Many Ways to Pray: Take a Hike

always we begin againThere are many ways to pray. Really all of life can, and should, be a prayer. We are never not in connectedness with God, but it is in prayer that we become aware of this union even more.

Recently, I shared an experience of walking a labyrinth, an ancient portal to prayer that has only one distinct path on which to walk; it is not a maze as some misunderstand it. A maze typically has just one correct path, but it has many confusing choices and dead ends that lead to nowhere obliging one to make a decision about which path to take. One may have to “begin again” several times before completing.

St. Benedict, in his Rule, encourages his monks to always begin again. He knew there would be times when life, even our prayer life, could be more like a maze than a labyrinth. Despite its challenges, our maze-like experiences are a prayerful opportunity to practice awareness, patience, and gratitude. 

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I had this opportunity recently. Surrounded by the wooded hills of western Iowa at the Creighton University Retreat Center, I attended an eight-day silent Ignatian retreat. I was excited to take the loop hike that goes down to the Nishnabotna River. I love to be in nature and believe wholeheartedly, that “every time you admire something in nature, it’s a prayer to the Creator.”  (Vernon Harper)

trail map

Note the easy-to-read map: one can enter the loop hike from two different points and arrive back to nearly the same point.

I started from the north end of the property, but the path seemed overgrown in areas and I wondered if I was on the right trail. Soon enough, there is a fork where I could go right or left. I went right because it seemed the better path. Eventually,  I came to a very steep decline that I wasn’t sure I could navigate. Surely, I thought, I am on the wrong path.

Better safe than sorry, I hike back and take the left path instead. I hike and hike. I end up at yet another steep decline.  I’m no sissy (I have walked on a treadmill with a 10% incline for goodness sakes), but I think this might not be the right path either.  Tired and sweaty already, I decide it’s better to cut my losses and start out at the south end tomorrow where there might be a clearer path.

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It’s a new day…feeling good and my selfie shows it!  I begin again, this time from the other side of the property.  It was a much better trail. Birds chirping, deer scampering, butterflies flying and silence—this is the prayerful connecting-with-God-and-nature hike I was expecting.

Wait, what? Hmm, a choice of two paths—the lower trail or the River view trail. I choose the river view…the whole point of the hike, right?

Riverview sign

Wrong.  Note: this necessary decision is not on the map. I hike to the river view and sit for a moment on a bench to view a sliver of the river. Hiking to the left, I find an even steeper decline than the day before. Hiking to the right, a dead end.

trail dead end

I hike back to the original choice of trails and take the lower trail.

lower trail sign

I hike for about an hour (the time estimated for the hike) with many choices of trails (which I did not expect….remember, it’s a LOOP and not on the map). If there’s a wrong choice of trail to take, I take it.

I hit several dead ends: at the river, at a sign that reads “End of CU property”, at a few very steep inclines, and at a cave. My love of nature and the enjoyment of the journey is challenged. “Always we begin again” has been replaced with, “Will I ever get out of this maze?”deadend collage.jpg

I considered turning back, but I just couldn’t bring myself to “begin again” two days in a row.  It would take another hour to retrace my steps. Yesterday it was the right thing to begin again but today I need to focus on the present and future, and leave the past in the past. A lot like life, I think. “Always go forward and never turn back.” (St. Junípero Serra)

I consider walking the river until I  meet a road; thinking surely there will be a road eventually.  (So like some life situations: Can I just bail now?) I know this is the panic speaking so I retrace my steps back to a fork in trails and a sign that reads, “Upper Trail”.

Upper Trail is a hike up and up and up and up, likely one of the very steep trails I encountered the day before that I felt incapable of going down. I laugh. I take a short break for a few minutes…and then continue up and up and finally, I am on a walking path. I have to be close now. I see a shed. Wait, no, I don’t. Dear God, it’s a mirage. I laugh again at myself.

I consider taking an “after hike” selfie but know that it wouldn’t be web-worthy and would challenge the “sweat is good” attitude I’ve tried to attain. I realize I have seen NO ONE on the trail in over an hour. Have the others heard the trail isn’t really a loop? Thank God, I have my cell phone. Could I be found if I called for help? I don’t think it’s possible to die from thirst or hunger this close to….wait, I see a building. A real one this time.

I have arrived. Relief.

home

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  -John Muir

I received more than I was seeking, no doubt. A simple loop hike turned into a frustrating and, in hindsight, funny experience.  I took only short hikes for quite a few days, but as the end of the retreat neared, I knew I needed to challenge myself to the “loop” again. Surely, it would be easier now that I had done it.

The trails were familiar so I trusted myself and the route I chose. I hiked this time with a new set of eyes. I noticed things I hadn’t before—the signs seemed more clear and logical, sounds from each of the birds were clearly unique, a turkey family trotted quickly into the trees, blue insects escaped into cracks in the dirt, and there were forks in the path I hadn’t noticed before. But, this time I felt more comfortable being adventurous and going down those uncertain paths.

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With experience behind me, I knew when I had come to the final fork in the trail. I hiked up the last hill and when I came out of the top, I realized, NO, that I was not at the end of the loop but at another offshoot! I laughed out loud. My confidence did not waiver; now I was able to trust where I was and navigate back to more familiar terrain.

trail options

Sometimes we must begin again. And when we do, we bring what we have learned from earlier efforts. I find this in my spiritual life as well. The more I pray, the more I trust. When I become afraid or anxious, I begin again. I go back to my faith, to prayer, and trust that God has been there before and always will be. I just need to begin again. 

When we finally broke our silence at the end of the retreat, I realized I was not the only one that had this experience. Everyone else had gotten lost in the woods too. Now isn’t that just like life? There are no new problems under the sun.

No one, not even our closest soul friends can “hike the loop” for us, but, thankfully, they share with us solace, encouragement, and prayers.  This journey is our own. We learn on the way. We are accompanied. And always we begin again

And for future hikes—this is a better idea of what the map should look like.trail map2

Recommended article: “How Hiking Can Help Your Spirituality“, by Megan Bailey at beliefnet.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Benedict, St. Scholastica and Spiritual Friendship

I received the gift of the Holy Spirit when I was nine years old. It took many months of catechism class to prepare to receive the sacrament of Holy Confirmation in the Catholic Church. There were dozens of questions about doctrine and faith to study, like:

What is a sacrament?  A sacrament is an outward sign made by Christ to give grace.
What is grace? Grace is any gift from God.
How many persons are there in God? There are three Persons in God.

 ….and so on. There were scores of prayers and creeds to memorize, months of CCD every Wednesday afternoon and hours of quizzing by my parents at night, but the pay-off for a nine-year-old girl was the opportunity to choose a saint’s name as my second middle name. All by myself. This was a big deal. It seemed like such a grown-up thing to do, to pick MY OWN name. I chose the name Christine, not because I knew anything about St. Christine, but because the name was so pretty to me. Jodi Marie Christine.

My grandma was so proud of my Confirmation that she called me Christine the whole day. My parents gave me an illustrated book of the “Lives of the Saints” to commemorate the occasion and as any nine-year-old would do, the first thing I did was look up my birthday. I was immediately disappointed. The illustration seemed so dark –a man with a hood, a scary looking bird and a funny name that I had only associated with Benedict Arnold, a famous American traitor.  After gaining such a beautiful name like Christine, what kind of luck did I have to get a guy named Benedict on my birthday?!  July 11, St. Benedict, Abbot, it said.  I read the pages about St. Benedict often, thinking that I should have some connection with this man as my patron saint, but then I forgot about him until…

confirmation

Fast forward 30 years when I found my way to St. Benedict Center, not because of the name or that I remembered anything that I had read about St. Benedict, but because I had a desire for prayer and silence. And at a silent retreat, I met a woman named Colleen who would become like a sister to me, an Anam Cara or soul friend. She gave me a card once that said, “We’re like sisters with different mothers.” We connected on a spiritual level–we prayed together, read spiritual books and could have talked for hours about our spiritual journey. And what I discovered the year she passed away further deepens our connection. Her birthday is February 10 and her patron saint is St. Benedict’s twin sister, St. Scholastica. They had a close relationship, even though they could not spend a lot of time together, and they were both committed to God. 

Here is the story of St. Scholastica from the books of Dialogues by Saint Gregory the Great: 

“Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, had been consecrated to God from her earliest years. She was accustomed to visiting her brother once a year. He would come down to meet her at a place on the monastery property, not far outside the gate.

One day she came as usual and her saintly brother went with some of his disciples; they spent the whole day praising God and talking of sacred things. As night fell they had supper together.

Their spiritual conversation went on and the hour grew late. The holy nun said to her brother: “Please do not leave me tonight; let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life.” “Sister,” he replied, “what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell.”

When she heard her brother refuse her request, the holy woman joined her hands on the table, laid her head on them and began to pray. As she0035 raised her head from the table, there were such brilliant flashes of lightning, such great peals of thunder and such a heavy downpour of rain that neither Benedict nor his brethren could stir across the threshold of the place where they had been seated. Sadly he began to complain: “May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” “Well,” she answered, “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.” 

Reluctant as he was to stay of his own will, he remained against his will. So it came about that they stayed awake the whole night, engrossed in their conversation about the spiritual life.

It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.

Three days later, Benedict was in his cell. Looking up to the sky, he saw his sister’s soul leave her body in the form of a dove, and fly up to the secret places of heaven. Rejoicing in her great glory, he thanked almighty God with hymns and words of praise. He then sent his brethren to bring her body to the monastery and lay it in the tomb he had prepared for himself.

Their minds had always been united in God; their bodies were to share a common grave.”

The lessons I’ve learned from St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, from my friendship with Colleen and other soul friends, are many. I’m sure there are more to come, but here is some of what I’ve learned so far:

Spiritual friendships never end.  ♥  Neither death nor distance can separate us from the love of another.  ♥  There is no such thing as loving too much.  ♥  Spiritual friendships are a gift from God.  ♥   We support each other in living out God’s purpose in our life.   ♥   Spiritual connections with friends enrich one’s prayer life and guide the other back to God when one is temporarily lost.   ♥   Spending time together is important, but friendship resides in the heart.   ♥   We pray for and with each other.   ♥  We cry with each other.   ♥  We laugh together.   ♥  We listen to, plan with, comfort and challenge each other.   ♥  We are grateful for each other and we say it.   ♥  “Our minds are united in God.”

I thank God for the example of all the saints and for learning about St. Benedict as a child. I thank God for my oblate experience to learn more about St. Benedict and his Rule (and about the hooded Abbot and his scary bird). I thank God for the lives and stories of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. I thank God for spiritual friendships

Joyce, Colleen and me at St. Benedict Center.
Joyce, Colleen and me at St. Benedict Center.

 “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.”  ~Joan Chittister

For more information about Benedictine Spirituality, go to Being Benedictine website/blog

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