Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Self portraits

I hate pictures of myself.

When seeing one, the only things I can focus on are all my physical flaws which are too numerous to have to face (no pun intended).
Trust me, I know exactly how shallow that sounds, but there you have it.

I have tremendous admiration for those people who have deformities beyond my understanding and limited capacity for self acceptance - like the woman whose face was literally ripped off by her friends chimpanzee.
Thanks be to God, I have not been tested by something so horrific because I can tell you right now, I would fail massively!

That being said, a recent assignment by a photography mentor was to take at least 3 self portraits and the Abbey was a wonderful place to fulfill that requirement with minimal pain!

And, since it was a time for personal reflection, what better way to symbolize that than by having all the images be reflections?
Genius, right?
The critic inside my head is hard to shut off since my immediate reaction to this one was - socks with sandals, what a dork! As self justification, it was cold, late at night (by monastery standards -probably 8:15pm or so!) and, if it's good enough for the monks who are far holier and wiser than moi, it was good enough for me!

The last one though is the one I love and, I suspect, it's an image I'll 'ponder' for quite awhile.

I caught a reflection of myself in the window going downstairs one night; a window looking out to the front of the Abbey with the BVM lit up - and I knew I wanted to try to capture what I saw.

As someone who has a fractured and wholly imperfect relationship with her mother, the realization that I could have, within me, the love and protection of Mary, is a real comfort.
(We Episcopalians are not known for our veneration of Mary; it's too far on the Catholic side of the Anglo-Catholic tradition blend to suit many of us - although we all know what an outlier I am!)

A friend looking at all these images shared his perceptions that my 'shadow' image (which is the first one I took) is eerily similar to the silhouette of the pure 'lit' Mary in the last one - and that none of us should be surprised to discover 'the holy' that has been inside us all along; we just have to see it.

These are images I not only can live with but be happy with too - and that feels like a start.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Note to self: remember this

So many people have asked me if I got what I expected from the retreat and I'm truly at a loss for an answer since I don't know what I thought I'd encounter.

If I'm honest, I can say that part of my fantasy included foggy walks amongst dew soaked ruins of a Gothic cloister (hey, I'm nothing if not dramatic!) so the stark unadorned limestone walls of the Abbey with a complete lack of ornamentation was a contrast to be reconciled.

I envisioned time for reading (got that), long periods of silence (check) and lots of opportunity for prayer (double check).

What I hadn't counted on was the pleasurable company of other travelers on their diverse spiritual journeys, being stretched by artwork and different ways of 'seeing', hearing words of instruction during workshops that reframed not only the human experience but my disordered relationship with food and being drawn into 'mystery' on an emotional level through music and 'traditions of being' that have endured for centuries.

Celtic spirituality speaks of 'thin places' - those places in which the boundaries of time and space become blurred and movement between the dimensions becomes more fluid than we usually perceive.
For me, the Abbey is a thin place.

I'll relate one experience, although I was blessed with several.

I don't wear a watch or use an alarm (either clock or cell phone).
I tell myself what time I need to wake up and, generally, within 5 -10 minutes of the appointed time, I wake myself.

One morning, my intent had been to sleep through Vigil (@ 3:30) and go to Lauds instead.
So, when I woke up at 2:30 am, fully awake, I was both surprised and curious.
I chose to take it as a sign from God that I was meant to get my ass out of bed and go down for Vigil and that I might as well even go early since I was already awake.

I stumbled down three flights of stairs to the guest chapel, located at the back of the Abbey; space shared with the main sanctuary but separated by a wrought iron rail defining 'guest' and 'monks' space.

I entered and found a solitary light illuminating the entire space.

I was alone.
The cavernous sanctuary, with choir stalls, organ and altar, was in complete darkness; a blackness that was impenetrable to my eye.

I knelt and was immediately and unexpectedly overcome with a sadness and sense of being utterly alone.
I began to cry; not the dainty moist eyes and sniffles of a heroine in a Jane Austen novel but the gut wrenching sobs of one from whom everything has been stripped away.
It was a feeling of nakedness before God and total vulnerability that bordered on being terrifying.

How long this state lasted I can't say.

All I know is that just as inexplicably, I was flooded with a warmth and the knowledge that I wasn't alone.

I felt a palatable presence; the silence had substance.
It wasn't the absence but the presence of something.

The silence had a density, a richness and it began to pervade my being, comforting me.
I raised my eyes and peered into the void, almost calling aloud, "Is someone there?"

Within minutes, I heard a soft sound on the tile floor, followed by the creak of wood yet my eyes were still unable to discern any other human form in the church.

It was a full 5 minutes before I saw the white cowled robe of a monk enter their portion of the sanctuary and turn on a small light, revealing that we were indeed the only two people in the space.

During Vigil, I sat listening to the monks chant the Psalms of praise to start the day and I wish I could say my thoughts were holy.
I was instead filled with a sense of my own importance, delighting in how special I must be to have been given this experience.

I mean, come on... it was a sign, right?
I didn't have to pay for airfare and go to Lourdes or Medjugorje
I felt like the character in the movie Field of Dreams who asks: "Is this heaven?" and hears the reply,"No, it's Iowa."

In fact, I was so blinded by my own sense of being chosen that, after Vigil, I completely overlooked the tile step going out of chapel, tripped up and fell flat on my face.

Gotta love that about God; he's got a way of reminding us about our place.
Quite literally, Pride goeth before the fall.

Made me feel right at home with Bernard of Clairvoux who said that "personally, he was more acquainted with the ways down than the ways up".

Work will give me plenty to kvetch about all too soon.
I needed to journal about this experience because I don't want it to be lost in the haze of my 'normal' existence.

I want to remember that in the silence was a presence.
At the heart of the silence was Him who is all stillness, all peace and all poise.

My soul can definitely use all three.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

where to start?

I'm back and, as usual, re-entry has been hard.
I can't seem to get motivated to get on with my 'real' life!

I've been wide awake since 4 am and now, several hours later, it feels odd that I've not been chanting the Psalms in chapel at least 3 times!

It seems I'm more at home with this reflection, contemplation and silence thing than I ever would have thought.

Not that it came naturally.
In fact, the first night I was at the Abbey, it felt like I had car loads of screeching moneys driving around in my head on a NASCAR track!

The decision to push myself out of my comfort zone was more effective than I thought.

I have frequently said, in jest, "it's not pretty inside my head". I was never more keenly aware of it than the first night at New Mellary!

My thoughts would NOT quiet down and I slept poorly, which turned out to be a good thing since day begins at 3am with Vigil in the chapel.
Although, trust me, it does not look like this at that hour!

Here's a typical schedule:

3:30 - Vigil
4:00 - Lectio Divina
6:30 - Lauds
7:00 - Mass
7:30 - Breakfast (in silence)
9:15 - Terce
9:30 - Conference session (abut an aspect of Contemplative living in a busy World)
10:30 - Break
11:45 - Sext
12:00 - Lunch (in silence)
1:45 - None
2:00 - Conference session
5:30 - Vespers
6:00 - Supper in silence
6:30 - Discussion (optional)
7:30 - Compline and Grand Silence

My first thought was that there was NO way I was going to bed before 9pm!

Wrong; I probably didn't last beyond 8:30 any given day I was there!

There's much to think and pray about, on several fronts, some of which I'll bore you with and others, not so much.
I know I will privately be continuing the deepening dialogue between me and God.

One pictorial insight, if you will, for this post: these pictures were taken within minutes of each other from my room, looking across the courtyard into the monastery/the monks quarters.

The rooms seemed vacant and lifeless, then I noticed the light within.

It's always there.
If you lose sight of it, maybe you just need to consider changing your viewpoint!

I did - and it made a world of difference!

In fact, by the time I left, I was feeling all glowy and warm inside!

And if, or should I say when, it starts to fade...at least I know where to go to find it again!