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Saturday, November 22, 2014


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This week’s guest blog is by Cathy Maciariello. When Cathy is not at First Presbyterian Church, she keeps busy in her hometown of Atlanta, Illinois by volunteering at the local library. You are likely to find her with a book in hand, tending her flowerbed during the growing seasons, and spinning many tales about her trips around the world.

There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, where there’s a confidence and tranquility in you. The intention of prayer and spirituality and love is to now and again visit that kind of inner sanctuary. (John O’Donohue, Irish poet)

In college, I was that shy girl who never talked in class. Truthfully, I was always so busy composing a perfect and abidingly intelligent response to whatever question was on the table that I just missed my opportunity. I think I must have spoken about three sentences during my entire college classroom career. That’s not such a bad thing. Reticence can be a blessing, since—with a little time and distance—real meaning is free to emerge from the shadow of self-conscious rhetoric.

This is why it has taken me some time to sort out my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani. I’ve been waiting for the shadows to fade. Before we left for Kentucky, my spiritual adviser told me not to expect too much, repeating what a wise monk once told him: “You get the retreat you get.” So I went, with as few expectations as possible, but with the hope that surely “something” would happen. I also went with a powerful memory: that during the inscrutable times of my life, God has shown a wonderful—if sometimes exasperating—way of gathering uncertainty into understanding and weaving the loose threads of my experience into a comfortable tapestry—if I simply have the patience to wait out the apparently inexplicable and accept whatever image appears—whether or not it resembles the meaning I am trying to make on my own.

So for me to describe the impact of Gethsemani, I need to back up a bit and talk about a couple of those dangling threads….
Several months ago, I visited Muir Woods. I had wanted to do this for a long time, and I expected to be astounded. But what got to me wasn’t the trees. On the bus from San Francisco, our driver pointed to the massive granite walls hugging the road and said, “These rocks are a billion years old. They’ve been here since California rose up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.” And then we flew on by. “Whoa, wait a minute,” I wanted to say. “Stop! I need to touch them.”

Later, in the natural redwood cathedral that is Muir Woods—a place that should inspire prayer from anyone—I couldn’t find the words. All I could think about were those rock walls. Suddenly, the Creation story became very real and very personal. I imagined the excruciatingly hard work of it: God’s hands lifting rock from the sea, laboring under the strain of birthing a continent, nearly weeping with the effort, and finally resting when the work was done. And how many miles must Christ have walked even long before those final crushing days in Jerusalem, throat sore from all the preaching, callused feet bone tired, heart breaking from the ineptitude of his disciples? Theoretically, I understood all this, but I had just never felt it.

Only Michelangelo’s breathtaking “Prisoners” at the Accademia in Florence have ever given me anything like this feeling—those massive, unforgettable figures heaving, willing their way out of the stone under the sculptor’s blade. In that moment in Muir Woods, I knew the reassurance of God’s continuing participation in Creation. Just as God suffered with Christ on the cross, he also labored alongside Michelangelo, and agonized with the deaf Beethoven as he fought to bring his Ninth Symphony and all those haunting late string quartets to life. God has been and is with us in every moment of Creation no matter how big or small—with the Apostle Paul and Nelson Mandela in prison, with victims of abuse, every woman in childbirth, every laborer in the fields, every struggling 4th-grader trying to learn multiplication tables, even with me in my garden, feeling the pain of my blisters as if they were his own. We are in this Creation thing together, and it is hard work. Sometimes it hurts. And sometimes you have a hard time praying in the midst of it.

The second memory I carried with me to Gethsemani was a dream I had a few weeks ago. For some unknown reason, I was walking somewhere carrying an unidentified man on my back. While I felt his weight, it wasn’t much of a burden, and he wrapped himself around my shoulders in a way that was more affectionate than demanding. I could feel his warm breath even through my jacket. When evening came, I laid him to sleep on the ground while I continued to walk in place until morning. No progress on the journey—just a lot of apparently meaningless walking. I was working, but to no conceivable end. I had no idea what to think of all this, and the dream was still poking around at me when we arrived at the Abbey.

That’s where the monks come in. Here I was again—worrying myself over the meaning I could make when God was already busy tying up the loose ends for me. Early on that first morning we met Brother Paul Quenon—fit, smiling, with penetrating eyes, an easy gift for laughter, and a tiny notebook with his latest Haiku tucked away in a pocket. Not to mention an unfiltered insight that must be possible only for someone so attuned to silence and so unburdened by the world’s intrusions. “God gives us too much,” he told us. “Think about the abundance. It’s just too much to bear. Better not to talk about it. We don’t.” I know that feeling.

I started paying closer attention to the monks and keeping time by their prayers. Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. My own “work” of the retreat kept time with their daily work responsibilities. I read and wrote between prayers, took a walk in the woods with our little group, even found time for some shopping in the gift shop. But always it was the prayers that drew me back. Arriving early in the chapel, I would look forward to the doors opening as the monks wandered in one by one to take their places, to hearing their soft footsteps and the rustling of liturgical books, to anticipating the subtle rhythmic chants of the psalms—to disappearing into the “work” of the monks that is prayer.

Seven times a day they pray. Seven times a day, seven days a week, until the end of time. The gift is nearly unbearable.

I began thinking about the relationship between prayer and work, a relationship that, we know, helps define the monk’s day. Ora et labora….prayer and work. What would life be like if we, too, shaped our days like this? Would we be more purposeful in both working and praying? Would the boundaries between work and prayer begin to blur as they seem to do for the monks? Would we think of prayer as our chief “work” or purpose? Would our daily work obligations start to feel a lot more like prayer than meaningless walking in the night toward some destination we can’t see? Would we call out to God unabashedly in both pain and gratitude as we stretch our “Creation muscles” in service to others? Would we live our lives in a simpler rhythm that pulses with the transfusion that is God’s love—the love Brother Paul told us was better embraced than discussed? Would we stop trying to make our own meanings and let God have his way with our hearts?

Sister Joan Chittester says in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, “Work gives me a place in salvation. It helps redeem the world from sin. It enables creation to go on creating. It brings us all one step closer to what the Kingdom is meant to be….The purpose of work…is to carry others, to care for them, and to see them safely home.” I can think of nothing closer to prayer than this. The dream of it—my dream—makes me smile. Ora et labora…when done with God, is there really any difference?

Seven times a day they pray. Seven times a day, seven days a week, until the end of time. Somewhere in the world a monk is praying for me now—and will be for as long as I live. There’s an overwhelming comfort in that, especially when I feel like I’m failing in my Creation responsibilities, when the effort is just too much, when I lose my way. What the monks gave me at Gethsemani was the determination to just keep walking, the courage to wrap myself in the tapestry God is making for me, and the freedom to let him turn my footsteps into prayers.

[Cathy Maciariello of First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln]


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