A Taste of Grace

The second half of the eighth line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads: “…like a chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother gives him.” My translation of this part of the line changes the gender to make it more inclusive: “…like a chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what her mother gives her.”

The entire last line of my translation of the Brief Rule is: “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like a chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing, but what her mother gives her.”

So we are advised to sit, like a dependent newborn bird, and wait for whatever it is our mother decided to regurgitate into our mouths. Not exactly the image of receiving God’s grace that I want to carry around all day long. But there is something profound and humbling about the ‘helplessness’ of our situation and our utter dependence upon provisions of God. We are to sit empty and wait, open and expectant, for a taste of grace. While I don’t like the image of the regurgitating mother, I do like the maternal instinct that does whatever it can to ensure the chick is fed. If we focus on the helplessness of the bird we may become discouraged. But if we focus on the tenacity and persistence of the mother bird in feeding the chick, then we have a rich and exciting perspective of God’s desire to feed us as we sit in stillness. We do not sit for months waiting to be fed. We sit, in stillness, hungry for grace and God, the ever attentive mother bird, feeds us enough so that we might grow and mature in the faith.

So sit, and wait empty; you will be fed!

Sit in the Swirling Grace of God

The first half of the eighth line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads: “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God….” It’s so beautiful and simple I left it alone in my translation.

I don’t know how ‘to empty myself completely,’ but I have learned over the course of sitting in stillness that it gets easier to quiet myself after a while. I’m sure the time takes longer for each of us depending upon our dispositions, outlooks, etc. but I do believe, like most other things, sitting in stillness gets a bit easier with regular practice. And every now and then, I’m joyfully surprised by an experience of being filled with the Loving Presence. Emptiness is the greatest gift a vessel can offer an exquisite elixir like the Love of God.

In a sense, there seems to be a contradiction throughout the Brief Rule in that we are invited to sit in stillness and we are invited to read or hurry back to the Psalms. My personal practice is to use the Psalms as my invitation into stillness, the gate to tranquility, that I must pass through in order to get into the hidden garden of sacred beauty. One of the things I loved about many of the houses I visited in England during graduate studies was how the house was built very close to the road, often without a yard, but many had gardens at the back, unseen from the road and set apart from the busyness of life.

To learn to sit, and do nothing, in stillness, and be content with the grace that God is swirling around you and within you and throughout all of creation is often a bliss-filled experience of the Holy. It is a great way to start the day!

Sit in the Loving Presence

The seventh line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads: “Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.”

My translation is: “Realize above all you sit in the Loving Presence, so stay there, in stillness, with the openness of one expecting a gift.”

In talking with a dear friend yesterday, he explained his concept of God as ‘an envelope of love into which all things, good and bad, are held.’ It is this ‘envelope’ that we sit in, intentionally, when we sit in stillness. We do not sit waiting for God to show up. While we live and move and do everything in the Loving Presence, sitting in stillness is our intentional acknowledgment that we are in the Loving Presence – blessed, graced, and gifted with life. Our job, our task, in stillness is simply to ‘be open,’ to luxuriate in the Loving Presence, to allow the busyness of our minds to sink into the richer truth of the quiet of God’s love. In stillness we open to the deeper mystery of Loving Presence and find rest for our weary souls.

A Wandering Mind

The sixth line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads: “And if your mind wanders when you read, do not give up, hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.”

My translation is close: “And if you mind wanders when you read (and it will), do not give up; hurry back and attend to the words once again.” When I first translated the rule, I wrote “…when your mind wonders…”. I like the idea of allowing my mind to wonder; to reading something slow enough that my mind has the space to be surprised. But when I realized my mistake, I crossed through the word ‘wonder’ and wrote above it ‘wander’. I like that idea too, having enough time and space when I read to allow my mind to wander wherever the Spirit leads. But I don’t think Romuald was talking about Spirit-led wandering. Instead he was talking about ‘monkey mind,’ when are thoughts are bouncing all over the place and we can’t settle in and be attentive.

In practicing stillness, there is a lot of wandering for me. There are mornings that are filled with all the things I need to do, should have done, did wrong the day/week/month/year before, all the people I’ve hurt, all the stupid things I’ve said… and so on. A friend of mine calls this self-condemning, frenzy thinking ‘the committee’. She talks about how ‘the committee’ shows up when she’s trying to go to sleep and she can’t get calm, too much zooming from one thought to the other. Some morning are like that.

But the invitation of Romuald’s Rule is to let the wandering, the zooming, ‘the committee’-mind to be okay. Whether you are sitting in stillness or reading the Psalms, when you find yourself thinking about the kids, the groceries, the promotion that’s coming up – just came back (gently) to what you are doing and attend, as best you can, to the words before you or your breath. Every time you wander, as soon as you become aware, just come back and breath or read or simply sit.

New to Stillness (pt. 2)

The fifth line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads, “If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, then take every opportunity to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.”

My translation of the second part of line 5 reads, “…then take every opportunity to return to the Psalms; like good seeds in fertile soil plant them in your heart and mind.”

Last summer we had new sod planted in our backyard. The landscaping company came in, killed all the grass and weeds, scraped all the dead stuff off, brought in some dirt, and then ‘installed’ the new sod. In one day we have an instant, beautiful backyard – for a while. Slowly, the sod started to die. And not just some of it, all of it. So, not wanting to repeat that mistake, I decided to seed the yard by hand. Grass seed and then peat moss to cover – a thousand trips one handful at a time. After doing the whole yard four times, we had grass again. I was astonished to realize how much seed we had used.

If you want a lush backyard, you don’t plant a single seed and hope for the best. You spread seeds everywhere, cover them, water them, and wait. And then next week you do the same. Allowing the Psalms to grow within and to change how we understand ourselves, our God, and our place in and relationship to the world takes time, patience, and a willingness to ‘get our hands dirty’ actually reading the Psalms and allowing them to grow within our hearts and minds. After the effort of seeding, the growth is up to nature and God. And the joyful part is walking out and seeing thousands of small shoots of grass sticking up through the peat moss. If we stick to the Psalms, we will one day see the shoots of wisdom poking through our words and actions.

New to Stillness (pt. 1)

The fifth line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads, “If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, then take every opportunity to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.”

I’m going to reflect on this line in two parts. My translation of the first part of line 5 reads, “If you are new to stillness and, in spite of  all your best intentions, you cannot accomplish what you want…”

I don’t know why but I love the phrase: ‘new to stillness.’ Its as if I can hear an old master speaking softly, hands behind his back, “If you are new to stillness…” (long pause) “…and, in spite of all your best intentions… (pause, albeit shorter) …you cannot accomplish what you want…” Hmm, I think to myself – is there anything that I’m good at just out of the box? When I first learned how to turn wood I nearly took off a thumb and ended up with some pretty horrible looking pieces of wood. Learning how to paint is a humbling experience because while I’m painting I feel like ‘this one is going to be perfect’ and then, three days later, I think ‘not bad for a second-grader’ (no offense to second-graders). This part of line five brings us right to the precipice: are you going to quit because cultivating stillness is difficult or are you going to sit, again, tomorrow?

I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of grace in this part of the Rule. I hear the saint saying, ‘yeah, we’ve all been there, wanting stillness and quiet and wisdom and discernment of the Spirit -but it takes TIME and DISCIPLINE and a WILLINGNESS TO FAIL AND TO TRY AGAIN AND AGAIN. Stillness is not a task, it is a quality of being cultivated through practice.

“He Leads Me in Right Paths”

The fourth line in St. Romuald’s Brief Rule is: “The path you must follow is in the Psalms, you must never leave it.” Not much translation is needed on this one. I wrote: “The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it.”

But what I’ve come to realize, for myself, is that my ‘path’ is in certain Psalms more than others. When I try to read through or pray through the Psalter from beginning to end, it becomes tedious and neither prayer nor devotion. I need to pick, like “the seasoned gardener waiting to pluck a tomato just ripe on the vine” (the preceding line in my translation of the Rule) the Psalms that feed my soul.

My favorite (no drum roll needed) is Psalm 23. I still remember the instant at Rev. Brackman’s Memorial Service when I heard Psalm 23 not just as a soothing word for the grieving but as an invitation to live. When I was sent to Tucson, after the shooting, to lead an ecumenical clergy retreat, I designed the day around the different movements within Psalm 23. I started with ‘yea, tho we walk…’ and ended the day with the first verses: ‘being restored by still waters, etc.’ Sometimes the craziness of life reorders the verses.

Another favorite is Psalm 1, “…like trees planted by streams of water…,” I want to prosper in all I do. I want the things I do to be fruitful so that others might be fed through my ministry and life. I want to be deeply rooted in the assurance of God’s love and not ‘wither’ in my trust in God’s grace and mercy.

And then there is Psalm 51:10-12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

“The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it.” – Indeed!

Watching & Waiting

The third line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule is: “Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.” So far the advice has been: sit in your cell, put the world behind you and forget it, and now: watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.

I’m not sure what kind of fisherman the saint was but I can tell you, as someone who loves fly-fishing and is NOT very good at it, reading the water and watching for fish is incredibly tricky business. When I go fishing the first thing I notice is how excited I am to get to the water. I put on my waders, my boots, my vest, put my rod together, get the reel and line situated, and then I tromp through the woods toward the river. My heart is racing! I’m excited: I get to go fishing. And then I get to the water. I’ve learned, after years of frustration, to not just wade in and toss a fly. I’ve now learned I need to calm myself and read the water – I call it ‘trout mind’- as I imagine “if I were a fish, where would I be?” Sometimes you are blessed to see the trout rising, a small boil in still water. Other times you just have to trust, and cast your fly in a riffle, hoping for the best. All I can say for sure is: watching for fish is tricky and difficult business and rarely do you every see or catch the one you hope to.

In my translation of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule this third line reads: “Watch your thoughts like a seasoned gardener waiting to pluck a tomato just ripe on the vine.” I’m not sure it captures the essence of the original line above, on the elusiveness of a ‘good thought’. What I like about it though is the invitation for patience and attentiveness and a belief that good thoughts can grow within if we tend them and let them alone long enough to ripen. The image that came to me was of an elderly woman decked out in gardening gloves, a big brimmed hat, whistling her way through her greenhouse over to the tomato plants. She is thinking to herself, ‘a fresh salad sounds lovely’ as she reaches for the tomato. But something makes her stop. An awareness. A sense. A whisper: not yet. She looks deeply and sees, really sees, the tomato on the vine, and with a smile on her face, and a song on her lips, she lets it be. So whether it is developing ‘trout mind’ or the wisdom to leave the tomato on the vine, the Rule invites us all to be attentive to the elusiveness of good thoughts and the need to cultivate wisdom and skill and patience in order to be fed and to feed others.

Unburden Yourself & Be Present

The second line of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule reads: “Put the whole world behind you and forget it.” Forget politics, taxes, working late, sick kids, aging parents, high blood pressure, working out, paying bills, texting friends, watching a movie with friends, and pepperoni pizza! I don’t know about you, but I cannot ‘forget it’ when it comes to the matters of the world that I live in. So (again) I translated this line of the Rule into something that made sense for me: “Lay the cares of the world aside and attend to the present moment.”

In sitting in stillness for 30 minutes each morning, I intentionally lay aside the cares that I carry throughout the rest of the day. I lay aside the desire to go visit church members who haven’t been in church because they are rehabbing after a health scare. I lay aside the constant worry of ‘will there be enough money when I retire?’ I lay aside feeling uncomfortable because of my back. I lay aside all those I carry in my heart and for whom I say a prayer. For 1/2 an hour, I sit quietly and simply breath, freed from the heaviness of the cares I carry around. I lay them aside, for a moment, in order to be present and receptive to God. They will wait (and weight) for me. For a time, I can remind myself that I am free, and alive, and loved by God. And then, when the time is up, I can (if I choose) pick up the cares I have laid aside AND I can also leave some of them lie.

A Riff on St. Romuald’s Brief Rule

This is the first of several posts on St. Romuald’s Brief Rule. I found a copy of the Rule hanging above the desk in my hermitage at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA and it captured my attention for the entirety of my silent retreat. I spent time on my first morning in stillness simply copying the Rule and then later translating it for my own use and holding it in my heart. This series of posts offers reflections upon the Rule, my translation, and the things that bubbled up during my time on the California coast.

The first line of the Rule is: Sit in your cell as in paradise. I chuckled when I first read this, sitting high up the hills above the California coastline, 50 miles south of Carmel. The setting is so beautiful; and so remote! Hwy 1 is famous for its breathtaking views of the ocean and hills and the hermitage sits about halfway between civilization, buffered by about 50 miles of ‘nothing’ both north and south.

The day I began my silent retreat, the weather was gorgeous! The sun was out and sparkling on the water. Birds were gliding on thermals far below me. A covey of quail where strutting around just beyond the porch. I sat in a rocking chair, looking out toward the horizon, and laughed: sit in your cell as in paradise – no kidding! If I was cloistered away on a hill overlooking the Pacific… paradise indeed!

But I don’t spend my days (normally) sitting on the front porch of a hermitage perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a gloriously sunny day. Most days I spend far from the ocean, my ‘cell’ is a red La-z-boy chair in the corner of the basement in my house in the Midwest, and I don’t consider what I do most days as living in ‘paradise’. I needed to translate the Rule in order to appropriate the monastic wisdom and turn it into an invitation for my life. My version of St. Romuald’s Rule reads: Sit in stillness in the Loving Presence.

So now I sit still, each day, for 20 to 30 minutes, and luxuriate in God’s love. I just sit, very still, and allow myself to be loved.