Saturday, July 25, 2009

Psalm 1

This has always been one of my favorite psalms. It was serendipitous that it was one of the readings during the week, as I felt it spoke so directly to the community and the experience.

Psalm 1

Once a year I try to go on a week long retreat
loosely patterned after the rule of Benedict.
It’s an opportunity to step out of the routine of ordinary life,
and take a break from contemporary culture.
I share these seven days with about thirty people
from all over the country,
kindred spirits seeking silence and perhaps a new perspective.
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners

As we arrive that first evening,
we greet one another with tentative familiarity
offering mutual welcome to this time that will hold and shape our week long, intentional community.
With open hearts, and perhaps a tiny bit of apprehension, we get acquainted with small talk, which will soon be set aside,
making space for the deeper conversation that calls and unites us.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

Being here in this beautiful place is certainly an advantage.
There is something healing about spending time in nature--
taking walks across golden hills, trimming the rose bushes, or gazing out over verdant valleys, some striped with vineyards,
Personally, I prefer just sitting beneath the live oaks in front of the chapel, pondering nothing in particular.
It refreshes the soul.
Over time, without my even noticing, something inside begins to shift.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither
everything they do shall prosper.

I wish that I could say that the doubts and fears that plague me completely disappear
or at least do me the favor of staying home.
But are here with me, my companions of the “should haves” and “what ifs”.
Yet, there is something about the rhythm of being here—
the combination of chanting, prayer, and silence,
that robs them of their power.
I am sure that the combined intention of the other people gathered here doesn’t hurt.
In fact, I believe that it calls forth some ineffable presence against which those inner demons don’t stand a chance.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

So year after year, I return,
never quite sure if I am doing it right
or playing by the rules,
However, I learned just this morning during Sr. Donald’s talk,
that the definition of regula, or rule, is in fact a trellis whose purpose is to guide and support.
It’s not meant to limit or constrict.
This is also a pretty good description of community.
And we all know what happens
whenever two or three are gathered in his name.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

BenEx Reentry

It is hard to believe that I have been home from the Benedictine Experience for nearly two weeks. I just looked at the BenEx Blog that Matt set up. Check it out to see some wonderful photos of the place and the community.

I continue to work on paintings that the week inspired, but the images are illusive--there still may be too much in process.

Most of the poetry that I wrote during that week was written around the psalm of each day. It is a way to incorporate the voice of the psalmist into the rhythm and concerns of my own life.

Psalm 18

It’s interesting how an abstract concept such as God,--
something so grand and beyond my comprehension
can at times, be so personal and close.
I love you, O Lord my strength,
O Lord my stronghold, my crag, and my haven

It’s not as if I don’t struggle with this concept,
or never question it,
but it very often it feels like a given to me, especially when faced with problems or challenges.
My God, my rock in whom I put my trust,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, and my refuge:

Yet, the truth of the matter is that a good part of the time,
probably most of the time, now that I am getting honest about this,
I am a bit cavalier about my faith,
until of course, I run into difficulties and feel that I need some help.
I will call upon the Lord,
and so shall I be saved from my enemies.

In fact, I am glad to know that in addition to being a mighty warrior and advocate, my God is one of forgiveness and compassion,
for I tend to take this eternal, Divine love for granted.
That is, until I run into problems that I feel unequipped to handle---
like most recently, hurtful betrayal by people I should have been able to trust.
The breakers of death rolled over me,
and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid.

It’s at times like that, when I feel beleaguered and vulnerable, and life seems unfair, that God seems most real.
I realize that there is a paradox in this.
Some people regard injustice and adversity as proof that there is no God
and I can understand their point of view.
But I don’t see it this way.
Even though there have been times when I have felt like
a helpless pawn in a game that had become fierce and ugly,
and I don’t know what to do or how to respond.
The cords of hell entangled me,
and the snares of death were set for me.

Yet at these times, when things seemed about as bad as they could be,
I knew in my deepest being, that it wasn’t the whole story.
I knew that there was something bigger and more powerful
than the hurt that I thought would consume me.
I called upon the Lord in my distress
and cried out to my God for help.

And in those moments of feeling most alone,
I came to know that I wasn’t.
And that the me who was caught up in the drama-
from my perspective the star and heroine of the tragedy-
simply wasn’t that important.
Something much bigger was, and is.
He heard my voice from his heavenly dwelling
my cry of anguish came to his ears.

There is a great relief in this.
St. Benedict expresses it as true humility, seeing oneself as the least of all.
And when I am able to do this,
or more precisely, get to the point where I’ve run out of other options,
something changes.
He reached down from on high and grasped me;
he drew me out of the great waters.

I still don’t understand how this works,
but time and time again I have learned that it does.
It defies logic.
He delivered me from my strong enemies
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.

It’s as if I am able to become an observer,
and God is sitting there in the bleachers, watching with me.
After a bit of time,
I can actually begin to enjoy the show,
and occasionally find some humor in it,
which eventually leads to compassion.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster;
but the Lord was my support.

Then it almost doesn’t matter what happens,
for I know that I am not alone.
And there is a great comfort and security in knowing this,
even though I’ll very likely forget it until the next crisis hits
and I start all over again.
he brought me out into an open place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Bishop’s Ranch
July 9, 2009

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Desert Day

(Psalm 16)

There is something remarkable about taking time away from ordinary life to come to a beautiful, peaceful place on retreat.
Protect me O God for I take refuge in you.

There are no great bells or whistles,
(well there is one bell I suppose)
that mark this as especially holy or sacred time.
I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord,
my god above all others.

Yet something wonderful happens as these three dozen or so people gather and form community,
by singing, praying and being together, mostly in silence.
All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land,

It really is delightful, this time here.
I can’t put my finger upon exactly why,
but something greater seems to be at play.
upon those who are noble among the people.

Yesterday, Desert Day, was especially peaceful,
and it was the most unstructured time of all.
People were free to do whatever they chose,
and it seemed that most of us just walked or sat around,
sinking deeper into the ground we’d been preparing all week.
But those who run after other gods,
shall have their troubles multiplied.

No one seemed inclined to do anything out of the ordinary.
Their libations of blood I will not offer,

Or venture very far from the groundwork that had been laid for us all week.
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

Personally, I found it to be a good opportunity to focus on what brought me here in the first place.
O Lord, you are my portion and my cup

I drew, read, and snoozed,
and thought a lot about Christ being the vine and the source.
it is you who uphold my lot.

I walked around the grounds quite a bit as well.
My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;

I felt grateful for my family, just down the road,
and the gift of life and many opportunities that they gave me.
indeed I have a goodly heritage.

I also spent some time reading the Psalms and listening to the sounds of nature.
I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

I considered my dreams, and pondered how luminescent crystal globes in moonlit gardens apply to my life.
my heart teaches me, night after night.

But mostly, I did nothing.
I have set the Lord always before me;

And even in this nothingness, I felt divine presence supporting me.
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

Why does this continue to amaze and delight me?
My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices;

There is a peace in this that touches every fiber of my being.
my body also shall rest in hope.

It reassures me and takes away my fear.
for you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor let your holy one see the Pit.

Just this morning during Mattins,
I thought about Christ, and the example he set for us--
You will show me the path of life;

how he was able to laugh and enjoy life, knowing what lay ahead.
in your presence there is fullness of joy,

And how great is the gift of his eternal presence.
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

Tea Ceremony

After Mattins,
before breakfast, I sit outside and enjoy a
cup of tea. I
guilty about
just decided to not
keep the traditional and
lovely practice of silent
meditation with the others.
Not to
prayer and
quiet at the beginning of each day
really would be a
shame, but
underlying most practices, even morning tea,
vast possibilities lie,
waiting to be
explored by
yet another Way,
zen or otherwise.

Like Incense before You

Last night I woke to the sound of coyotes howling,
not once but several times.
It was thrilling to hear that mysterious, primal sound
rising from the hills.
I especially like the way the alpha starts,
and the others join in,
sustaining that haunting sound in harmony.
It reminds me of how we chant the psalms.
John gets us going with a line or tone,
and then, one by one, our voices merge,
creating something complex and beautiful--
our longing, lifted up in song.
Much like those coyotes,
filling the valley with a joyful noise--
an offering of praise and thanksgiving.

BenEx IV

(Alphabet Poem)
A week set aside to practice the
Benedictine way, fairly
closely anyway
does wonders for me.
Even the
fundamentals, like
getting up at dawn and
having to chant psalms
in the chapel under
John’s direction
keeps me on my toes.
Leaving behind the daily concerns of
my life, for example,
not having to cook dinner
or clean the house,
provides time and space for
quiet contemplation.
Really, it is
such a privilege
to be here,
under the
veil of
watchful, monastic
experts, sharing their
years of practice and
zeal for God.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


The staff here at the retreat is comprised of wonderful people.
Sr. Donald, shown above, gives a presentation each morning on some aspect of the Benedictine Way. She is a wealth of information (how does she remember all of those facts, titles, authors and dates?), and a warm and delightful person.
This photo was taken today, on Desert Day. Archdeacon Dorothy is shown behind her, staff in hand, setting out for her own personal wilderness. I spent the day drawing and photographing the local vineyards, gathering material for a series that I am painting on the "I am" statements in the Gospel of John.

BenEx II

The view from my window. The last glimpse of the full moon, early morning.

Benedictine Experience

I am now into my fifth day here at Bishop's Ranch. It is a peaceful time, and a great blessing to be in this beautiful place with the others on this Benedictine Experience. We start each day at 7:00 with Mattins, with readings, chanting of psalms and quiet time for reflection. After breakfast, there is "choir practice" with our music director, John Renke. I must confess that I no longer attend choir practice---not because I don't need the help, but the time for me seems better spent writing. Next is a presentation by Sr. Donald, a Benedictine nun from Transfiguration Monastery, followed by Eucharist at noon, lunch and then time for rest. Afernoons are spent in quiet prayer or lectio divina (sacred reading). Evening Prayer is at 5:30, then dinner, meditation and Compline. The truth of the matter is that I don't attend all of the discussions and gatherings, and the Experience is quite accepting of individual's needs for private time.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fourth of July

Mike and I spent July 4 at the Benbow Inn. It was a terrific weekend---charming inn and great food---John and Teresa Porter are master innkeepers--- and spectacular fireworks to celebrate Independence Day. It was grand.

While there, we had the good fortune to meet some very nice and interesting people. Betsy and David are from the Bay Area. Betsy is an attorney, and David a scientist who also has the gift of writing and reciting poetry. He provided delightful entertainment as we waited for the fireworks to begin.

I am writing this from Bishop's Ranch in Healdsburg where I am for a week long retreat---The Benedictine Experience. It's a week set aside for following (loosely) the Benedictine schedule of the Daily Offices, work and recreation. The work I have chosen to do is poetry and drawing--much of which will show up on this blog.