A Country Road Contemplative

I’m thrilled to have written a Monk in the World Guest Post at Christine Valters Paintner’s Abbey of the Arts website/blog. She is one of my favorite authors (The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom) and an inspiration for me to continue to learn more about creativity and prayer. My post, A Country Road Contemplative, is about the sacred pilgrimage of driving country roads.

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My country drives are a sacred experiencea contemplative, scenic journey through four counties of Nebraska. 

Driving country roads has become a pilgrimage of its own as I travel to St. Benedict Center, a Benedictine retreat center and monastery seventy miles northwest of my home. Once or twice a month, I receive spiritual direction, participate in or lead retreats, attend Oblate meetings or pray with the monks. It’s where I go to honor my “inner monk”, find peace and quiet, learn to live more holy and grow in love. It has become my spiritual home and a home-away-from-home.

Optimized-DSC_0471aInitially, the drive was a means to an end, an hour and a half that I endured to get to my spiritual oasis. 
For most of thirteen years, I’ve taken the most direct route via paved highway. Occasionally, I took a different route or explored shortcuts, attempting to shave minutes off the drive.

The most efficient shortcut requires traveling on ten miles of gravel roads through small towns with few houses, and long since closed grocery stores and taverns. Every mile or two, there is a farmhouse nestled in rolling hills (or on flat-as-pancakes plains; we have both in Nebraska), acres of crops, cattle and pig farms, old trucks and tractors, and farm dogs that run after my car, barking.

I begin to notice details—the color of the sky, shapes of clouds, shadows on a hill. I wonder about the farmhouse that still has curtains on the windows, yet abandoned. I stop on bridges and watch water rush below. I see turkey and deer, donkeys and horses, weeds and wildflowers, fields of sunflowers and bales of hay. But, rarely, do I see other people.

It’s common in Nebraska to travel country roads and not encounter another car or person for miles. I feel as if I’m the only person in the world, an unmatched solitude and peace. I am taken with the beauty of the changing seasons—the greens of spring and summer, the gold and reds of autumn, the browns and grey of winter. I notice when the corn is higher, the sky more blue. The landscape is always being re-created, always in a state of becoming.

It happened slowly, but I realized that the drive is just as sacred of an experience as getting to my destination.  I prefer to drive alone, sometimes spending two or more hours turning west, then north, then west again; taking roads that look interesting and head in the general direction of St. Benedict Center. It has become part of the weekend getaway instead of the means to an end. The drives that I had tried to trim minutes off of, actually have become longer. As I plan more time for the drive, my weekend pilgrimages start the minute I get in the car.

A pilgrimage is a journey. A pilgrimage does not require a far-off destination or even a sacred shrine as the endpoint. A great Desert father, Abba Moses, advised his monks, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” My car has become my “cell”, where I turn inward, reflect, behold, contemplate and enjoy the country roads.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”― Heraclitus

Optimized-DSC_0500a (1)I wanted to capture the beauty of the land that is so seldom seen—not just in numbers of people (although that can be an issue in Nebraska), but I mean really seen—appreciated, cherished, shared.  Now I take a camera with me every time I travel country roadsI pull my car to the side of the road and photograph animals, sheds, flowers, old buildings, roads, fields, clouds, gravestones on a hill. I take pictures of cows that make eye contact with me (and they always do). I photograph barns that are bright red, barns with peeling paint, barns that have collapsed.

With each photo I take I know I am experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime-moment. I have taken thousands of photos of the countryside, but no two will ever be the same.  Never again will the clouds look just that way or will the grass be just that shade of green. Never will I step into the same “river” again, each moment unique and made for me to celebrate. When that moment is gone, it is gone forever.

I am alone on my pilgrimage, yet accompanied. This is where I know I meet God. This is where ideas overflow; where there are bursts of creativity and a wealth of insights; where problems get solved, prayer happens and time stands still, in my “cell”.

My “cell” has taught me that photography is contemplative prayer. It is a new way of seeing. I honor the present moment like no other time or place. There are so many undiscovered parts of our world—places where no one is—in the depths of the ocean, the expanse of a cornfield, down a Nebraska country road. God is present in all of those places and in our solitude we can be there too.

I have learned so much about God and life on country roads. The most efficient route might not be the most fruitful. I can head in a general direction and God can fill in the details. I can be flexible. Listening to God and following my intuition works. Perhaps I don’t need to have everything planned out perfectly. I can look for signs along the way (some roads are more winding or steep; usually there is a warning, just like in life). I can surrender to surprise. The present moment is all we have and we better appreciate it. Joy is meant to be shared, eventually, but solitude is essential. Spirit is the best roadmap. I am not the Absolute, so I cannot know absolutely where I should end up. I’ve learned to listen, to pray, to rejoice. I experience the sacred on country roads.


Journey to birth


Recently I shared my favorite German word–Vorfreude: Anticipatory joy. It’s caused me to consider other times in my life when I’ve had “vorfreude”. I remember the expectation of pregnancy, joyfully anticipating the moment when I would finally hold the baby we had spent months, years actually, planning for. I’ve thought about it more lately because my two young cousins, Carrie and Christy, are both expecting a child in September. There is nothing like feeling the moving tummy of a pregnant woman to trigger “vorfreude”–that excitement of whether it will be a boy or a girl, when will the baby come? what will s/he look like? and so on. It’s an infectious “vorfreude”!

Even the phrase, “She’s expecting”, points us toward a “due date”, a countdown of weeks and months where we watch the baby grow. It’s an exciting time, even if there’s a bit of worry or discomfort. The journey gives the expectant parents time to grow into their new life, to prepare, plan and reflect. How will we decorate the baby’s rooms? What kind of daycare will we need? Cloth or disposable diapers? If it’s a girl, will we let her play with Barbie dolls? How will we afford college? What values do we want to instill in our child?

This nine-month journey, a surreal, sort of out-of-body experience, realizes its potential, it’s full joy, in the birth of a baby. And all at once, the anticipation is gone and the reality is here. A reality that could not have been imagined, despite all the careful planning.

The “vorfreude” I have felt for my Benedictine pilgrimage is a little like a pregnancy journey for me. It’s been nine months since I signed up to go on the Benedictine Re-Connection Pilgrimage, planned by Christ the King Priory, the monastery affiliated with St. Benedict Center. I have spent the last 12 years growing in my faith and learning about Benedictine spirituality. On the pilgrimage, I will celebrate one year of being a Benedictine oblate as well as my birthday on the Solemnity of St. Benedict. But the idea to travel to Germany and the Czech Republic was birthed in me as a child on two counts.

I grew up knowing that I came from both Czech and German descent. My great grandfather, Frank Blazek, came to the USA from Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1906, when he was only 16 years old, never to return or to see his family again. Years later, after his passing, his daughter, my great Aunt Rose visited her father’s home country and met many relatives. She brought me a doll in a native Czech dress from that visit. I remember wondering what this country was like, this country that I had relatives in too. I decided at age 6 or 7 that I was going there someday.


Having German roots was important to me as well. My mother’s brother, after marrying a German woman, has lived there his entire adult life with his wife and two children, Jefferey and Jennifer. Although Uncle Joe came back every 2-4 years during my childhood, he had never brought his family until 1994, when his wife and daughter came to Nebraska for a visit. So I met Jennifer once, 20 years ago, but had never met Jefferey. This, I knew, one day I must do.

So these nine months I have been joyfully anticipating this trip. Sometimes I let out shrieks of delight when alone….or with others, whenever the excitement hit me. I’ve read about sacred sites that we will visit. I planned additional days in Germany to meet with my cousins. I’ve looked at many websites and travel books. I’ve made a feeble attempt to learn a few German words. I’ve created a packing list, bought new clothes, debated about what size of suitcase to take. I’ve corresponded with friends and relatives who live there or who have been there. I have read about pilgrimages and prayed for this journey. It has been vorfreude, anticipatory joy, of the highest order.

Until last week. My vorfreude took a temporary hiatus as we dealt with some health problems of my husband. He started having chest pains and spent 3 days in the hospital undergoing observation and heart tests. Of primary concern was Joe’s health. Could his health be remedied? How would I feel if I left on the trip and Joe was not well? The “what ifs” overshadowed any “vorfreude” I might have been feeling. Although joy seemed to be replaced with fear, this too, is part of life. We were blessed with supportive family and friends and we had the opportunity to provide comfort for each other. Thankfully, Joe is feeling somewhat better and, most importantly, heart problems have been ruled out. I am able to go on the Pilgrimage as planned. My vorfreude has returned. Nine months have passed–there’s been expectation, planning, a counting down of months…and now I can’t wait to “hold this baby!”

It has been a journey, a birthing, perhaps a pilgrimage itself, to get to this point. Pilgrimages are a spiritual journey to sacred sites where many others have prayed, often for centuries. Perhaps the pilgrim has some aspect in their life they are seeking clarity for or desiring spiritual growth or an experience of God. Perhaps to satisfy a soul’s yearning or curiosity. Perhaps the pilgrim is open for the unfolding of surprises and the awareness that is birthed. For me, it is all of these. The birthing begins. Vorfreude!



Anticipatory Joy ~ Vorfreude!

Vorfreude, a German word meaning “anticipatory joy”, captures that bursting-with-excitement, overflowing-with-enthusiasm, oh-my-God-I-can-hardly-wait-for-the-awesomeness-to-come state of being. Sometimes there really are no words to explain our feelings. Lucky for us, there are different languages, perspectives, experiences and images that can bring us closer to understanding ourselves and the Divine.
Where does this bubbling-over joy come from?
Is our joy from the anticipation itself? Perhaps. Sometimes.
The Germans have a saying, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude!” which means “The greatest joy lies in the anticipation.” How wonderful it is to look forward to something with this kind of joy!
I believe this joy can be sustained for longer than that experience we are looking forward to.
As we stand in the flow of Divine Love, we receive the anticipatory joy to live our life on purpose, with passion and creativity, born for loving God and others.
I love this new word, Vorfreude.

Vorfreude. It’s how I feel about a lot of things right now.
About a Benedictine Pilgrimage to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic this summer.
About Benedictine spirituality and “ora et labora”, my prayer and work.
About writing and finishing a project started years ago.
About SoulFully You retreats and practicing SoulCollage®.
About contemplative prayer and photography.
About a new school year (only after a joy-filled summer, insert smiley face).
About the new babies coming into our family this year.
About “Jessica becoming”, watching my child grow into a woman.
About my family, my faith, my friends.

Yes, I love this new word, Vorfreude.
More to come. Join me for the JOY!

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