Stairway to Heaven


I do not gaze much at the sky although I do enjoy looking at it whenever my eyes end up there. I remember one happy backyard Fourth of July when a friend’s daughter confidently unlocked the mysteries of the starry night before a group of rapt adults.  Her teenage friends — our children — could not be bothered with such punditry on a holiday evening.  With zero attention on herself or her snickering, clueless colleagues, she rattled off a long list of Greek gods and goddesses whose exploits are forever chronicled in the heavens.  I was so impressed.  “Eliza, I would LOVE to forget one smidge of what you have learned about the stars.”  She laughed.  I laughed.  The stars twinkled on and on and on.

Given the fact I have admitted to NO predilection to ponder the sky, it was surprising to me that Saturday I took a bold action in pursuit of a better look at the horizon — I pulled over to take a picture of some clouds.

I was on my way back from the memorial service for Mike Bauer, the beloved brother of two best friends, Nancy and Linda.  His service was at a lovely inn in a picturesque Maryland bayside town.  For the second time that day, I was traveling the unfamiliar byways of my neighboring state.  “How I can know so little about a state that borders my own?” I thought.  My mind wandered . . . “Had I become one of those die-hard Virginians who know zilch and care even less about Maryland?”  As these thoughts crisscrossed my mind, I awoke from my cruise-control-induced reverie with a jolt.  I noticed something in the windswept gray sky blue that took my breath away.  What was “it”? I wondered, as a copse of trees and some miscellaneous silos blocked my view.  I’ll have to wait for the next bend I thought.  As I rounded a broad arch in the highway, the entire expanse of the horizon was before me and I saw “it” again.  The “it” I saw was a spectacular cloud that my heart had seen even if my brain was slow to name it.

What caught my eye was a very distinct cirrus cloud that stretched from the lower right side of the horizon to the upper left before it disappeared in a mammoth billowy cloud that IMG_0245was lit by the sun.  “Wow,” I mused, “this is really something!”  The longer I looked at the cloud the more distinct its features became.  In addition to the strong, but wispy sides, there appeared to be lateral struts reaching from one edge to the other.  “It’s a ladder!” I exclaimed, catching myself by surprise with my utterance.

Then, I slowly pulled my truck to the side of this unknown Maryland road and I cried.

I cried until I had no more tears to unleash.  I cried for my friends’ loss, I cried for Pat who had lost her “younger” man after 45 years of togetherness, I cried for the grandsons Mike would never hold, but mostly I cried for me.  I cried because Mike made me a better me.  Every time he wrapped me in those mammoth arms of his, I knew I was loved.  It was his gift, a gift he never talked about and one he certainly never used to his own advantage.  Simply put, it was who he was.

And then the significance of my late-afternoon pitstop became clear.  I had stopped to watch Mike make his final journey into heaven.  I had watched as he carefully placed one foot and then the other on rung after rung.  About halfway up, I swear I saw him turn, half smile, and blow a kiss to his beloved Pat.  As he reached the top, the cloud staircase started to melt into the rest of the sunset as Mike pulled the ladder up behind him, not one to leave a required task to someone else, always leaving the room in better shape than when he entered it.

The sky grew dark and I realized I’d been staring at the horizon for a long time.  I gradually nudged the suburban back into the steady stream of traffic headed west.  One loving mile after another I made my way back to my side of the river . . .  just this side of Heaven.

Signature 2

A Modern Day Herzberg . . . A Good Luck Wish for My Friend, Brigid


After spending two weekends in a row, trying to teach a 9th grader how to study, listening to a husband scream at the same 9th grader about world civilization, and trying to convince a 7th grader that living in two-feet of clothing is a fire hazard, I feel like I could write a book on the downside to a lack of leisure in one’s life . . . instead, my friend, Brigid is writing such a tome.  This posting — albeit way longer than any of us has time to read is for Brigid on the relevance and importance of her work.  Intrigued?  Good.  Get ready for a long story.   Grab a cup of decaf, find a quiet space and settle.  Or, you could just hit delete. It won’t hurt my feelings — much. 😉

For the past ten weeks, I’ve been studying culture in an effort to help our company determine what ours is and then determine if we have the right culture to support where we are headed as an organization. I was handed this “project” by my manager whom I dearly love with these words, “Marcia, I’m responsible for this project and because I am, you are, too. Let me know what you think.” From that day forward, I had to wedge in time to get my arms around the subject and figure out what to do with it in time for a company-wide meeting to be held over three days at a bucolic location off Skyline Drive. In between rides to travel soccer, field hockey, tutoring, and piano as well as teacher conferences, groceries, cooking, running (yes!), and planning an engagement party for a friend, I’ve managed to read over 2,000 pages on change, innovation, culture, management, and motivation from people like John Kotter, Marshall Goldsmith, Daniel Pink, Ruth Kantor, Frederick Herzberg, and the like — people I deem to be way smarter than I am.

Early on, this project was shaping up to be a lecture to the team led by my manager and me. The more I read the more I thought this was certain suicide. Culture is not an it, it’s a living and breathing thing shared equally by all. Yes, there is a tone set by the top — executive managers — but who wants to hear your CFO and your head of HR dictate to you what you should be thinking and feeling about your workplace? No wonder I was getting anxious thinking about it . . . we were on the wrong track. I scheduled time with my manager and cited my sources. The clock is ticking. We were now eight weeks out from the offsite.

“I think we’re on the wrong track. We probably need to ask questions and talk less,” I suggested.

“Hmmm . . . like what?” he asked. “This is starting to sound kind of woo woo.”

I then rambled off the kinds of questions that could get some meaningful dialogue started — what are the culture’s values? what do we want to keep? what don’t we like? what is missing that we should add? what steps would you take to institute more meaningful values?

“Yuck, it does sound woo woo,” he responded. “Okay, I’ll take this to the exec staff meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile, don’t stop writing the speech and creating the powerpoint.”

The more I read, the more I was convinced that dialogue was the answer. Also, the more I read, the more I started to think about the culture I’d grown up with, the culture I was creating in my own house. I read this incredible lecture-cum-article written by Clayton Christensen of Harvard entitled “Measuring Your Life” (http://hbr.org/2010/07/how-will-you-measure-your-life/ar/1)   and began to see the principles that were at work in companies at work in my own household. I did not feel particularly able to articulate anything or stop anything from happening, but I was awake to the fact that these concepts were not just applicable to business, they were applicable to all of life. Meanwhile, life was moving along — Costco runs, back to back fatal heart attacks of two friends’ spouses, birthday parties, impromptu gathering for the rising of a harvest moon, planning the annual Halloween party for 90 teenagers, church small group, and the list goes on. Luckily, the executive staff agreed that a dialogue was the answer. We were all in this together.

My reading continued. I was now becoming attuned to juggling work and life with business reading. I read before I ran. I read after I ran. I even tried running while reading on the treadmill, but almost killed myself falling off of it. I decided that some innovative modification was definitely required to make this a safe effort so I abandoned that one, but I continued to read at lunch. I read at the doctor’s office. I read getting my nails done. I read before dinner/after dinner/before bed. I dreamed about what I was reading. I had dialogues with Herzberg and Maslow. I woke to Pavlov’s dog (our 14-year-old pooch Kofi) barking to be let out. To say I was consuming a lot of material is an understatement; I was being consumed by the topic.

Our chief of staff was catching the bug, too. What if culture became the theme of the offsite and all our sessions revolved around it? Wow! What a concept. Instead of our stand-up routine, which could have been a comedic one (because I hate delivering serious content to a group), the agenda took shape — corporate jeopardy on Wednesday night, executive overview on Thursday morning, group exercise on culture mid-day, team-bonding with dice/cards on Thursday night, and family feud game on talent/people on Friday. My reading was starting to pay dividends at work . . . but not at home. Harried, harried, harried. A resolve to eat better produced two meals in one 10-day period. A well-intentioned stock-the-freezer trip to Costco resulted in a collapse of the shelves. An innovative program designed to give parents access to high-schoolers’ grades turned into the shocking revelation that the 9th grader was making Ds in two subjects, one of which was English. How the hell do you get a D in your native language? Gaps were being revealed all over the place. Ours was a culture of chaos, disruption, broken promises, and snarky responses.

To say Frederick Herzberg saved my life is so nonsensical, I can’t even believe I started the sentence that way. It makes me, and probably everyone reading this think I was looking for him . . . that I was aware that there was an answer and I was aggressively seeking it. Kerphluie! I was becoming increasingly convinced that there was no way out — that there was nothing that me or any one of my talented friends could say or do that would relieve the pressure I felt as a professional, a mother, a wife, and as a person. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. However, I was still reading, reading, reading until I felt like I couldn’t stomach one more list — Goldsmith’s list of derailing behaviors, Bill Murphy’s list of entrepreneurial traits, Donna Dubinsky’s top five leadership lessons, and Jim Collin’s traits for the best kind of employee. I was now skimming tables of contents before I put time into another article or a book.

It was in this context that I almost skipped Herzberg’s article, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” What, after all, did a psychologist who studied motivation for 50 years and who passed away in 2000 as the internet boom was in full-swing have to say to me or to our cool, cutting-edge company which was launched the year before he died? With offsite planning in its final stages and my presentation recast as a gameshow with a partner who is arguably the most fun person I’ve ever worked with in my 30 years in business all but done, I was not interested in learning anything new. The title caught my attention. Starting out with “one more time” reminded me of an aerobics instructor from days gone by who sensing the reluctance of her students to give their all to lunges and grapevines barked, “one more time and THIS TIME with feeling!” Excuse me. Are you talking to me?

I started to read the article . . . and I started laughing. Laughed, you scoff? Yes, laughed. LOL. Belly laugh. Cracked up. Doubled over laughing. Herzberg was writing to me — the weary parent, devoted employee, busy person, do-gooder wanna-be. Herzberg had my attention. I learned that motivation has primarily focused on positive and negative KITA behaviors — kick-in-the-ass tactics used by management (applicable to spouses and parents, too!) to get employees (read: spouses, kids, colleagues) to do what we/they want them/us to do. Apparently, as humans we’ve gotten smarter over the years and our tactics have become more subtle. Whereas corporate beatings or corporal punishment in schools were early ways of maintaining order, today we send employees to classes on working with difficult people or managers to sensitivity training — all with the same goal of getting them to work better in a culture that thrives on hierarchy and discipline. What Herzberg learned was that once you get beyond the KITAs and actually tackle the concerns employees have about their jobs, there is no lift to motivation. What???? So you can resolve everyone’s concerns over money, time off, benefits, working conditions and they’re still not happy. This is starting to sound like justification for the boot-camp tactics at Parris Island, I think. But no, Herzberg argues, you should fix those things anyway just don’t expect them to send your employees into a productivity upturn. So what’s the point here? Harvard’s teaser to the article reads, “Forget praise. Forget punishment. Forget cash. You need to make their jobs more interesting.” What does interesting have to do with anything? It’s midnight and I have to stop reading because I have to get up at 6am to fill out paperwork for school, write checks for picture day, and figure out what we have left to do to complete our 2009 tax return — yes, it is October 2010. Please do not smurk if yours were done well before now, it won’t help. 😉

I wake up unhappy. I now have proof that wheedling, cajoling, bribing, sugarcoating, ass-kissing (hey if Herzberg can write it in the Harvard Business Review, I can write it here!) does not make me or anyone around me happier. Plus, I could give in to all my teenagers’ requests, give raises to all of our employees, grant sabbaticals right and left, and still experience no lightening in my load at either home or the office. No more laundry would get done, we wouldn’t do any more deals than we’re currently doing, and most importantly, I’m still the b—- on wheels I currently am. I then remembered that I haven’t finished the Herzberg article. I am not hopeful, but I am intrigued. I realize that I’m not going to have any time to get to it until lunch. I sigh and accept my lot in life.

In a cozy alcove of the Wilson Boulevard Corner Bakery I tackle Herzberg’s article. Yup, I’ve read it correctly. I can’t expect more from anyone by satisfying their list of demands. But then again, I can expect worse if I don’t do those things that should be done — however, moderation is recommended. I envision a conversation with my 9th grader, “No, you still cannot go to a movie at 9pm and then hang around Hoffman until midnight. Don’t mess with me. I have Harvard professors on my side now.” Although I am buoyed by this, I am still left wondering what is the key to motivation? Mine and others? How do I become more engaged in my multiple roles? How do I motivate others to do and tackle more? How do I get this blasted monkey off my back? I am in favor of a more interesting life, I have an interesting job. Job enrichment, I learn is the answer. Job enrichment, what the heck does that mean to me? “Stifle,” I say to my subconscious as I feel the bile rising from my gut. Humans crave being of value. They want to feel useful, engaged, committed, interested, I read. Herzberg writes:

The term job enrichment describes this embryonic movement. . Job enrichment provides the opportunity for the employee’s psychological growth, while job enlargement merely makes a job structurally bigger. Since scientific job enrichment is very new, this article only suggests the principles and practical steps that have recently emerged from several successful experiments in industry.

I push away my soup and croissant. I think about what’s been written. I think again. I grab my journal and start writing. How do I feel about this? What implications does this have for me, my family, my workplace? Does this apply to everyone? I go back to the article and search for footnoted exclusions. No references to teenagers and spouses who have given up alcohol/TV/caffeine are included. Have I found the answer? I don’t know, but I do feel a lot lighter.   I’ve got to share this with Brigid, I think. How do I weave this into the offsite? We are t-minus a week and counting.

Last week, we conducted our offsite at Airlie. Although I was stressed for two-and-a-half days waiting for the opportunity to contribute my piece to the content, I could sense a shift in the load management was carrying. We were sorted into six teams ten days out and those teams were gelling nicely. Some had taken creative names, the Q-Shore, a take on Jersey shore, the 50-Cent Gang for a group that was 50% men/women, Workaholics, etc. Others had t-shirts, bandanas. When we arrived, there was energy. Ad hoc running groups were sprinting out of the complex at 7am and on breaks before dinner. Someone had brought a guitar — there were sing-a-longs until 2:30 in the morning. There were questions from management — teams had answers. There was stimulating content from people who know how to deliver a presentation from a podium — I promise to learn how to do that one day. The feud game my colleague and I led on Friday was long, fun, but definitely not boring. The offsite had been improved. My reading was paying off and the offsite was the beneficiary.

Home? I got home around 1:30pm on Friday. I was going to go to the office, but was exhausted. I decided to take a power-nap and woke up 2 hours later. It didn’t take long before the inhabitants of 101 Uhler Terrace were all at each other again — curfews, laundry, nothing to eat in the refrigerator (despite the crushing weight of all of the food in the freezer), Swahili lessons, cellphone upgrades (or not!), studying, etc. I went to bed at 8pm on Saturday night and dreamt of Herzberg — no lie. I had now seen so many images of him on Google he had a face — a kind of modern-day looking Einstein with more weird hair. He, or rather his picture, kept floating around in my dream talking to me. He wasn’t talking about motivation he was just talking to me. Odd at best, possibly deeply disturbing at its worst. I prefer to think of it as uplifting and a reminder that this “enrichment” thing may be something we all need to ponder — men and women, moms and dads, brothers and sisters.  All of us.  However, in the case of my circle of mothers, we have to realize that we are management and the only way to enrich our roles is to enrich the roles of others.  As the editor writes in the notes to Herzberg’s article, “But the real key to motivating your employees is enabling them to activate their own internal generators. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to recharge their batteries yourself.”

Worth pondering . . . I wish Herzberg had lived long enough to study families — parents, spouses, and children.

Oh wait a minute . . . Brigid!  That’s the answer. You’re the one to take up the mantle and go from here, a modern-day Herzberg. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.

Signature 2

Running for My Life


This post was written on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia.

Today is proof that running is not about running.

After leaving three friends who were embarking on a 5-mile run,  I jogged down the hill to meet another friend for a more civilized early morning 3-mile walk/run.  No friend.  Oh well, do I walk or do I run?  I decided to run.  As I was leaving the main house at Airlie in the rear view, I realized that for a few weeks now, I’ve been struggling with hills – both up and down – and punishing my knees as a result.  As I was mounting the hill immediately leaving the property I started to think about this.  A hill is just a hill, right . . . every hill has an up and a down slope so what’s the big deal?  If you run down, you have to run up and vice versa.  All pretty obvious stuff.

Well the more I started to “think” about hills, the more I ran and the more I ran the more thoughts came to me about this dilemma.  As the Airlie house came into view after having run up and down hills for 3 miles, it all came to me.  Running is really not about running . . . it’s a pretty decent metaphor for a lot of life.  Not an original thought, but a good one for me to remember.  For example, running down hill makes me feel alive, vibrant, ready to attack challenges vigorously so I run joyfully and quickly down them . . . running uphill makes me feel cranky, irritated, life is burdensome so I plod up them and sometimes I stop.  The bottom line is they are just upslopes and downslopes and that’s all.

Meanwhile, there is the sun starting to crawl above the trees to my left.  There are the swans on the pond calling to me as I pad on by.  Oh my, I startled a doe as I ran past the abandoned landscaping truck rusted out by the side of the road.  Is that a rabbit that is crossing the path in front of me?  I wonder if I’ll catch up to that walker ahead of me . . . I’ve finished this run and I feel like I’ve barely started.

All of this insight and I didn’t have to pay a cent and I got the exercise I wanted.   I think I’ll keep running . . . with thanks to Haruki Murakami for getting me started on “thinking” about running.  http://www.amazon.com/What-Talk-About-When-Running/dp/0307269191

 

Signature 2

Restless in Berryville


God shops at Costco! He has the same tupperware cereal containers here at Berryville that I am using at home. It’s a sign . . . I am forgiven.

I have never actually witnessed the movement of wind through trees until this weekend. I first heard something on Friday night. It was as if someone was moving through the brush. I caught a sense that something was happening, but turned towards the source and only then was I treated to the full breathy, expansive fullness of the sound. Yesterday, the same experience, however, I wondered why I’ve never felt that before. Such a common phenomenon . . . On my way back from Compline, I felt the same thrill. Why was this such a new thing?

This morning I have been restless since 3 am. I was sorely tempted to go to Vigils at 3:30 am but rolled over instead. I tossed and turned but not at all unpleasantly until the clock glowed 6:30am. With that, I realized it was time to emerge from my cocoon. I stripped the bed — this was our last day at Holy Cross Abbey — as requested in the ‘dear friends’ note on the desk, balling up the sheets and shoving them into the pillow case. I pulled off my pseudo-pajamas — running shorts and a t-shirt — and traded them for a white pants skirt and a black polo. I took one more minute to brush my teeth and grab a sweatshirt, even summers in Berryville are chilly, and headed off for Lauds.

The chapel is about a half-mile from the retreat house. The road is paved, but the adventurous may take shortcuts through the unfenced fields. Leaving the premises, a modest yellow brick building that houses 16 rooms, kitchen, dining room, foyer, library, and chapel, I am greeted by two cats. There are several that inhabit the grounds, but are not allowed inside. The fat yellow tabby that is queen of the brood is nowhere to be found. Instead her lord and maiden have come to greet me and are glad for the gentle touch of my hand. They, too, appear to have been roused recently from sleep, but are not at all unhappy about it. In fact, we all seem quite content and pleased with ourselves to be up before most of the others. There is no hum in the air, no buzz of activity as I round the garden of zinnias and sunflowers — the bees and butterflies have not yet woken. There is a slight chill in the air and I am glad that I have worn the West Loudoun Vikings hoodie I purchased on Friday.

The road winds past the pasture. There are cows grazing, but nowhere near the number that were parked on this plot of land last evening. Lupe was so entranced by them she took pictures of every one of them that would come to the fence. They were as curious about us as we were delighted to meet them. Most were black with tags in either or both of their ears. We assumed they were beef cows, but again someone who reads this will confirm or deny the fact. Today, none of them are even close to the pathway. Having satisfied whatever curiosity they had, they have moved on. So have I.

The next patch of road is a straight stretch that passes the monastery gift shop. This is my favorite part of the walk. It is bordered by the cow pasture on one side and farmland on the other. I love the wire fences, the random trees, the abandoned stumps, the hay ricks, etc. I wonder if I came for a week would I see a whirlwind of activity? Would I be waving to farmers on tractors? Would there be threshers and irrigation machines? There must be some activity on these lands.

Regardless, I am content to walk on the road between the fields. As I approach the trees that have entertained me morning, noon, and night, there is no sound. Perhaps they will not talk to me today. I am not unhappy but curious about where the sound is made and why I have only been allowed to hear it so richly in my 52nd year. I pass the copse and move on to the gift shop corner.

Cool Spring Mansion

There is a sign as I round the corner that points the route to the retreat house, the chapel, and announces my arrival at the gift shop. The sign is gray — painted wood with black calligraphy. I wonder, do the monks create and maintain all of these signs? There must be a hundred of them on the property. If they do this is there anything they don’t do? Do they mow? Do they weed? Do they mop? Do they sort socks? Do they clean bathrooms?

Fr. Mark and Ruth

These thoughts preoccupy me as I head towards the Cool Spring mansion house. It was once a residence, but now serves as a meeting place and houses Brother James’ collection of prehistoric arrowheads and civil war artifacts found on the property. How can they maintain all of his? Their numbers are dwindling. This summer they lost Father Mark to complications after surgery and Brother Michael to a massive stroke. I will count them again this morning, hoping that overnight their ranks will have swollen to accommodate several hearty-looking thirty-somethings. There were four of them in a back pew last night — maybe they were the four new recruits reporting to duty. I will look for them.

I am thinking this as I mount the stairs to the chapel. I am alone. None of my fellow retreatants are visible on the path behind me. I will have the monks to myself. I am happy. I take my seat in the first pew behind the velvet cord that announces the separation between the monks’ worship quarters and the cheap seats. I am not put off by this restriction. To pass beyond that rope is to swear fealty to a life of unlimited otherness and I know that I am not ready for that. It is 6:50 am and the chapel is dark. I am alone.

A bell tolls and a monk appears in a walker. I wonder if, he too, rose at 3:30 am for Vigils or if like me, his first appearance before God is now. This thought is designed to make me feel better, but I know the truth. He was here even though he had to physically struggle to do so. I am humbled by this fact. This is a good sign. I am in their realm — humility is one of the virtues they preach. The work on me is already starting and the office has yet to begin.

More monks file in — there are four on the left, one in the front pew (Brother Vincent from the gift shop) who has a cold, four on the right plus one young man in street clothes. One of the new recruits, perhaps? None of the others from last night are with him. I can’t help myself; I contemplate the recruiting statistics — one out of four. Not bad, but at this rate the place will be in ruins before long. We need more troops, God.

Finally, my fellow retreatants appear. There are now four of us behind the cord. More bells. No more monks. Lauds is to begin.

Knock.
Knock.
Knock.

The abbot has signaled that it is time to start. The cantor begins. His voice is strong and beautiful. His colleagues join him and the sound surges towards the middle of the chapel. Facing each other in two pews, their voices entwine naturally and lift us all. The music hangs in the rafters — yes, there are rafters. The crucifix and statue of the blessed Virgin Mary seem to glow. The light is sparse and I realize belatedly no one has turned on the lights in our section. In fact, we’ve been sitting in the dark all weekend. I never noticed until now.

The service continues and I wonder how long these rituals will continue. I pray they will last forever. Everyone should have the opportunity to worship like this. The simplicity of the words, the purity of the emotion, and the basic adequacy of the surroundings amount to a glorious experience. The service is over quickly. We are out of the chapel by 7:20 am. I do not feel cheated. I have received more than I ever expected and am grateful that I pushed myself out of bed. I remember reading that Thomas Merton observed privately these liturgical offices for many years before being claimed by the Cistercians. The rhythm and discipline of it are appealing. Starting one’s day with a heart full of gratitude is the most attractive part.

I am the leader of the pack. I pull ahead of my fellow worshippers so as to avoid conversation. The path from the retreat house to the chapel and back is open for quiet talk. I want none of it this morning. I am actively engaged in worry about the size of this monastic community. We need these men and we need all that they bring to our world.

Prayer Trail

Then I felt it.

The hair on the back of my neck rose as I drew parallel with the stand of trees on the corner of the path. There was movement and my body sensed it. I turned to the trees and I could hear them. I could hear them brushing gently against one another — the breeze was light. I heard their trunks creaking and I could see the leaves clapping each other as if to provide applause for the sudden rush of wind. Suddenly, I was a part of it. I could feel the air on my cheeks, my bare legs. It was a beautiful moment . . . one that I’ve waited 52 11/12 years to experience.

But then again what should I expect? When have I ever really stopped to see, feel, and hear the magnificence I witnessed this Sunday morning? I am reminded of this quote from Haruki Murakami.

It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself.  No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.

Daniel, I thank you for all you’ve taught me about myself this weekend. The retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey is in good hands — your hands. I wish you well, my new friend.

This is the final in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Sunday, August 15, 2010.

Who’s in the Mood for a Prayer Request?


Lunch . . . I think I have given Daniel a bad rap.  Maybe all of his careful instructions before Friday night’s opening meal were required listening.  Maybe I needed that preamble to allow me to work the verbosity out of my system.  Maybe his voice and the reciting of the code of conduct was God working through him as a way to get my attention away from the mind-numbing nattering in my own head.

Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!
Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!

Once again, we are summoned to a simple meal in the dining room. I filed in to find my seat. Would I take the same seat I had yesterday? Would my friends join me? Should I branch out and take a new seat in another location? This was all useless chatter as the decision was made for me. Someone took the seat I had last evening. In response, I did not stray too far taking the seat next to my old one where Rosa had sat the night before. This set off a chain reaction of seating changes. Rosa moved one seat down, but next to me. There was now no room for Ruth so she moved across the room on the other side of the u-shaped arrangement. Lupe, who came in late, had to fend for herself finding a non-descript corner seat. The seating ritual was settled.

Next, the water pitchers were fetched by two well-meaning women. They poured water for all of us even responding as new people entered, well after Daniel’s ringing of the chimes. Glasses were filled. Places were assumed. Daniel entered from the kitchen with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

“We have assumed a new practice here at Holy Cross. If you would like, the monks and I will pray for you specifically. All you have to do is complete one of these prayer request forms and leave it on my chair in the hallway.”

Hrrrmmmppph! We have a prayer team at Commonwealth Baptist which does a more than adequate job of taking care of my unspoken needs. What more do I need? But the idea of being prayed for by a monk-in-training (Daniel) and the remaining monks of Holy Cross is very appealing. So what should I do? Stealthily pick up a form, take it to my room, write out my request and sneak it back to his chair? Do I sign it or just leave that detail out — God knows who I am, doesn’t He? Or, maybe I should just “let it all hang out” as we used to say in the 70s? And does this whole line of thinking brand me as shallow or just plain ridiculous? I can’t worry about this right now as the chow line has started and I am the fourth chair in line for a square of lasagna, garlic bread, and salad.

As we progress through the line, Daniel starts where he left off.

“Simplicity is not asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of doing without things. Simplicity is the practice of using all that you have in practical, non-ostentations ways.”

I had never thought of that before. Nor had I wondered whether or not God had an opinion about Costco, but now I do. I think He’d love it if we used all that we acquired at their warehouse prices. I bet He’d hate the mindless spinning I do down every aisle looking for something I don’t need at a price I can’t refuse. Think of all the shopping carts he’s tracking right now at Target, T.J. Maxx, Steinmart, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, etc. (Oh please, God, don’t put look-outs at Steinmart and Barnes & Noble . . . they’re my favorites!) Or, just think about the internet! Imagine God or one of those angels like Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life earning his or her wings by reporting what earthlings have on their wishlists or in their carts. I can hear them chortling now, “Guess who’s going to have a hard time getting through that eye of the needle!”

Or, maybe, just maybe, he’s not thinking about any of this. Instead, what if he’s pondering new ways to get my attention so that I quit filling my shopping basket mindlessly? What if he’s betting ON me and not AGAINST me making it through the eye of that needle. Maybe just maybe he wants all of us to make it through. After all, isn’t heaven supposed to be infinite? If it is, what difference does it make if me and the rest of humanity end up there? If you think like that, why should we even spend one iota of energy fearing we won’t make the cut? Why not focus on the fact that we might make it? What’s wrong with aspiring to that end? And by the way, while we’re on this subject, what’s wrong with failing — stumbling and then getting back up again? Isn’t that how any activity is perfected — walking, riding a bike, swimming, playing an instrument? Or are we just so dominated by fear that we fail to attempt anything?

Fear is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Failing to live up to our parents’ expectations. Failure to achieve success that will feed our families and bring honor to ourselves. Failure to enjoy life to the fullest. Failure, failure, failure . . . at every turn. But! What if we don’t have to be committed to that? What if we trained ourselves in the discipline of wanting to be what God wants us to be? What if I personally worked on that more than anything else? What if failure then became a necessary byproduct of striving to obtain a grace that is more immense and forgiving than anything I’ve ever imagined?

The reading is over. The plates are cleared. My place is reset.

Daniel — one. Marcia — zero. The new guest master is winning and I’m glad. Berryville is working its magic even without a prayer request on file.

This is the second in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Saturday, August 14, 2010.

The New Guest Master Has Arrived!


Retreat House

Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling a ling!

The insistent ring of the dinner bell said it all.  Daniel, the new retreat leader for Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia was audibly signally regime change.  Silently, all sixteen retreatants followed him to the serviceable dining room.  Taking our places behind our straight-backed chairs, the retreat had begun.  Ruth, Marcia, Lupe, and Rosa — the divas of Del Ray had come on a pilgrimage of surrender.  And, surrender we would or Daniel would have something to say about that.  Mild-mannered, sweet, and obviously well-intentioned, he was determined to break the discipline of silence at every turn.  Just at the moment when I could feel myself sliding gracefully into silent obedience, the voice of Daniel interrupted me to explain the rules.  Pray.  Eat.  Read. Enjoy contemplative music.  Clean-up.  You’re on your own.  He droned on until I thought I was going to lose my mind.  I fumed. 

Silently, we filed up to serve ourselves the evening repast — chicken and rice soup, salad, and gargantuan hunks of cheese.   This was modest comfort food designed to mimic the monk’s simple meals prepared and shared together.   In the early days of monasticism, the brothers were given one cup of gruel per meal in a cup that had handles on either side.  I bought one on my last visit.  I used it religiously for months as a reminder of my visit. 

Settling in with my simple fare, the silence was once again broken by Daniel.

“Tonight, I’ll be reading from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Let me read you what others have written about this book.”

I looked at Rosa and she mimed the word, “chatty,” with her fingers.  Yeah, baby, chatty is right.  His name ought to be Cathy, a reference only my boomer readers will understand.  As I ate my dinner, I realized that this retreat was going to be completely different than the last time and the time before that and I was not happy about that.  So much for peace and quiet.  One saving grace is that I did not bring my iPod so I will not be distracted by my own devices while I’m here.

“Is there one of the spiritual disciplines about which you’d like me to read?” Daniel asked earnestly.

Lupe didn’t skip a beat.  “Solitude,” she answered. 

Amen, sister.  Indeed, our retreat had begun.  I am in good company.

First in a series of meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This was written Friday, August 13, 2010.