I'm taking an introductory workshop in Centering Prayer, something that has long interested me. I've always enjoyed contemplative prayer, and would like to develop this practice, possibly attending weekend retreats in the future.

Entering spring, at least this far north, is a matter of small acts: putting seeds in little plastic cups with some water and peat, and looking forward.