Pilgrim Path

This blog is the work of a seeker and poet. Walking stick in hand, I head out into the world, not of the world, but in the world. My words and my friends carry me along and light the pilgrim path of spiritual journeys.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I was prepared to write the next installment in the "Boys in the Hood(s)" series about some of my encounters over the years in monasteries - but my amazing life got in the way.

I've mentioned my dear friend, John, before. We have a remarkable friendship which survives many miles of distance. More often than not, there is a daily exchange of emails between us. Sometimes I bleed all over the laptop with stories of my life. I tease John that his "drive-by" return emails overlook my trials and tribulations. But the next day we carry on just the same.

John writes a remarkable blog that you should add quickly as a bookmarked destination. Now, if you are the stubborn or lazy type, here is a quick and easy link to the posting that I specifically want you to read: Lost and Found and Lost . John's blogs often resonate with me. This one appeared at a perfect time.

Just last night, I was set to meet another dear friend to attend a Medieval choral music concert that was being performed at the neo-Gothic Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. We usually meet for dinner beforehand. When I am able, I try to scoot out of work early on occasions like this in order to take advantage of my membership at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. I was fortunate that despite already having selected my purchases, I found myself standing in line to check out when in a moment a "book will find you and on that day you will have the courage to take and read." Somewhere, sometime over the past few weeks in my hyperactive perusal of book reviews throughout the Internet, I saw the title of this book: "Making Toast." I was intrigued.

Three years ago, I made a retreat in the dead of winter to Saint Benedict's Momastery in Snowmass, Colorado. It was a true pilgrimage as the trip from Denver to Snowmass involved a four hour ride in a van packed with strangers and driven by a young woman who was a ski fanatic overwintering in Colorado from Australia.

I had opted to spend my time in a hermitage - away from the retreat house. As a result of this choice, I was responsible for my own meals. As I wrote at the time...

"My time away allowed me to stuff all the baggage of everyday life away and to see and live a bigger life. Simple tasks like preparing a meal - even making toast - became holy. Without a dayplanner filled with appointments and events, I was able to take pleasure in the choices before me. Instead of "going smaller," I felt more connected to the "bigger life" promised to all of us."

Roger Rosenblatt's new book is not about retreats, but it is about a deep spirituality. It is about the work of grandparents who are thrust into the daily life of their daughter's family when she dies at age 38 of an undetected heart defect. Their daughter's husband and three children most cope with this loss and somehow manage to go on. With simple yet heartbreaking words, Rosenblatt writes about the grandfather's heroic efforts to learn how to "make toast" exactly how each of the three grandchildren like it. I am grateful for having had the experience of knowing how "making toast" can be holy.

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Friday, April 23, 2010


My friends know that since 2001, I’ve made it a habit (sorry) to try to make a retreat to a monastery at least once each year. I’ve made multiple visits to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky (former home of Thomas Merton) and to Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’ve made one time only visits to Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado and Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan . In addition, I’ve made a one day visit to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa and Pecos Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico.

With only one exception (which shall remain nameless), regardless of the religious order or affiliation: Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, Episcopal, etc., the sense I each got at each monastery was that they were truly sincere in living up to the Rule of Saint Benedict that guests should be welcomed as if Christ. But that sense is not exuded through the venerable walls of these institutions, rather through their residents – the boys in the hoods.

When visiting a monastery, whether it is for a single day or for a retreat of several Days, it is most common to encounter the Guestmaster. This is a role identified by Saint Benedict in his Rule. He is the monastery’s face to the outside world. My experience has been that the Abbott (head of the monastery) usually selects the more affable or outgoing monk for this role. From Brother Aelred at Mepkin to Father Carlos at Gethsemani, these men are charged with bridging the vastly different worlds of the lay visitors and the monks.

One of the most important reasons that I find myself returning year after year to a monastic retreat is the ability to share in the life of the community. From the very early pre-dawn service of Vigils (or Matins) to Compline at the close of the day, guests are encouraged to participate in the religious life of the monastic community.

But treasured moments on monastic retreats can spring up at the most unexpected times in unplanned interactions with the resident monks. They happen in liminal space and time when the sacred and the secular meet and wallow in each other’s goodness and grace.
I hope, over the next few days, to jot down some of my favorite memories of these glimpses of heaven.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The most obvious intent in making a retreat to a Trappist monastery is to share in the life of this community of devoted servants of God. There are numerous opportunities to worship with them at services named: Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. But just as rewarding is the chance to some spend time in nature.

The grounds of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani are a blessing. Just across the highway from the Abbey and Retreat House lie undulating hills and woods with numerous winding paths that call us to explore. On the first day of my retreat, I found myself taking steps toward this land. Although this was my third trip to Kentucky and the monastery, this was my first experience in early spring.

Fields, bushes and trees were in various states of bloom, showing off colors not seen at other times of the year. Mesmerized, I carried on along a path until I sensed a small body of water – a pond. I made my way through some higher grasses and came upon a beautiful body of water. Just as I moved the last blocking branch of a bush from my line of sight, I saw a blue heron take flight from the surface of the pond. Its long neck and graceful wings reminded me of a ballet dancer. I felt a sense of gratitude for having witnessed such beauty.

A simple smile crossed my face.

I turned around and headed back to the Abbey as there was a service of Sext due to begin in about 25 minutes. I don’t remember much of that walk as I felt surrounded by a sense of beauty and belonging. I realized that it had been some time since I’d allowed myself to relax enough to see the real world around me.

I entered the shadowed Abbey and sat in silence prior to the service. One by one, each of the monks slowly entered and blessed themselves with water from the holy font. I closed my eyes and recalled the sight of the heron taking flight. Suddenly it occurred to me that this gift was not intended for me alone. Each day, scenes like this occur whether I am there to witness them or not.

A simple tear of joy fell from one eye.

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Monday, April 12, 2010


It's been a while since I've had the chance to get away for a week on retreat. I'm just back from a week in Kentucky where I spent several days at The Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani and the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill. It seems it took getting away for me to realize just how much I missed getting away. It was a time of rest and renewal. Nature always plays a significant role in my recharging and I was blessed with several days of beautiful spring weather that gave me many opportunities to walk and even to just sit and pay attention to the world. There will be several postings over the next few days (I hope) as I process my time away, but I'd like to begin by repeating the words of Thomas Merton who lived at Gethsemani for many years:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Not do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

(Photo of abandoned North American Van Lines trailer that rests in the woods across the highway from the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani. Thomas Merton would sometimes steal away to this trailer to read, write and ...)

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