Thursday, September 29, 2011

Angels among us, messengers from heaven

In honor of the Feast of the Archangels (Sept. 29) and the Feast of the Guardian Angels (Oct. 2), I thought I'd post my recent OSV story on angels and their role in our spiritual lives. I'll start you off here and send you there.

The photos at left and below were taken last year when I was crossing Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome on my way to St. Peter's Basilica.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Human beings over the centuries and across cultures have long been fascinated with and captivated by angels. We seek their protection and pray for their guidance. We both fear and crave their presence. We put them on necklaces, coffee mugs, mouse pads and more. When it comes to angels, our expressions of love run from the ridiculous to the sublime, inspiring everything from the wildly inappropriate Victoria’s Secret ad campaign to the strikingly beautiful film Wings of Desire.

Although Catholics often begin their prayer connection to angels in childhood, with the sing-song words of the Angel of God prayer --- “Ever this night, be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide” – angels are by no means child’s play. They are complex spiritual beings, often misunderstood by us humans who try to give them features and attributes that are more akin to existence on earth than heaven. Chubby little baby-like cherubs sporting wings and harps cannot begin to do justice to the reality of angels in our midst.

So what exactly are we dealing with here, and what role do angels play in our personal prayer lives?....Continue reading HERE.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Archbishop Dolan endorses my book on the Mass

If you're looking for something to guide you or your parishioners through the new translation of the Mass, be sure to check out my latest book, "The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass," which has an imprimatur and has been endorsed by Archbishop Timothy Dolan:

"We Catholics believe in the power of prayer to change lives and the world. In her engaging new book, Mary DeTurris Poust lovingly walks us through many of the Church’s rich and diverse traditions of prayer, breathing new life into ancient, beloved devotions, and pointing the way toward more modern methods of prayer as well.

Perhaps most valuable of all, Mary breaks down the parts of the Mass – the ultimate prayer – to enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of this Sunday banquet at which we are all called to gather regularly as a family, united with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As Saint Paul confessed, 'none of us know how to pray as we ought.' This book is sure a help."

+Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
For more information on my books, visit my website.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Are you standing still or making 'progress'?

I thought I'd share my latest Life Lines column. Life Lines has appeared monthly in Catholic New York for the past 10 years.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

When I began this column 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. My plan to write about the intersection of faith and everyday life was propelled into high gear by 9/11 and all that played out in the days that followed, both in our country and in our home. Suddenly my young children had questions that had no real answers. I had questions that had no real answers. I think we all did.

There was nothing we could do but move forward, slowly, shakily at first, but with more strength and confidence as the days went by. Now, looking back, I realize that as much as the outside world has changed in the past decade, so has my internal world, the landscape of my soul. Much of it has been explored and expressed in the 650-word jolts I put on paper each month; more has been poured out on the pages of my books and the posts of my blog.

It has been a challenging journey, filled with desperate lows – like the one we all experienced on that clear September morning – and joyous highs – like the birth of my third child, the publication of my four books, and the ongoing interior pilgrimage that is my spiritual journey. Someone recently asked me if I had any breakthroughs to share. At first I laughed at the prospect, but the comment caused me to pause and reflect on the changes that have taken place without my even realizing it.

I think most of us imagine we’re standing still, whether it’s in our professional lives or personal lives or spiritual lives. We look at the big picture and can feel as though we’re simply not making progress. I know I often look at my cluttered desk, cluttered kitchen counters, and equally cluttered prayer life and think: “Nothing’s happening here.” But, when I go back to September 2001 and mentally walk the path from there to here in my mind, I realize I’ve come a lot farther than it appears on the surface.

You’ve heard me talk (whine?) in this space about my struggles with prayer, struggles with motherhood, struggles with multi-tasking, struggles with everything from laundry to oatmeal. I tend to be more open about my struggles than about my strides because I never want to get too comfortable, never want to sit back and think, “I’ve arrived.” Perhaps because we never really arrive. We may have breakthroughs, we may find ourselves stepping out into the unknown with total faith, but the truth is, there’s always more work to be done, always another step to be taken.

Today my prayer life is far different than it was 10 years ago, as is my spiritual focus. Where before I was simply happy to get something out of Sunday Mass while a fussy baby clawed at my hair, today my spiritual routine includes praying parts of the Divine Office daily, slices of silence sprinkled throughout my days, regular spiritual reading and sporadic spiritual blogging, an annual retreat, and the desire for ongoing pilgrimage – whether to Rome or Auriesville or simply to the farthest reaches of my heart.

Where have you been this past decade and where do you want to go next? Chances are, if you take some quiet time to reflect on your life, you, too, will realize you’ve moved much farther toward your goal – whatever that might be.

“God is in the details,” but sometimes we don’t take the time to notice the details. We want progress to come with a thunderclap, an “aha moment” that will change us all at once. But sometimes, most times, progress comes in the still small voice, in the tiny but brilliant flashes of light that change us bit by bit and forever.

To read previous Life Lines columns, visit

Monday, September 19, 2011

Manic Monday: Crunch time, and I'm not referring to apples or leaves

Well, I've reached that moment in September when I am officially overwhelmed by what I see on the calendar -- a total absence of white space. Just one event after another, many of them simultaneous.

September is my favorite month, because of the weather, because of birthdays, because it feels like the start of a new year, but it's quickly losing points for becoming one of the most-feared months in our family's rotation. There's no time to appreciate the beauty of September. Or to breathe.

That's a good introduction for this week's Manic Monday post because it will explain a lot, like the fact that there are no new photos to share (but some really nice old ones). Not that I haven't seen plenty worth sharing this past week -- soccer games, dance classes, and more. I just haven't had time to snap photos of anything.

Soundtrack: Devil Went Down to Georgia. Yes, by the Charlie Daniels Band. Noah loves this song and was demonstrating for us how he knows all the words, well, with a substitution for the one bad word. You gotta admit, that's some good fiddle playing there.

Bookshelf: I'm well into The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and I will say this: Lewis was a GENIUS, which I already knew from some of his other works but this book just floored me. Originally published in 1941, it could have been written yesterday. It's that relevant to our times and our Church. Wow, what a powerful book. And a fast read. How had I not read this before now?

Viewfinder: Okay, this wasn't in my viewfinder this week, but it was just about one year ago. And, oh, how I wish I was there right now. At least once a day, every single day, I wish I could be back in Rome. I left a little piece of my heart in St. Peter's Square, I think.

One of my favorite spots: Ponte Sant'Angelo

I was so struck by the Coliseum's presence right there
in front of me as I walked down the street.

Piazza Navona, which felt like home by the end of 11 days.
I walked it every day on my way to and from Santa Croce University.

The view of St. Peter's from a bridge crossing the Tiber on the way to
Trastavere, my favorite neighborhood in Rome.

Thought for the week:

"You must never grow weary of doing what is right." 2 Thessalonians 3:13

Saturday, September 17, 2011

September walking meditation

One of my favorite parts of silent retreat is the opportunity to take the quiet of the retreat house or abbey and extend it out into the natural world. When I'm not busy worrying about work or listening to my iPod or talking to neighbors I pass along the way, walking becomes something entirely different. Not exercise, not a way to get from Point A to Point B, but a moving meditation.

I'm always amazed by what I see when I take the time to look and listen to the world around me, rather than rushing ahead with my ears buds in and my eyes focused a few feet ahead of me. Walk with me now down the Genesee Greenway and see some of what I saw through the silence of walking meditation.

This was my view (below) as I began the long walk down a nearby farm road toward the Genesee Greenway. I kept thinking of the road to Emmaus, probably because the prior brought up that topic during our conference the night before. As I walked down the hot, dusty road, not sure where I was going or what I would find at the end, I kept wondering if I'd recognize Jesus if I met him along the way. Do I recognize Jesus in my daily life? In the people I love or the strangers I meet or the people who annoy me?

I turned onto the Greenway path in total solitude. The only other person around was a farmer way off in the distance tending to his crops, and once I got deeper onto the path, even he disappeared from view. There was total silence, save for the sounds of nature -- the occasional rustling in the leaves and bushes, the bees flying by, the mosquitoes buzzing near my ears. With every step, I entered more deeply into the silence. And suddenly the little things came into view.

Like the berries hanging from this bush, waiting for birds and little creatures to come by for a snack. What beauty is hidden in places we usually don't bother to look?

Or this stand of white birch trees in the middle of the dark green woods. Typically I wouldn't have blinked at a birch tree, so common are they in my own suburban neighborhood. But there, set against the deep colors of the forest, they seemed magical.

This little wounded butterfly stopped for a moment on a stalk of corn. He didn't flinch as I edged closer to snap a photo. His woundedness made him more special to me, not less.

Corn as far as the eye could see. Everywhere I turned there was corn and more corn. Walking a path with cornfields on both sides made me so happy. I'm not completely sure why. And, yes, the corn was as high as an elephant's eye.

This little lovely was nothing more than a pretty weed. I grabbed a slim stalk and another of Queen Anne's Lace to add to my sacred space back at the retreat guest house. Sometimes we can find exactly what we need in the most unlikely places, like a patch of weeds.

As I walked another dirt road back toward the abbey, I saw this little chipmunk in the middle of the road, clearly injured and unable to move. Channeling my inner St. Francis, I talked to the little guy, and used a stick to coax him into the high grass at the edge of the road where I'm hoping he was hidden from the circling hawks and crows, not to mention the tires of the local farm truck.

Finally, back near the abbey, the pathway was lined with so many lovely wildflowers, including this sparse but striking specimen. As I wandered from cornfield to woods to river to garden to sunset, one thing kept playing in my mind: My God is an awesome God. How great thou art!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Foodie Friday: When the boys are away...

It's been girls' week at our house. Or at least girls' three days. With Dennis and Noah away, this is our opportunity to eat weird stuff that they'd rather skip.

I had hoped to have some lovely photos of the totally kickin' udon and tofu noodle soup I made last night, but, alas, the teenager took my camera to camp for a school trip and I screwed up something during the download from Olivia's camera. So, no photos, but I will tell you this: Udon noodle soup is delicious, whether you are vegetarian or not (it's actually vegan). In fact, it's so good it's a favorite with four out of five in our household, carnivores included.

It starts out with a shitake mushroom "dashi," or broth, made by simmering dried shitakes with slices of ginger and a little soy sauce. Once that's done -- after 15 minutes of simmer and 15 minutes of steeping. You pull out the ginger and prepare to make the rest of the soup. At that point you add rice wine vinegar, sake or sherry, mirin, more ginger, and soy sauce, and simmer. Meanwhile, you boil the udon noodles (You can also use soba noodles). When things are close to done, you add some cubed tofu and edamame to the soup and stir in a little light miso. When the noodles are done, drain and add to the soup. Top with chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. Delicious. If you want specific amounts, email me or leave me a note in comments and I'll get you the recipe.

Tonight we opted for homemade hummus with store-bought pita chips and leftover udon noodle soup. A fairly simple dinner (see photo above) after a cold night at the soccer field. Both girls declared the hummus the best they've ever tasted and asked to take the leftovers for lunch tomorrow, so that was nice. Pretty basic recipe from Mark Bittman, although I changed it up. I can't help it. I just can't leave well enough alone when it comes to recipes. I decreased the tahini and olive oil. I think it worked out fine. So it was basically a can of chick peas (drained), 1/4 cup of tahini, a good pour of olive oil, two cloves of garlic, slightly less than a tablespoon of cumin, juice of one lemon all whirred in the food processor. I added a little water to thin it, added some salt and pepper, and topped with fresh chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. It can't touch my friend Michele's hummus, which really is the best I've ever tasted, but it came close.

So that's it from here. We're eating hummus and tofu. Dennis is dining at Manhattan restaurants. I think we both know who's got the better deal this week. On the other hand, Noah's eating camp food. So I guess it all evens out.

Have a great weekend. Eat some great food. Drink some great wine, or even some mediocre wine. But whatever you do, enjoy!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Manic Monday: September is in full swing

First full week of school. Not sure how the big kids are going to continue carrying backpacks filled to overflowing with notebooks of every shape and size. Back when I was a kid, you had one binder with dividers for each subject. Now they need big binders for every single subject.

Olivia needed eight dividers for her French notebook alone. Noah needed seven in his science notebook. What, exactly, are they going to be dividing into so many sections? Stay tuned...We'll probably need the name of a good chiropractor within a month or so.

So here's what's happening on this Manic Monday...

Soundtrack: Still listening to religious music, a remnant of my retreat drive. I had used my eight hours of driving (total) to extend my retreat, so I listened to religious music and a Henri Nouwen talk on the "Spirituality of Waiting" on the way out and more religious music on the way back. Nothing else. I'm still in that mindset, so the van radio is set to a Christian station, believe it or not.

Bookshelf: Still working my way through The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen, which has taken on such special meaning since my retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee and my meeting with Brother Christian, who is mentioned in this book.

Just took The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis out of the library. I've never read this classic. Not sure when I'm going to find time to fit it in, but I'm going to give it a shot.


Noah's first day of high school/Lab School. That easel has been our first-day photo spot since he was in preschool. It's a little worse for wear, thanks to Chiara, but we're keeping the tradition as long as we can (much to Noah's chagrin).

Olivia's first day of middle school. Lots of firsts around here this year.

Chiara's first day of first grade.

Every morning Fred the Cat comes into the kitchen and hops up to this window to see what's going on outside. He prefers when the window is open. He thinks he's a person.

Appointment Book: Another crazy week ahead. Chiara starts ballet/tap/jazz dance class; Olivia starts hip hop. Noah goes on a three-day "retreat" with Lab School. Open houses, doctor and dentist appointments, dessert nights and more. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I'm going to try to maintain at least a little daily silence for prayer and spiritual reading. And sanity.

Thought for the day:
"There is no time with God. A thousand years, a single day: it is all one." 2Peter 3:8

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: A look back 10 years later

Here's the Life Lines column I wrote 10 years ago, in the days following 9/11. So much has changed in the past decade. Our world has changed. My family has changed. And yet, for me, this column still resonates with things that feel very much in tune with our world right now. Here's wishing all of you, all of us a future of peace -- peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace on our planet.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Noah plopped down on the floor next to me the other day and asked me to read one of his favorite books, “There’s an Alligator Under My Bed,” by Mercer Mayer. As we turned the pages and followed the little boy on his quest to capture the elusive alligator that kept him up at night, I had an eerie feeling that the story was an allegory for what I’d been feeling since that terrible morning a few days before.

The night after the World Trade Center attack, I lay awake in my bed staring at the ceiling, filled with a sense of dread that I could not quite put my finger on. I was scared, but not by the images of horror that had flashed before my eyes for hours that day. Instead my fears seemed frivolous, not at all unlike the little boy’s alligator: Had I left the dryer on in the basement? Was the window over the kitchen sink still open? Were the kids’ pajamas warm enough? I felt a childlike fear of the dark, of things no one else can see, things we parents usually try to hush with a goodnight kiss and a night-light.

When morning finally arrived, I realized that my sleeplessness wasn’t really about what might go wrong within my four walls. It was about what had gone wrong in our world. Long after I had wiped away the tears of sadness that fell as I watched the World Trade Center collapse over and over again on television’s seemingly endless loop of horror, I fought back tears of a different kind -- as I rocked Olivia to sleep for her nap, as I kissed Noah good-bye at preschool, as I hugged my husband, Dennis, at the end of a long day. Those were tears borne of fear, tears for tomorrow, tears for a world we don’t yet know. And I didn’t like how they felt.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost two years writing a book on how to help children deal with grief, the events of the past weeks left me in the unusual position of struggling for words. On the day of the attack, when Noah, asked if “bad people” might knock down our house, I reassured him that they would not. When he made a logical leap – at least for a 4-year-old – and worried that they might knock down his grandmother’s apartment building in New York City, I told him he was safe, that no one was going to hurt him or the people he loved. All the while I found myself wondering if I was telling him a lie.

But that kind of thinking leads to hopelessness, and when we lose hope, we leave a void just waiting to be filled by fear and despair and alligators of every kind. Through stories on television and in newspapers, I had seen unbelievable hopefulness in the face of utter destruction. How could I not believe in the power of the human spirit and the ultimate goodness of humanity and a better world for our children?

That night, as a soft rain fell, our house seemed wrapped in a comforting quiet that was interrupted only by the reassuring hum of the dishwasher. With Noah and Olivia asleep in their rooms, I lay down and looked up. For the first time in days I didn’t notice the enveloping darkness but saw instead the tiny glowing stars that dot our bedroom ceiling, a “gift” left behind by the previous owners. As I finally closed my eyes to sleep, I whispered a prayer of hope, a prayer for a world where the only thing our children have to fear are the imaginary monsters hiding under their beds.

Copyright 2001, Mary DeTurris Poust

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reflections on Genesee: the lessons unfold

Is it possible a full week has gone by since I was on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee? Time moves so quickly, especially when time includes three kids going back to school and the start-up of Daisy scouts, Cadettes, Boy Scouts, soccer, dance and more.

The silence and solitude of the abbey seems so far away right now, and, yet, in a way, it is still will me, which I guess is testament to the fact that this retreat was a powerful experience for me. I'm close to saying "life-changing," but I still haven't decided if that's the truth or just my imagination and ego talking. Things churn slowly after silent retreat, and more things are unknown than known. In the best possible way.

During my days at Genesee, I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench under a willow tree (as seen in the photo right here), staring at the pond and the distant fields and just waiting for that still, small whisper of the Spirit. The awesomeness of God's creation, even when it's baking under a 90-degree day, is so much a part of the prayer experience for me when I'm on retreat. The sunrises and sunsets, the flowers and plants in every stage of blooming or dying back, the animals scurrying around, the moon rising in the night sky -- every single moment seems to speak of the Spirit, something I don't always notice when I'm rushing past the natural beauty of my own backyard.

To be perfectly honest, I've been somewhat quiet about my retreat because I feel protective of what happened there. To speak it would be to diminish it in some way, and so I've been laying low -- staying off Facebook except to post blog links, staying off my own blog except to give factual details rather than spiritual insights. One thing I will say for sure: Everyone should experience one weekend of silence and solitude a year (two, if possible). I felt that way when I went on silent retreat two years ago. I feel it now. Being away from everything, unplugging from the noise and the constant distractions, is good for the body, mind and soul. And if you are willing to let it all go, the Spirit will eventually make itself heard. Not necessarily easily or quickly or loudly, but one way or another, the Spirit will be there.

I'll share one spectacular moment from my retreat. When I first arrived, I wondered what I was doing there. Why not just go home and use the time to clean my house, catch up on work, hang out with Dennis and the kids? There was a moment when I actually considered getting back in the car and just driving east. But I knew that was fear of silence talking, fear of hearing something I might not want to hear. So I stayed and I prayed. And prayed. And many times, despite the beauty of the monks' chanting and the wonder of creation, I felt nothing. But I persisted -- because what else could I do? This was why I was here. I knew it wouldn't be easy.

With each hour of the Divine Office, I could feel myself settling into the rhythm of the day that is the monks' entire life. I looked forward to the next hour, the next Mass, the next chance to sit in the silence of the chapel and wait for the monks to enter and begin their singing and praying. By Sunday morning, I felt at home and was sad to know I was leaving for at least a year. As I stood in the bread store, waiting to buy monk-made cookies for the kids, I couldn't help but feel a little selfish for taking this time for myself when Dennis was home with the kids dealing with real life. Just then, as if to answer the nagging question still hanging around the edges of my mind, an old monk left his post in the "porter" office and came over to me in the store.

"You are doing everything you need to do to make a good retreat," he said, out of nowhere. And right then the Spirit felt closer than it has ever felt.

His name is Brother Christian, and in the silent abbey where contact with the monks is so limited, I was given this rare opportunity, this unexpected gift, right when I needed it most. It was one of the highlights of my retreat because it was an affirmation of my decision to be at the abbey that weekend, and a reminder that even when we don't think we're making progress in prayer, if we are praying at all, that's progress.

I drove home wrapped in this knowledge, with the words of Brother Christian echoing in my head. Then, when I got home, I googled Brother Christian's name because I had promised to send him a copy of my book, Walking Together (which he said he wanted to read). It was then that I realized that "my" Brother Christian was also Henri Nouwen's Brother Christian, the monk he wrote about in Genesee Diary, the monk who helped him when he couldn't keep up with the bread making, the monk who made him a special monastic tunic so that he could feel more at home on his extended stay at the abbey.

And I felt my heart burst open. What absolute grace to be encouraged by this very same monk, to be singled out and prayed for by the man who once encouraged and prayed for Henri Nouwen. It occurred to me that Nouwen gets all the notoriety for his spirituality and his writings, and yet it is the quiet monk like Brother Christian who is silently but powerfully shaping people's spiritual lives, unknown to the rest of the world. I know that my Genesee experience was cemented by the personal connection I now have with those holy monks, some -- like Brother Christian -- who've been living that life of silence and solitude for more than half a century.

More reflections and photos to come tomorrow and in days to come...

"Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart." -- Psalm 90

Monday, September 5, 2011

Entering the silence of Genesee: Part 1

I returned late yesterday from my private weekend retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., where I was privileged and blessed to pray the Divine Office and attend Mass with the Cistercian monks who call this abbey home. To be honest, I'm not yet to the point where I'm ready to ramble on and on about my spiritual experience. Silent retreats are like that, at least for me. I want to hold onto that spirit of silence for as long as I can, even in the midst of the chaos of normal life. Right now, spending too much time trying to write my experience when I'm still trying to absorb it all would somehow corrupt the beauty of what happened there. And so much of what happened there is invisible, indescribable and still unknown to me. So I'll try to tell you a bit about the retreat in pictures and descriptions, and then throughout the week I'll be back with reflections and observations.

The photo above is a shot of the front of the abbey, which is a beautiful stone and wood structure where the monks graciously welcome visitors to join them in prayer. The abbey was founded from the famed Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani and is the location written about by Henri Nouwen in The Genesee Diary.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and got my first taste of monastic prayer when I attended Vespers at 4:30 p.m. When you walk through the front door of the abbey, you can turn right to go to the bookstore, bread store (more on that another time) and sitting area where you can rest and look out at the magnificent view. If you turn left, you go down the hallway seen in the photo to the left. This leads to the chapel. Strict silence must be observed once you enter the hallway. Through those doors is the beautiful chapel, with its wood ceiling and stone walls.

Inside the chapel, guests are invited to sit in the stalls facing the monks, separated by a low iron gate. The circular altar is in the center. What a gift to be allowed into this space and to chant the Office along with the monks. A bell rings, the monks rise, one of them knocks on a wood stall to signify it's time to begin and then the low, haunting melodies of the ancient prayers take over. We used the beautiful Abbey Psalter (seen here on the right) to pray throughout the day.

I loved each of the hours for different reasons, but if one stood out, it was Compline, specifically for the end of the hour when the monks turn to face an icon of Mary holding Jesus and chant the Salve Regina. The darkened chapel, two candles flickering under the icon, monks chanting. Can it really get any better than that? Well, perhaps only when you add to it a walk back from the abbey to retreat house just as the sun dips below the corn fields and the horizon right before your eyes.

I managed to make it over to Vigils at 2:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, which, of course, was spectacular for the very fact that while the rest of the world was sleeping, we were softly chanting.

Our retreat guest house was about three-quarters of a mile from the abbey, down a hill and then following a long stretch of field alongside a fairly busy country road. I often found myself wondering where all those pick-ups were speeding off to in the middle of nowhere.

Summer came on full force this weekend with temperatures hovering around 90 all day and well into the evening and no air conditioning. Anywhere. It was more than slightly uncomfortable, and I will admit that Friday was a rough entry period for me. I kept wishing it would be cooler, and then realized part of this retreat would be surrendering to what was instead of wishing for what wasn't. Once I accepted the fact that I'd be dripping with sweat for the next 48 hours, things got much better. (Of course, next time I'll plan for later in the fall or early in the spring.) I figured that with all my trips back and fourth to the abbey for various hours and then my five-mile walk along the greenway behind the retreat center, I clocked about 10 miles of walking on Saturday alone. Good thing I threw in those hiking boots at the last minute.

At the retreat center, I was assigned the "Hermit Room," so named because the guest who gets this room can remain even more isolated than the other retreatants. Although it was much more sparsely appointed than the other guest rooms, it had a private bath/shower and a comfortable rocking chair. I set up my own little sacred space on the desk of my cell. You can see it over there on the right, complete with crucifix, battery-powered candle, a pine cone I found on a morning walk, a copy of the icon from the abbey chapel, St. Francis, Thomas Merton, prayer books, Rosary beads, and some Queen Anne's Lace I picked on my long walk. The shell is obviously from a beach very far from Piffard, but seashells are always part of my sacred space.

Now, if you thought I was kidding about that Hermit Room label, please take a gander at my bed, which appears to be either a short picnic table or a large coffee table with a mattress on it. It was as hard as a board because it was, in fact, a board. (Other guest rooms had typical mattress/boxspring beds.) When I first saw this bed, I groaned. Out loud. Which you aren't supposed to do on a silent retreat. But I will admit that I slept quite soundly, so I guess all that walking paid off.

I didn't spend a whole lot of time in my room anyway since I was either up at the abbey or out on the lovely retreat center grounds or in the small chapel inside the guest house, which was a nice place to pray late at night when I wanted some quiet prayer time without heading out into the darkness. I did that once and decided against it after that. On Saturday morning, at 5:30 a.m. I grabbed my flashlight and reflective vest and walked alone and in total darkness up to the abbey. Longest three-quarters of a mile of my life. I started with my guardian angel and moved right into the Rosary. I didn't have beads. I wasn't even counting. I was just saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers as fast as I could, as if rushing the prayers would get me to that abbey faster. I saw the shadow of at least one large figure lope through my flashlight beam. I'd like to think it was a deer. And then one smaller animal. I opted for imagining a bunny or groundhog over skunk or rabid fox. When I finally saw the beautiful Asian-style lanterns of the abbey, I breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to drive whenever darkness was part of the prayer equation.

I'll bring you more photos and thoughts on my retreat in the days to come, but for now here is a brief video clip of one short piece of my walk to the abbey. It's the last stretch of hill before the abbey comes into view. Forgive the bright sun in your eye; it was almost dusk and the sun was getting pretty low. This clip is not nearly as compelling as Into Great Silence as there is no melting snow, dripping water, or feral cats, just me breathing as I hike up the hill and some occasional crickets chirping in the background. Click the play button below:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Foodie Friday: Nourishment of a different kind

As you know, I normally reserve this space for whatever I'm cooking -- or ordering at a restaurant. But today it's a Foodie Friday of a different sort. As you read this, I'm making the four-hour drive to the Abbey of the Genesee for a private silent retreat.

It's my first visit to the Cistercian abbey near Rochester (that's the front entrance in the photo above). I called less than two weeks ago to see when they had an opening and lucked out. This weekend of silence is just what I need to end a summer that has verged on insane due to the amount of work I had to do with all three kids at home. (It was no picnic for the kids either.)

To be honest, I am mentally on my way to this retreat even as I write this, so I'll have to save any further blog posting until I get back. I will pray for all my NSS readers while I'm there. Please say a prayer for me as well. Here's where I'll be staying:

I hope the weather holds out so I can explore some of the 1,200+ acres, like this beautiful little spot:

And just in case you think this post is totally unrelated to food, have no fear. Monk Bread is a specialty of the abbey, so I hope to have some for breakfast when I'm there, and I plan to load up the car before I return. I'll let you know if it's as good as everyone says it is.