Yesterday was a special and blessed day for our postulants of the Benedictine Sisters of Bethany here in the village of Kuvlu. These beautiful girls have taken the step from aspirants to postulants and with that step have received their new habits.
For the past couple of months, Sr Hannah and I have been busy putting together a new psalter with antiphons so that this new Community can begin singing the psalms.
Also, this past week began a rather intense two-week “music camp”. The girls have had beginning piano lessons with a visiting instructor, and I have been teaching them to chant the psalms. Meanwhile Sr Hannah has worked on alterations to their new habits, giving them their final pressing with a charcoal iron!
At church I sat behind them and admit, my eyes welled up a little thinking of the privilege and joy it is to be a part of their lives; young women wishing to serve God.
I’m told by a sister of Chinese heritage that I practice feng shui. And I thought I was merely rearranging furniture! I convinced her to join me, and, as we worked together, I periodically asked, “What’s that called again?” Feng shui, pronounced “fung shway,” the study of the relationship between environment and human life. It’s composed of two Chinese words, feng (wind) and shui (water), two life sustaining natural elements that flow and circulate throughout the Earth. It is also referred to as the art of placement: how to place furniture, possessions, and yourself within your surroundings to best achieve balance, comfort, and harmony. The wing of the Convent, where my Chinese sister and I live, leans toward early American design. Matters not what your particular decorating taste is. With prayerful consideration, we can create a space of beauty that reflects God’s presence in our lives.
We did some fall housecleaning last night, starting with kitchen cupboards. Threw out some “lids to nowhere,” a melted turkey baster, and an old plastic measuring cup. It feels good to have dust-free, clutter-free cupboards, and a mental inventory of what’s available. I sometimes wonder what Mary’s house looked like. As Jesus’ mother, her life was always eventful, with an expectation for the unexpected. I imagine her home to be clean, orderly, and ready to welcome. But then I have a reputation for obsessive neatness. I prefer to think of it as stress avoidance. Friends with busy lives sometimes ask for advice, and it’s very basic: remove clutter, which I define as anything not necessary or beautiful. Beautiful is up to you—could be children’s art—or any number of things. To truly save time, avoid short-cuts—an oxymoron but true.
Psalm 84 tells of God’s lovely dwelling place, a place of peace and beauty that draws our weary hearts. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. “Selah.” Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
I did laundry the other day, and noticed a drip or two of liquid detergent on our new washer. A Christmas gift from a sister’s mother, it’s beautiful, state-of-the-art, and eco-friendly. It even plays a little tune when you open the lid, six musical notes that somehow convey how great clean laundry is. As I reached for a cloth and spray cleaner to remove the drips, I was reminded of an early lesson I received.
The lesson was about a grateful heart, and the teacher was my sister, twelve years older than I am. She had asked for my help at the laundromat, and we had several baskets full. After the last load was neatly folded, my sister added one more task: she cleaned and polished both the washer and dryer she’d used. I asked her why, and her reply made a deep impression. She explained that because she and her husband struggled financially, they were unable to afford a washer and dryer for their home. But she was grateful for the laundromat and the opportunity it provided. Why not treat their machines as if they were her own. It was a lesson about expressing love and gratitude in a practical way, for ordinary things. For me, a grateful heart is a concept with its feet on the ground.
I’m sometimes tempted by the concept of “alone.” It’s very appealing (and elusive) to one who’s called to live with sixty sisters! While being alone has benefits, when demanded, it seldom produces the hoped-for result. (That is, continued peace and tranquility.) Jesus called twelve men to participate in His earthly journey, not for His sake, but for theirs. They were of varying temperaments: Andrew, who introduced his brother to Jesus, was optimistic and content in second place, while Peter became the gregarious spokesman for the Twelve; Bartholomew was a scholar, James the Elder, a man of courage and forgiveness, and the fiery tempered John, beloved for his devotion. Like all friends, they arrived with individual attributes and deficits. They needed each other – we need each other — both as support beams and sandpaper.
Our miniature poodle, Liberty, is aptly named. She’s independent and self-determined! Were she a person, I’m quite sure she’d be blunt and opinionated. Because she is diagnosed with iris atrophy which causes eye sensitivity to the sun, we want to keep her happy and healthy on daily walks. One of the Sister’s found sun visors for dogs and ordered a couple. We chose pastel, calico prints, and a sewing sister altered them to fit perfectly. (See picture below.) Liberty’s expression radiates, “Really? You expect me to wear this thing?” She initially tried everything available to remove it: wiggling, head shaking, rubbing her head on the grass. The truth is, the visor makes her walks more enjoyable and her eyes more comfortable and she realizes that. She’s learned to tolerate the humiliation for the “greater good.” Like Liberty, I usually know what I want, but not always what’s best for me. It requires humility to reconcile the difference.
One of the Sisters suggested I write a blog called “bloom after pruning,” and she even provided a great picture! She referred, of course, to the parable that portrays Jesus as the True Vine and God the Father as the Vine Dresser. Jesus says in John 15: 1-2, that He’ll remove every branch that bears no fruit, and prune the fruitful branches so that they bear more fruit. It’s a scripture I approach with caution, and not an experience I wait in line for. When one of my irregular branches is trimmed, usually through circumstance, I then have difficulty identifying who I am. I’m like a wibble-wobble toy without a fixed foundation — no idea how or where I’ll land. Advice to me: keep reading. In subsequent verses, Jesus counsels His branches to (paraphrased), “Abide in me, abide in my love, until your journey is complete. Follow my commandments, as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and if you do, your joy will be complete.” It’s a passage more about relationship than pain–an intertwining of love, obedience, and joy — each dependent on the other — until we become not servants, but friends. So I’d like to modify my friend’s suggestion ever so slightly to say it’s possible to bloom during pruning.
I live in a wing of our Convent called “Elim”. It’s a Biblical name that means oasis, a shelter in the desert, a place of serenity and refuge. I’m fully aware that my personality brings daily chaos to the oasis, and that its godly purpose rests on fragile ground. One thing I can do is help create order and beauty in the space itself. I discovered an interesting verse, Psalm 93:5, that says: Your statutes, Lord, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days. It occurred to me that all places (and people) dedicated to God should be adorned with holiness. I’m not sure what all that means, but I do know that beauty in ordinary things is an important component.
Christmas decorating is low on my list of favorite activities. Somewhere around a visit to the dentist. My expectations are so high, my desire to create beauty so intense, that I’m certain to disappoint myself. Last night, I placed, replaced, and repositioned three decorative Christmas pillows on a bench. After a half hour of this, I realized there was no perfect that was perfect enough. But my building frustration led to a re-thinking of, “What is it I’m really looking for?”
Anticipation and expectation come with the Christmas territory and are worthy attributes. When rightly directed and defined, they lead to faith, hope, and a joyful reunion with all who gathered on that holiest of nights. They speak of someone achieving great things of which we’re the beneficiaries of inheritance. Candles in the window, trees dressed in light and shining tinsel, evergreen wreaths on doors — all are invitations, our warm welcomes, to the One that truly matters.
Isn’t it interesting that at the same time we are ending the calendar year, we begin the church year? My type A personality brain says — couldn’t we have coordinated this better?
But as I think about our decorating this past weekend, hanging lights from the huge tree in front of the Convent, stringing garland along the walkways, making baked goods for the gift shop or putting candles in windows, it strikes me that logic and coordination are not what this season is about.
Our human minds tell us the year is closing, things are ending, darkness is prevalent and sleep is the order of the day. Into this bursts the new Liturgical year, with light enough to illuminate the world, and cries “Sleepers Wake!” And we leave off endings and begin again.