It’s not just a cliche. Images are powerful. They conjure up feelings, memories, ideas. They tell stories. They stand for something.
A brandmark or logo expresses the identity of a business that is easily recognized without using words. Businesses spend a ton of money developing their brand identity, not that we need the business world’s affirmation of the power of images. We already know it. We know it in our soul.
The inspiration for my 2020 Word(s) of the Year came from the Sprigs of Rosemary Advent retreat that I recently led. The retreat was centered around the theme of sanctuary, inspired by the lyrics of Sanctuary written by Carrie Newcomer.
There were several questions participants were asked to consider as a guide for them during the retreat. “What do I need sanctuary from?” touched my heart.
I shared that I need sanctuary from the endless flood of thoughts that preoccupy my mind; thoughts that hold me back and keep me from being truly free. I need sanctuary from the constant rerun of conversations and/or situations that have led to hurt feelings and a sense of rejection. I need sanctuary from the relentless inner conversations that distract me from living fully and hold me a prisoner in the role of victim.
When I have strong feelings or attachments, compulsive mental role-playing commences. I replay conversations—what was said, what I could have or should have said, what he/she meant, and on and on. Once I can slow down my thoughts, create some space, and breathe, I can hear more clearly what God intends for me to know.
Being clear about what I need to detach from—my thoughts—was the creative fuel I needed to intuitively make my first card named “Sanctuary.”
“Our logical thinking mind cannot leap out of the loop, but our intuitive mind can step back and watch….the logical mind usually misses the symbolic voice heard by the intuitive senses.” Discernment Matters, Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
A culminating activity of the retreat was a SoulCollage® reading. Reflecting on, praying with, or “reading” your cards is a process that never fails—if you have questions, God provides answers that are tailor-made using the images that have spoken uniquely to you. We begin by selecting one card we made during the retreat and randomly selecting two other Soulcollage® cards from our personal collection, cards made months or years earlier, taking turns with questions and reflections.
“And if God sees fit to hold me
Anyone that’s ever known me
Know I’d walk the gold streets only
In a pair of red shoes.”
My friend, Colleen, loved red shoes. But I didn’t know this about her until her Aunt Bea shared a story at her funeral.
What a silly thing to say at a funeral, but for “some reason” I told Bea that I loved the beautiful red shoes she had on. Sometimes things fly out of my mouth without any consideration to how they might sound—and today was no exception. But, of course, there was a reason.
Aunt Bea immediately connected the shoes to Colleen. Just a few months earlier, Colleen had borrowed those red shoes on an evening when she and her sisters were going out dancing, something they loved to do together. Aunt Bea commented how much Colleen loved to dance; telling us that Colleen believed when you dance you have to wear high-heeled shoes. It was a nice story of when Colleen was joyful and doing what she loved most—dancing. There is comfort in storytelling and remembering.
There was lots of storytelling that day. I had only known Colleen a few years, so it was wonderful to hear about the growing-up Colleen. One of Colleen’s former high school classmates shared how Colleen always did the craziest things—that she loved to wear wild hats and she insisted on wearing red shoes with her First Communion dress when she was just a young child. Seriously, red shoes?!!
This seemed no coincidence to me that I heard two stories from two different people about Colleen loving red shoes. Of course, my first thought was of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and how it was her red shoes that got her home. This became a wonderful image for me to remember Colleen by—she was at home now, dancing with joy in her red shoes! It was a special treat, sometime later that our friend, Joyce, and I saw that First Communion photo at her parent’s home—rows of little girls in white dresses and white shoes, and Colleen in red. I love so much that her mother, Charlotte, let her wear those red shoes.
The red shoes stories are little miracles to me—touch points for remembering Colleen.
Knowing Colleen felt like a miracle from the moment we met (at a silent meditation retreat…but, oh my, could we talk up a storm!) but these divine coincidences continue to happen even 14 years after her passing. They come in dreams or conversations, images or stories—Colleen is ever-present.
Every year on Colleen’s birthday, I share some of that story in a blog post. My mind, heart, and spirit are especially with Colleen this day, remembering. I get a message from Jeff, her husband, who shares one of the last photos of her when her hair was long. He remembers too. There are happy and sad tears, as music from the Grammy Awards plays in the background. And then…
This song came on.
Red Shoes by Dolly Parton
“I remember as a child / I was absolutely wild / ‘Bout some red shoes that my aunt Lucy wore / She would let me stomp around / In those high heels up and down / ‘Round the house and ’round the wraparound porch
And from that moment on / I’ve had a pair of my own / They make me feel at home and brand new / They build my confidence / As if they’ve been heaven sent / I feel alone, I’m puttin’ on my red shoes
I begged mama, “Pretty please / From the wishbook order me / A pair of red shoes for my feet”, so mama did / Through the years I’ve thought about / Aunt Lucy’s love and think of how / Such little things in life can make or break a kid
I believe that every child
Needs to feel a sense of pride
And someone to love and guide and see them through
So many miles I’ve traveled
Many times they’ve come unraveled
On the road both smooth or gravel
But I’ve made it through, ooh
Hell and half of Georgia / Or walkin’ through New Orleans Walk the streets of Memphis bowlin’ / Stroll around a block or two And if God sees fit to hold me / Anyone that’s ever known me Know I’d walk the gold streets only / In a pair of red shoes
And if I ever get to heaven And Lord I hope I do I will walk the streets of glory I will tell my Lucy story And walk with her in red shoes
Colleen continues to bring her light in the world through little miracles….and how can I not believe that she is dancing for joy on streets of gold in her red shoes!
The most used words in marketing campaigns and on product packaging are new and improved. This expression taps into our deepest desires to improve our lives and our circumstances. Marketers know this—that most of us want better and that we want to BE better, to be more of this or less of that—and so come the advertisements for weight loss, exercise facilities, home improvement, travel and more. Of course, the superficial and material never satisfy and leave us still wanting more, or less.
The essence of making New Year’s resolutions—everything from setting financial, career and relationship goals to considering new ways of being and doing—is that we desperately seek the chance to “do over.” It might sound elementary, and even impossible, but we long for it anyway.
Celebrating the beginning of a new year is a reminder of our opportunity to “always begin again”—the embodiment of Being Benedictine. It’s not as simple as a “do over” but January 1, merely just one day that follows December 31, gives us a definitive time and space to honor our deepest longing to begin again.
I’ve long since quit making resolutions. Well, not really—I make them and break them so quickly and consistently, that I’ve chosen to look at them more gently, as beginning again. Each year I select a word that will help guide me in the New Year.
I share my last three years of words that have served me far beyond the year they were chosen for—mercy, gentle and cushion. The intention of these simple words has seeped into my spirit in a way that makes me new and improved in the deepest sense.
What powerful images Pope Francis brought to this word when he declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 and captured in a SoulCollage® card that I made to remember that year. We are received just as the Prodigal Son was received, with open and forgiving arms. The image of the Prodigal Son conveys all of the qualities of mercy that we hope to receive and strive to give: compassion, tenderness, love, and acceptance. In our thoughts, words, and actions, towards ourselves and others, we have a new day to try again to give and receive the mercy that God has given us. We are not perfect; we need to forgive ourselves and others again and again, but the doors are always open for us to begin again in light of Christ. Read more at Always, We Begin Again.
There is an endless list of shoulds, musts, shouldn’ts, can’ts, more of this or less of that, that could be the foundation of a New Year’s resolution. But for 2017, I resolved not to resolve anything but to be excessively gentle with myself instead.Resolve, itself, is such a dogged, unwavering word, so I called this “being gentle” my un-resolution. In a series of SoulCollage® reflections, I asked myself—How can I learn to be more gentle with myself and others? This process was so revealing and healing. I learned through images that I don’t have to “wear” everything I’m given. Perhaps the old and worn, even the cherished, can be hung up for a while; not discarded, but set aside. One cannot keep wearing what is from the past; sometimes we just need to hang it up, to let it rest. Our shadow side can be carried in the heart as shame unless we practice being excessively gentle. Read more at Be Excessively Gentle: A New Year’s Un-Resolution.
Perhaps, a funny word next to the more sober “mercy”, but I chose the word cushion for 2018 to represent balance, an invaluable tool of Benedictine spirituality. When seeking a balance between the seemingly opposite speaking and silence, being together and alone, between activity and rest, prayer and work, I consider how to create a cushion. The connection between these two good options is the word “and”, not “or”. We need both. We need balance, yes, but we can give ourselves a cushion, the opportunity to rest knowing that perfection is not expected. We listen. We act. We pray. We readjust. “This is how a Benedictine’s day is. It is always changing, alternating—praying, working, resting. This is captured in the Benedictine motto, pray and work…The most important word is ‘and’.” –Fr. Mauritius WildeRead more at 2018 Word of the Year…drumroll, please.
There is nothing magical about these words and there is no guarantee that one or any other will be the secret to creating a new and improved you, but I have found this process of choosing a word to be integral to my journey of seeking God, peace, and joy in a world of uncertainty.
May your New Year bring you the mercy, cushion and excessive gentleness that you need. As you journey through the joys and inevitable sorrows of the next year may you find meaning in the words of John O’Donohue— “At first your thinking will darken / And sadness take over like listless weather. The flow of unwept tears will frighten you. / You have traveled too fast over false ground; Now your soul has come to take you back…Draw alongside the silence of stone until its calmness can claim you. Be excessively gentle with yourself.” –an excerpt from “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted”
What word resonates with you? Will you pick a word for 2019? Consider creating an image that captures the essence of your word. Please share your word or image in comments!
For 2019, I have selected not just one word, but a phrase instead. “You are free” is a phrase given to me that I’ve been meditating on and practicing with for several months. It has seeped into my being and doing just like my other words. I’ve created a collage that captures what freedom might feel like. I will share more soon!
Profoundly impacted by the lyrics and vocals of “Benediction of the Trees”, written and performed by Derek Dibbern, I share his music and also images of trees I’ve taken through the years in different seasons and from various states and countries.
Derek and I met at St. Benedict Center several years ago and our paths continue to cross–we’ve been in the same space for Zen meditation, Catholic Mass, my school classroom, as well as local bars and coffee shops where he has performed. Deeply spiritual and always seeking, Derek is a student of inspirational and recreational tree climbing at Tree Climbing Planet in Oregon. He dedicates the song to his teacher, Tim Kovar, and “the many woodland creatures that have held us aloft in our arboreal adventures.”
This song is a prayer. It is recognition that Nature blesses us with trees for our healing, enjoyment, leisure, and protection. Our very breath is dependent on the Benediction of the Trees.
Benediction of the Trees
From the Heart to the Heavens
Rooted in the Earth
Branching out above us
Healing what was hurt
Reaching down to lift us
Swing us in the breeze
the air we breathe She gives us
Benediction of the Trees
Home before our houses
Cornered us inside
Gentle arms around us
Above the rising tide
Can you hear them calling?
Like music in a dream
The leaves are always falling
A Benediction from the Trees
A shout becomes a whisper
A Sermon into Song
It’s useless to resist her
She’s where we all belong
In our Sanctuary Forest
Beneath the Pleiades
Cicadas in the chorus
Benediction to the Trees
As the moon reflects the sunlight
From a million miles away
I’ll try to get the words right
So you can hear her say
In a melody familiar
That brings us to our knees
In Liturgy peculiar
Benediction to the Trees
I don’t know Kate Spade. I don’t own any of her purses or other products. I’m not fashion-conscious by any stretch of the imagination—my daughter/personal shopper will vouch for that. But the news that Kate Spade—a beautiful, wealthy, creative woman—has ended her life has me in tears.
There are many unanswered questions for those left behind when someone takes their own life. I wonder about this woman I do not know. Were there demons in her head that told her she wasn’t enough, that there was no hope for healing her pain, that she was a burden to those who love her? I wonder about her husband, her child and her close friends. I wonder if she reached out for help. I wonder why her love for her daughter seems not to have been enough to override her feelings of despair. So many questions…
I immediately reached out to my own daughter—“If you ever ever ever feel that kind of depression or desperation, please please please reach out…It is never true—that evil voice in our head that says life isn’t worth it or that pain cannot be overcome. If there is a devil, that is it, that voice. It is a liar.” I thought of a former student who loved Kate Spade and her products—I sent her a message too. “This is shocking news but a testament that no one is immune.”
So often we think that the rich and famous, or educated, funny, spiritual (or any of the qualities we covet), do not struggle with depression and despair. But they are human, too. Even Kate Spade, who chose to end her life, must have felt she had no choice. There is a mystery to suicide. There is much we do not know or understand, but we should not blame those involved and/or think that it happens only to others.
We are all vulnerable. I lost a friend to suicide over a decade ago—and it still makes me sad and angry. I have also had bouts of depression, despair and the occasional voice of the devil that rears its ugly head in my thoughts. We are all vulnerable to becoming a victim of suicide—either one who is left behind, as one who struggles with despairing thoughts or the one who completes this final act.
In the weeks before my dear friend, Colleen, decided to take her own life, she suffered from immense physical, spiritual, psychological and emotional pain. No one can feel the pain of another or take it away but, still, I hope she received some comfort that she was met in her pain through conversations with and prayers from her loved ones.
I used to think this was enough—to be available and compassionate, to pray and forgive. But I think there is one more vital thing we can do for ourselves and others—tell them NOT to leave, beg them NOT to listen to the voice of the devil, the liar in their head.
And as you encounter someone who seems at risk of suicide, consider the advice from St. Benedict, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” and treat each person as if they were Christ himself, particularly yourself. You are the Christ-bearer and worthy of patient waiting for the dark night of the soul to pass. For an excellent article and insight from a Catholic perspective, read A Catholic Approach to the Suicide Epidemic.
“…the doors to the world of Wild Woman are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life a full life, a sane life, that is a door.” –Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
I am one who is Witness to self.
I am one who stands tall
Upright, resilient, longsuffering
Despite winds of change.
I am one who, with the pace of a praying monk,
Glides gently through breeze and shadow, clouds and sea.
Dear Super Blue Full Moon behind the clouds, I know you are there even when I can’t see you, just like my loved ones who have passed on.
On this night of the Super Blue Full Moon (that I am sure is happening behind the clouds), I am reminded of a very special Full Moon experience eight years ago (thanks to Facebook memories…how else would I remember?)
Eight years ago tonight, a six-year vision came full circle when my friend, Joyce, and I facilitated a retreat for some special friends. It was a dream we had from the beginning. We wanted to create a safe place for women to share their spiritual journey—we called it our Circle. We wanted to reach out to other women, to share our passion for seeking God and experiencing the Divine in our everyday life.
It didn’t happen quite the way we expected. Our friend, Colleen, was a part of our journey as well. But Colleen had some demons that we were unaware of. When she took her life, we wondered—what kind of spiritual support group are we? How could this happen? How could our spiritual, compassionate, beautiful friend not want to continue this journey?
This, too, was part of our spiritual journey—the grief, questions, doubt, hurt, anger. But we shared it all together. When we came out the other end of healing (if that is really even possible), we knew we needed to have the retreat that we had all envisioned.
After several years, we did. I am grateful for the women who joined us on the journey— on that first retreat and also as part of our Circle that still meets monthly.
I’ve continued to lead retreats using the name SoulFully You. It’s been such a gift to introduce others to the many ways to pray, especially using creativity and the power of images through the SoulCollage® process.
“When we embrace our creative spirits and learn to express ourselves creatively, we feel inspired and alive. Creative and passionate expression is essential to the feminine soul. Sometimes our creative fires get turned down, burn a little low, and even smolder, but the sparks can be rekindled and ignited.”— Moon Mother, Moon Daughter Janet Lucy and Terri Allison
I thank God for the sparks in my life, my Circle, my friends. My eternal gratitude belongs to Colleen, whose idea it was in the first place to start a Circle. Her spirit lives on. We are a Circle that has no end.
“Friendship is the linking of spirits. It is a spiritual act, not a social one. It is the finding of the remainder of the self. It is knowing a person before you even meet them. I am not so sure, then, that we so much find a friend as it is that friendship, the deathless search of the soul for itself, finds us.” The Friendship of Women, Joan Chittister
Dear Super Blue Full Moon behind the clouds, I know you are there even when I can’t see you, just like my loved ones who have passed on.
There are layers of history in Rome—“layers like lasagna”—one tour guide suggested. Literally, layers were built on top of layers, buildings that had been destroyed by war and natural disaster were covered with dirt and new buildings were erected over ruins. Symbolically, many Christian churches were built over ancient pagan sites.
The architecture, art, and religious history communicate something spiritual, a deeper story with layers of meaning, like lasagna. I’ll share some of my favorite places, and the journey, from my trip to Rome to attend the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates:
St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour
On my first morning in Rome, I had scheduled a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour of the necropolis beneath, including St. Peter’s tomb. My plan was to have a taxi drop me off where I needed to be to start the tour for a stress-free morning, no need for coat and umbrella, and no need to hurry. Where I thought I could find a taxi, there were none; where a distracted police officer pointed, there were none. A little nervous, I decided I should just start walking in the general direction of the Vatican or I may not get there in time. Surely, I would see the large dome and signs along the way. There were none.
I remember that the Vatican was just to the left of the Tiber River as it changes directions. With this vague idea, I set off on a lovely tree-lined path along the Tiber River. The views were beautiful—this will be just fine, I say to myself, I have plenty of time.Getting a little chilly, but I’ll be there soon. The online map said a 45-minute walk. Oops, a few sprinkles, a few more. Darn it, why didn’t I bring the umbrella I had packed?
I reach the point where the Vatican should be but I see no less than six different options to take; I see no dome and no signs. In panic mode now, with it getting colder and sprinkling more, I ask a woman, “Where is the Vatican?” Mind you, I had asked one young couple who responded, “In hurry, no time” and another woman who circled herself saying, “hmmm” whom I decided not to trust for accurate directions, but this woman—she is my angel. “No English. I take you,” she said. Oh, thank God.
She takes me a few blocks to the intersection where I finally see St. Peter’s Basilica (and its dome. Who knew the Vatican was surrounded by other tall buildings? Not what I had pictured.) I have finally arrived, yet I still need to walk several blocks in light rainfall, so I duck into a little storefront outside of St. Peter’s Square and buy an umbrella. Better safe, than sorry, I think.
Thirty seconds later, new umbrella overhead, I experienced the hardest rainfall I’ve ever walked in (outside of the time I got lost in Munich, Germany …. hmmm, seems to be an international pattern). I arrive at the gate of the Swiss Guard in plenty of time to stand in the cold and rain for at least 30 more minutes before the tour began. Still, I am grateful I walked. I learned, and saw, much more than I would have had I been delivered directly to St. Peter’s Square. There are layers of meaning when you surrender to the journey.
The tour was quite amazing, but I was most struck by the case the guide built throughout the tour that the Basilica was indeed constructed over St. Peter’s tomb. The area beneath St. Peter’s Basilica was only discovered in the 1940s and during excavation, archaeologists found a 4th-century burial ground and a grave marked with ancient lettering translated, “Peter is here”. I was so touched by the reverence our guide showed letting each individual participant have a few moments to privately view the site. It was a moment for the heart to remember only; no photos were permitted on the tour. Nearby the guide pointed out an elaborate grate in the ceiling—directly above, one could hear the prayers and responses of a Mass in progress in the Basilica. For centuries, what laid below was hidden. This faith, built on a grave, has layers of meaning, like lasagna.
I had plenty of time to explore the Basilica and its side chapels in quiet solitude when I went on my own, but on the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates group tour we learned some of the symbolism behind the artwork, altars, and relics from a guide. I learned the bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys of heaven was a pilgrimage itself—for centuries pilgrims touched or kissed his right foot, literally wearing it thin, to receive a blessing from the Church’s first Pope, hoping the gates of heaven would be opened for them. This Catholic faith holds so many beautiful rituals with layers of meaning. Layers, like lasagna.
Aventine Hill, One of the Seven Hills of Rome
Before going to the conference center, I stayed two nights at a monastery at the bottom of Aventine Hill, chosen to be near Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, the monastery of Fr. Mauritius Wilde. Located in a surprisingly residential area near the Coliseum, I favored the solitude and quiet of the crooked, narrow street lined with gardens, parks and ancient churches to the bustle and crowds of St. Peter’s Basilica.
On the leisurely journey up the hill to visit Fr. Mauritius, I visited the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the oldest Roman Basilica built between 422 and 432, where Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the Pope begins the celebration at Sant’ Anselmo’s, walking on foot from one basilica to another, to celebrate the beginning of Lent. Further up the hill, I visited Santi Bonifacio and Santa Prisca, as well as a park that overlooked the center of Rome, and the famous Knights of Malta Keyhole that outlines a view of St. Peter’s perfectly.
It was a delight to see Fr. Mauritius, who moved to Rome after serving as Prior for six years at Schuyler’s Christ the King Priory. After a behind-the-scenes tour of the academic center, monastery, chapel and grounds, we enjoyed conversation on the patio. I had kept in touch with Fr. Mauritius since his move the year before, but this revealed another layer, like lasagna. There is a contentment knowing just where my friend’s home is, to know where he works and prays.
St. Benedict’s cell at San Benedetto and Montecassino Abbey
Both destinations were a highlight of sacred sites visited—first, the cell of St. Benedict while he studied in Rome (about the year 500) before founding his first monastery in Subiaco. The cell, or small room, has been preserved; a small chapel adjacent, San Benedetto in Piscinula, dates back to the 12th century. I loved, LOVED, loved this special place. I could have stayed there for hours. To know that St. Benedict listened “with the ear of his heart” in this very place, rejecting the political corruption of Rome and what was expected of him, to pursue the call he knew was from God—well, for a Benedictine Oblate, this is a moment. Had I not been in a group with a full sight-seeing schedule, I would have likely spent a half-day in contemplation at this chapel.
After a beautiful drive in the countryside east of Rome, we arrived at the Abbey of Montecassino where St. Benedict wrote his Rule. We were welcomed, after a foggy drive up the mountain, by clear skies and a heartfelt blessing at Mass—“This is your house as Benedictines,” the priest said, “St. Benedict welcomes you, hugs you, blesses you.” After Mass, we visited the original part of the Abbey, dating back to the 5th century, which had not been destroyed during World War II. This was another profound experience—to be in the place where the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide for monastics and oblates for over 1500 years, was penned. Later we met a gentleman who, as a little boy, had taken refuge with his family at the Abbey during the War, hoping to be safe with the monks high on the mountain. How devastating war is, how many layers there are—for this young boy and his family, the nearby town and, ultimately, the Abbey, bombed in the Battle of Monte Cassino. There are no winners in war.
Place is a powerful thing
It gives us perspective, a sense of where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten here. The Christian story unfolded in this place of Rome. I am so grateful to have experienced this place of Peter and Paul, the places of St. Benedict and so many other holy places.
But I remember that home is holy too.
Home is where I work out the tension between stability and conversion. Home is where I listen to the ear of my heart. Home is the most important place; it is our present moment. Home is the people you surround yourself with, our friends and family. Our story unfolds at home. This is where we uncover our many layers, like lasagna.