Thursday, October 9, 2008


The trees are moving. Last night and this morning, winds rustled the leaves of white oak and maple trees surrounding the cottage. At night, the gales caused us to feel more secure indoors; this morning, they seem to be announcing a needed rainstorm, or, perhaps, that winter on The Mountain is imminent.

Upstairs at the Convent this morning, I plundered in a bookcase that contained back issues of “Weavings, A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life” and found several issues about practicing silence and the art of listening. One of the “listening” articles was written by Fr. Tom Ward, the priest with whom we practice Centering Prayer here at Sewanee. In the article, he talks about “getting behind his attraction for words” (and I’m guilty as charged!) and incessant busyness to achieve a state of stillness. Every Tuesday evening when we sit 30 minutes with Fr. Tom and four or five other participants, I find it difficult to be still with one sacred word in my consciousness so that I can peel back the layers that separate me from a Divine connection…and, also, that separate me from others who need to be “listened into existence.”

Meanwhile, I enjoy the hospitality of the Sisters of St. Mary, and it’s clear to me that they take St. Benedict’s dispositions on hospitality seriously. St. Benedict said that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me…’” the essence of St. Benedict’s theology is that we should all live as respectful guests in the world and extend that respect to others who come to our doors. Last night, we were guests at the Sisters’ table – Sister Elizabeth kept turning up food from the refrigerator and tucked away in kitchen cabinets, and combined the food with leftovers from lunch: ham, turkey, tossed salad, green beans, deviled eggs, cooked carrots, homemade bread, apple cobbler, and brownies.

A maintenance worker cultivates a garden at the Convent, but the present plot has seen its day and is now parched from the dry season we’re experiencing in Middle Tennessee. In addition to the persimmon trees we discovered on our walk a few days ago, apple trees abound on the Convent property. We overheard talk of wild blueberries growing on the premises, which the Sisters may be able to pick and enjoy since the deer seem to be concentrated at Sewanee and aren’t out here nibbling up all the wild edibles. The absence of deer seems odd to us because St. Mary’s is surrounded by deep…and dark… woods. Rumors are that the three Convent dogs keep the deer away, although two of them are tiny Chihuahuas that make a big noise but could be easily harmed by a protective mother deer; in fact, one of the dogs was spooked the other day when two giant acorns fell, rapid fire, on her head.

Each time a bell rings and we don’t attend that particular service, we feel guilty, which shows you how conscious we are of the regimen here. If we heeded all the bells, we’d attend four services daily, but we generally skip Noonday Prayer because we’re eating! The two evening services, Evening Prayer and Compline, are singing services…canticles and songs sung in high soprano voices, and I falter on the canticles, the Magnificat, and Cum Invocarem. I guess a high pitch is required for the songsters to reach the Divine Ear so I’ll have to finesse Centering Prayer to get the job done because my soprano voice shrieks, falters, and dies at each Evensong service. A friend wrote to me that she thought I was attracted to the monastic life, but I think I’d flunk out on several levels – the regimen of chapel services and chanting and singing soprano --not to mention my inability “to get behind my attraction to words,” so I can cultivate silence. Tomorrow we return to our cottage on the campus. Our time here has been a mini-retreat where we have created some desert solitude in our lives, detached from the familiar space of our own digs.
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