Freeing Hospitality – by Naomi Wenger

hospitality related word cloud

 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul chastises the church for so easily falling away from the teaching they received that, in Christ, all have been made free of keeping the Jewish religious law. For, the Galatian gentiles have apparently embraced the practice of circumcision to prove that they “belong” to this new Jewish sect (that has not yet been named “Christianity”). Circumcision was the sign of inclusion for law-abiding Jews. Paul is eager to point out that there is a new way of living that does not require adherence to the law nor any external sign of inclusion. He calls it living “in the Spirit.” He criticizes the Galatians for starting with the Spirit (of Christ) and ending with the (Jewish) law, a backward movement. He reminds them that what “counts is faith working through love.” Neither faith nor love is concretely measurable. This leaves all judgment in God’s hands and frees followers of Christ to be open-hearted and open-handed toward all people, no matter their ethnic origin, their religious practice, or their gender. In Christ, he says, all are free.

Keeping Jewish law, particularly the religious practice of circumcision, is no longer much of an issue for Christians in the West. What issue or issues divide us? How would we write this admonition today so it would be an equivalent warning to us to avoid the same kind of misplaced energy the Galatians were giving to “keeping the law?” 

Each one of us will probably have to examine our consciences to find the “law” we are “keeping” that creates for us a container of inclusion or a wall of exclusion. For it is this sin, of excluding (or preferentially including) another on the basis of some “law,” that is at the heart of the message to the Galatians. This issue also resonates with our current experience in North America. There are folks excluded because of their immigrant status, gender, relative power status, socio-economic state, religion, and even their “fit” into what is expected as “normal.” Of course, we all want others to be “like us” because that is more immediately comfortable than the stew of differences we find in this heavily populated globe where we rub shoulders with the “other” more than we might like.

But, is it possible that we exclude the very folks we should be welcoming because they don’t live life as we do? What if they practice a different religion? Does that make them excludable? As I read the Bible, I see that the better practice is to welcome and include rather than to exclude. Jesus admonishes in the gospels not to fear what others can do to us (Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:2-7). But we are to major in “love for others” (John 15:9-17).  We are more likely to be guilty of pushing someone out of God’s welcome than we would be “tainted” by their presence or practice when we welcome them in love. In another place, Jesus teaches,“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

When fear runs amok among us, we shout down demons and decry other practices as antithetical to our faith. But it really has nothing to do with faith. Faith is not visible nor measurable; it is not what we do, but how we are. Rather, as faith is worked out in loving others, it is recognized as fruitful. We can be haters, fearing others’ practices, or we can be lovers, welcoming differences and growing stronger in loving as God loves in the process.  Protectionism breeds exclusion and expands the field of outsiders. Welcome invites inclusion and opens new avenues or new ways of apprehending the ultimately unknowable Mystery of God.

What I’m talking about is a radical hospitality that refuses self-protection or even the protection of some valued tradition, in favor of extending an open welcome. This is a hospitality that does not have rules but that allows each person to find the rule for their own life, trusting that God continues to work in the world and affirming that ultimately God is in charge of how the world is constituted.

Henri Nowuen, in his masterful meditation on transformation, Reaching Out, writes about this kind of hospitality.

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend … Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. . . . The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.” — Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 51

I wonder if we have enough courage to weave this kind of hospitality into our daily lives? It is quite risky. It might even cost us friendships, the respect of family members, or our jobs to live this way. It will certainly be misunderstood or misconstrued. Jesus was maligned for healing, caring for the outcast, and loving everyone without exclusion. As we move toward Good Friday, we remember that this kind of hospitality could also have ultimate consequences. May we all aspire to give our lives to, and even for, loving as God loves, extending unlimited and freeing hospitality.

Naomi Wenger, March 2019

Holding On, Letting Go – by June Mears Driedger

The Hermitage Lent retreat theme was “Holding On, Letting Go” which invites us to ask: “What am I holding on to? What do I need to let go?”  As I mulled over these questions, I unconsciously switched the questions to, “What I do I need to let go of in order to hold on to God?” I turned to the Psalms to explore my switched question as they remind me of the Israelite story of holding on and letting go and returning to God’s trustworthiness when they—and me—hold on to God.

Lent 1: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

This is a wisdom psalm addressed to the one who enters the sanctuary—the place of refuge and shelter.  The psalmist uses many images to highlight that God’s protection from harm and danger is reliable and truthful, including the word “shadow” (v. 1) to suggest an image of God protecting its young. 

However, vss. 14-16 reminds me that God’s protection does not mean I am promised complete immunity from danger or evil or even tragedy. Instead, I am promised God’s presence when I am in the midst of trouble as God promises to not abandon me and I will survive.  By vs. 15, I am encouraged to call to God in times of trouble for calling upon God is to let release my stubborn self-reliance and admit that I need God’s protection as I hold on to God’s comforting presence through challenging times.

Lent 2: Psalm 27

This is a psalm of trust in the first six verses which turns into a prayer for help against false accusation in vss. 7-14.

In the first 6 verses, the psalmist confesses who God is—”my light, my salvation, my stronghold.” In the following verses the psalmist admits he is a man under duress who pleads with God to be his light and salvation.

The verses 7-13 become prayers for delivery from distress and oppression because someone has brought false charges against the psalmist. Nevertheless, the psalmist proclaims his confidence that God will ultimately deliver the psalmist from the false accusations. The psalmist releases his need to justify himself to his slanderers and holds instead onto God as his deliverer.

Lent 3:  Psalm 63:1-8

The psalmist expresses my deepest longings for God’s presence in my life and my desire to hold on to God in vss. 1-2: “…my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you … I behold your power and glory.”

The entire passage is a moving description of holding on to God. The psalmist describes how to hold on to God and the result of my clinging to God.  While the NRSV begins verse 8 “My soul clings to you …” the King James Version reads, “Following hard after God,” which is a beautiful expression of holding onto God.

Lent 4: Psalm 32

A celebration of forgiveness is described by the psalmist: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” vs. 1. This is a psalm of joy but with a little confession and exhortation for the listeners.

In vss. 3-5, the psalmist confesses how he held tightly onto sine and fear until he acknowledged the sin to God. In vss. 6-7, the psalmist exhorts others to pray to God when they too are in distress. It is as if the psalmist tells the listeners to let go of their distress over their sins and hold on to God’s forgiveness. He continues his instruction in vss. 8-9, pointing toward wisdom as God’s desire for his life and all of our lives. By the end of the psalm, he proclaims that the forgiven, trusting soul finds only steadfast love!

Lent 5: Psalm 126

This psalm reminds me to not only to let go of fears and sin, but in good times I am invited to laugh and delight in God. I am encouraged to remember that in challenging times—even in calamities and natural disasters—God is good and is present to me. I am to release my despair and hold on to the memories of God’s past goodness.

What do you need to let go of in order to hold onto God?

Listening for God – by Kevin Driedger

Lately, when June and I arrive at the Hermitage each morning as we walk from our car to the chapel we often find ourselves stopping along the way. We stop, and we listen. The chorus of morning sounds: of bird calls and critter noises is growing in variety and volume as the days grow warmer. We love to take a moment to bathe in these beautiful sounds before heading inside for prayer.

Once inside, as we sit quietly, beginning morning prayer the leader rings the singing bowl to begin the service. The prayer leader then ends the great silence of the night and utters the first words spoken each morning “Oh God, come to my assistance.” We continue the service with words spoken, sung, and chanted. In most services, after the reading of the gospel, we sit in silence with the instructions to “Listen for God’s word to us today.”

Listening is one of the most important activities at the Hermitage. The deep silence that characterizes the Hermitage is there to help us all be attentive and listen. We listen for God’s voice which can come in a myriad of ways, but we don’t notice it, if we don’t listen for it. We may hear God in the call of the crow. We may hear God in the words spoken affirming us as the bearer of God’s infinite life. We may hear God in the affirmations and questions of our spiritual director. We may hear God in the stirrings of our hearts, or the aching of our souls. We may hear God as we deeply engage with a scripture text and hear Jesus ask us “What do you need from me?”

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the word “Listen” and the admonition to “incline the ear of your heart” to the teacher. Inclining the ear of one’s heart to God is the first, and final task for the person on retreat, as it is for everyone else.

(It is one of my favorite quirks of the English language that Silent and Listen are anagrams – the same letters rearranged.)

How ARE You? Centering Prayer and Contemplative Practice – by Naomi Wenger

candle holder circled by carved figures

“How areyou?” That simple question can open us deeply to the ground of our being. For the question is driven by the innocent verb “to be,”which isthe ground of existence. It is also the most we can know of God — God’s essence. God IS. All of our other descriptions of God are just that, labels that help to identify God in one way or another. In Moses’ initial encounter with God in the bush that was burning but not consumed, God self-identifies with this notion. God identifies as “I Am.” God is Being. 

When we pray, we usually think of addressing God in some fashion and approaching one of the aspects of God that we can understand: God the peace-giver, God the provider, God the powerful one, God the fixer of all things awry, God creator, God redeemer, God the comforter. Yet, none of these roles is in itself the essence of God. So another way to pray is to come to God as Being and simply present our own being to be aware with/of that One Being. We call this kind of prayer Contemplative Prayer. It is prayer as alignment rather than answers, of agreement not argument, of yieldedness instead of resistance or insistence. 

While there is a place for the conversant kind of prayer where we plead for special mercy from God, there is also a deep need for the kind of prayer where we are not in control but rather we practice giving ourselves over to God—not for a particular result like spiritual growth, but simply to practice giving ourselves over to God. The wonderful thing about this kind of prayer is that it always results in spiritual growth and the awareness of God’s constant Presence throughout our days.

One of the methods of contemplative prayer that has been used through the centuries comes from TheCloud of Unknowing, an anonymous 14th century English treatise on contemplation. In the 20th century, William Menninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating co-labored on interpreting this work for non-Middle-English speakers and called the method Centering Prayer. The Cloudhas now been translated into contemporary languages. Commentaries on both the book and the method of Centering Prayer have been written and are readily available.

Centering Prayer is easy to learn and effective for aligning our will with God’s will. It is not a set of rules to follow but a way of releasing what is not ours to hold and holding onto God instead. George MacDonald, in the the novel David Elginbrodhas that eponymous character say, “The kingdom of heaven is not come, when God’s will is our law: it is come when God’s will is our will. While God’s will is our law, we are but a kind of noble slave; when his will is our will, we are free children. Nothing in nature is free enough to be a symbol for the state of those who act immediately from the essence of their hidden life, and the recognition of God’s will as that essence.” Acting immediately from the essence of a life hidden in God is both the goal and result of the practice of Centering Prayer. 

I encourage you to read The Cloud of Unknowing ora book on Centering Prayer and give it a try. Brief information on the method is available on the Contemplative Outreach website. We also practice Centering Prayer together at The Hermitage each Saturday morning. You are welcome to join us.

Naomi  Wenger, March 2019

Being Still – by David Wenger

Thoreau cabin in the woods

Years ago I went on a personal retreat with the intention of simply being still. My days and weeks had been full of being on the move from the moment I got up in the morning until I laid down at night. I longed for time to sit and do nothing. I decided to use Thoreau cabin for my stillness retreat as it’s the smallest of the three hermit cabins at The Hermitage; there’s not much room to move around in there. I figured it would help with my resolve to be still. 

I went out the back door on my way to Thoreau and saw the trash bins that had been left there by my son. It was our weekly routine; I took the trash bins out to the roadside on the morning of trash collection day and in the afternoon when my son got off the school bus he carried the bins to the back of the house. From there I would carry them to The Hermitage on my next trip down the lane.  

Within only a few steps of embarking upon my stillness retreat I picked up both trash bins to carry down the lane and place behind St. Joseph’s Barn. Seconds later I heard my son, who was watching as I left for my retreat, chiding me from the back door, “Dad, you’re not supposed to find anything to do.” I chuckled and went on my way, a trash bin in each hand.  

When I got to Thoreau, I realized that I forgot a pen. I had planned to journal about all the profound things I would discover on my stillness retreat. Certainly there will be a pen in the cabin I thought. I searched but found none. I decided to walk back to St. Joseph’s Barn to get a pen; it wasn’t too far and I needed a pen to do the reflective writing I wanted to do with all the time before me. My writing might even be worthy of publishing in the Hermitage newsletter I thought. Then I heard my son’s admonition in my mind, “You’re not supposed to find anything to do.” OK. This time I will listen. I settled into the small cabin, no pen for writing, nothing to do but be still. 

At times I felt restless and considered walking about, just to look at things. I wondered if the path to St. Gregory’s Abbey was cleared and which of the Hermitage trails needed attention. I thought about walking the labyrinth at GilChrist. But with each thought I heard my son calling after me, “You’re not supposed to find anything to do.” And so I sat in the sun, I watched a turkey pass by, I heard the squirrels scampering in the woods and deer snorting as they discovered my presence. I laid on my back and looked up at the sky, the trees were blowing in the wind. I slept often. I was still. In recounting my retreat to a friend he told me about his own stillness retreat. He said, “By doing nothing, I get things done. To go forward, I must be very still.”      

The Hospitality of Silence – by Kevin Driedger

Comfortable chair at window with winter scene

Silence is a core practice, a core value, a core gift of The Hermitage. Silence welcomes us no matter our rank or status, no matter our theological or political preferences. Silence enfolds and embraces us no matter our desires or fears. But silence does not force itself upon us. Silence is there to be received, or not. It is ready to engage us in deep attentiveness, or just passing exploration. 

The experience of silence draws many people to our retreat center, although not without trepidation for some. Our desire is that the silence of this place will be received as a welcoming space that receives each guest 

When we introduce new retreatants to the Hermitage there are two things I try to mention: “We offer each other the gift of silence” and “We practice a gentle silence.” 

We recognize that each retreatant is here to do their own work and be attentive to their relationship with God. We honor this by not intruding on their space with noise or conversation.

When I greet guests who seem particularly anxious about the silence I offer the statement about the gentle silence. The silence at the Hermitage is not strident and absolute; it is not to be a source of fear. If you have a question, please ask it. If you have an insight needing to be shared, please share it. 

One of our characteristic practices at is eating meals in silence. For people new to silence this particular experience of silence in community causes some people anxiety. Silence alone in your room is one thing, silence at a meal table, with a group of people is shockingly counter-cultural. And yet, once that initial unsettling settles down, the silence of communal meals can also be received as an expression of deep hospitality. In it, we all receive the other guests as they are without social expectations or demands.

Silence welcomes us into a relationship with God free from noisy distractions. And in this silence we are open to turn the ear of our heart to listen to our welcoming God.

Fairy Tale Praying – by Naomi Wenger

paper cutout of two peop.e

Fairy stories tell about ordinary events in extra-ordinary ways. They begin with “Once upon a time…” and end with “happily ever after;” words that open possibilities, hopes, dreams, and unleash the imagination. These first and last lines set us up to believe what we might otherwise consider foolish. The shifts in a fairy story invite us to be open to the possibility that hovels can become castles, poor girls can marry the prince, and horrible beasts can turn into handsome consorts. Prayer is also about shifts in events or people that need to happen in ways that are sometimes not readily apparent.

 We pray for the fantastic leaps from illness to wellness, from bondage to freedom, from scarcity to abundance. We visualize connections between polar opposites and hold together what is split apart as we pray. Like in a fairy tale, the change we seek is not always the change that takes place. Sometimes, the change is not in our circumstance but in ourselves; not in the direction we perceive as best but toward a better or, perhaps, more mysterious resolution. In prayer, we open ourselves to change and we are changed.

Fairy stories can show us how this change works. Let’s look at a tale from the Brothers Grimm, “King Thrushbeard” to help us understand. In this story, a king’s beautiful but proud daughter will not accept any of the princes who come to court her. None of them is handsome enough for her. She mocks them, even calling attention to one prince who has a crooked chin by calling him “King Thrushbeard.” Finally, her father is exasperated and tells her that as she cannot be satisfied with the royal suitors, he will marry her to the next beggar who comes to the door. The next week, a fiddler comes to play beneath the windows of the castle hoping for some alms. The king invites him in and insists that he marry the princess. They are wedded on the spot, after which the king declares that as she is now a beggar-woman, she is no longer welcome in his house and sends her on her way with the beggar.

            She goes away with the fiddler and things go from bad to worse. She tries to cook dinner and can’t light a fire. She tries to weave baskets and spin thread but only hurts her hands. She tries to sell pots in the market and that works well until a soldier rides his horse through her pots, breaking all of them. Finally, the fiddler/beggar sends her to work in the king’s kitchen. (The king of that region is Thrushbeard’s father.) At a wedding banquet prepared for the king’s son, the princess/beggar-woman escapes from the kitchen to gaze on the festivities. The king’s son sees her in the doorway and tries to coax her to join the party. She flees. He follows, catches her and says to her kindly,

      “Do not be afraid, I and the fiddler who has been living with you in that wretched hovel are one. For love of you I disguised myself so; and I also was the soldier who rode through your crockery. This was all done to humble your proud spirit, and to punish you for the insolence with which you mocked me.”

      Then she wept bitterly and said, “I have done great wrong, and am not worthy to be your wife.” But he said, “Be comforted, the evil days are past; now we will celebrate our wedding.”

            The king’s daughter in this story is beautiful. We are supposed see something of value in her. But her character is flawed; she is proud, mean, haughty and uncaring. In the course of the story, her rejected suitor becomes her savior not because she deserves it, in fact, she repeatedly proves she does not deserve the kind king, but because he loves her. He loves her enough to test her and give her opportunity to change. She can become a beautiful person both inside and out. She is eventually humbled and confesses herself undeserving of such a kind king. He, however, has already forgiven her fault. He planned her redemption, hoping that she would change. In the end, she is clothed in beautiful clothes to match her beautiful self and celebrates her wedding to this kindest of kings in royal style.

So, how is this fairy story like prayer? In prayer we meet ourselves as we are. At the same time, God discovers and loves us. In prayer we find that the possibility to change lies in us. And we find that we are able to receive life as it is given not as we suppose it should be. The king’s beautiful daughter had already imagined a particular kind of husband. None of her suitors met her very limited expectations. But, in the end, she was able to see that her standards were far too narrow. A good husband is much more than handsome. He loves unreservedly. No more mention is made of his physical deficiency. That has become incidental to his generosity and love.

Like the fairy tale, “King Thrushbeard,” the parable of the friend at midnight in Luke 11:5-13, tells a story about an unwarranted change of heart. A man with unexpected guests goes to a friend’s house and asks for three loaves of bread. Now this number, three, indicates a real need. He does not just need some bread for back-up. He needs a whole meal; he has nothing. His friend is his last hope. He begs. His friend is in bed. He cajoles. His friend is already asleep. He promises. He whines. He invokes all past favors. His friend finally gets up and gives him bread. Prayer works like that. It changes intentions, it changes the will, and it softens the heart.

Then comes the fairy tale lesson. “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” Here’s a promise that we don’t take seriously because it sounds too good to be true, like a fairy tale. It sounds something like “make three wishes.” We may not understand the full implication of this promise. It is highly likely that our expectations must be simplified, our detection purified and our vision clarified. We may not necessarily get what we request. God is able to do more than you imagine with much less than you hope for. The promise is that everything that comes from God is good. The “unanswered prayer” may simply indicate that we are not yet ready for the good gifts God is giving. Fairy tale prayer is always an opportunity to change in order to receive God’s goodness. “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”(Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit at work in us will change us.

Remember the king’s beautiful daughter? She did not think being married to a poor fiddler was a great idea, but it left her in a far better situation than she would have chosen for herself. Fairy tale praying is not for petulant, willful children, but for any childlike person who says a complete and simple, “yes,” to what God wants to do, who is willing to be changed and who believes that God is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Naomi R. Wenger, 2019

Working Contemplatively – by David Wenger

David demonstrating bread baking

For many years I’ve pondered the idea of working comtemplatively; what does it mean, what does it look like, what does it feel like? These questions bring to mind Jim Schwartz, the carpenter who renovated St. Joseph’s Barn in the late 1980’s. I wasn’t here when he was doing that work but I did observe him many years later doing repairs here. Jim worked with a smile and a song. He took his time, working ever so carefully and thoughtfully. He stopped working every day to eat lunch. As quitting time approached, he cleaned up his work site and headed home. He came back the next day and the next until the job was finished. Jim didn’t work to be done with his work, he worked because it is a worthwhile part of life.

Through pondering, noticing and practicing, I have identified three qualities that begin to define for me what it means to work contemplatively, presence, care and perseverance.  First is being present to the work with a singular focus. This means releasing all the other wonderful things that I could be, and perhaps would rather be, doing. Indeed, these things will have their time of attention, but not right now.

Second, is exercising great care with the task at hand. This usually requires the elimination of hurry. I recall wiping the kitchen counter while cleaning up after a meal and I was moving so fast that I bumped the peanut butter jar and sent it flying across the room. Now my work increased; I had a much bigger mess to clean up (and more peanut butter to buy).

Third, is persevering in a task instead of quitting along the way for something more enticing. There’s an ancient Rabbinic saying that goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This suggests to me that getting the job done is not the goal, rather doing the work is the goal. And in doing the work we will most often come around to getting the job done.

In the early years of my being at The Hermitage I had the thought that work could be likened to what Jesus said about the poor, “the poor you will always have with you.” Work we will always have with us. What an abundance of opportunities we have to practice working contemplatively.