Moments in the Stillness

During my week long silent retreat at St. Scholastica Priory & St. Mary’s Monastery in Petersham, MA I kept my phone off in my purse and took out my good camera. It helped me to stay present in the moment and to experience the stillness in a completely different way than if I had used my phone or not taken any photos at all. These photos and the many others I took were an act of prayer in and of themselves. I hope as you look through them you will take the time to ponder them and to enter into the stillness with me.

 

 

Be Still: In the Ordinary

It had snowed the night before and the glass doors and windows in the living room gave way to a beautiful view of frosted over trees, dancing in the wind, and glimmering from the sun’s rays. I gazed upon this site and gave an audible yet soft “wow”. 

I had just finished reading the reflection for that day in the Rejoice! Lenten Devotional I’d been working through (see the last two posts here and here for more on this book) and the theme for the day had been “Ordinary” through the eyes of St. Joseph. What Fr. Mark Toups was able to unpack here in a few short pages was remarkable and gave me real pause. The cliff note version that I wrote down that day is this…

How did Joseph view the ordinary?

  • He found God in it because he lived with God and in God.
  • He was intentional in the ordinary. This allowed the extraordinary to in fact be that- extraordinary, not burdensome or falling flat. Intentionality in and with both (the ordinary and extraordinary) is key.
  • He wasn’t always longing for more because he didn’t have to because he saw God right where he was, regardless of external or internal factors. God always provided in these areas.

As I sat nestled in the couch separated from those iced over trees by a mere wall of glass, I contemplated the ordinary and the extraordinary through the eyes of St. Joseph. In that moment I had simultaneously stepped out of the ordinary (by going on a retreat) and stepped into the ordinary (by slowing down to experience nature, silence, and stillness more fully). How could this be? It was through this paradox that I realized this retreat was yes, perhaps an escape from the ordinary in some areas of my life but more so it was an opportunity for the enhancement of the extraordinary that is contained within the ordinary. In this case, the ordinary was the silence, was nature, was the consistent prayer schedule of the Benedictines, was the making of meals and sitting to enjoy them, was the early rising and early sleeping, was the sound of my sole footsteps echoing all around me. What made these all extraordinary through this retreat was the experience of them outside of my normal, daily life- even if they are each something I can encounter within my normal, daily and ordinary life as well.

This was my clue- my clue that experiencing the ordinary in an extraordinary way is possible. It just takes an active, intentional decision to pause -to be still- and to recognize God in that ordinary moment with you. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary in that way the constant longing for more begins to wane and we also gain a greater clarity of vision to view the extraordinary with true awe and wonder.


When we are longing to escape the ordinary a few things happen.

  1. Instead of trying to find what is extraordinary about the ordinary, we try to bring what is in and of itself extraordinary into every moment. This in turn dulls the extraordinary so when we encounter it on its own, we need bigger and bigger experiences in order for it to make any impact at all.
    1. i.e. Eating your favorite food all the time (extraordinary because it’s your favorite) makes it no longer special on special occasions. Your mom’s amazing lasagna every week means it’s not as special on your birthday and maybe you’re even sick of it by the time your birthday comes.
    2. Or turning random days into something worthy of a big celebration, get together, or purchase- just try listing all the “National _fill in the blank_ Days”.
  2. The ordinary is viewed as so terrible or monotonous that we find ourselves always planning for that next extraordinary experience. So much thought/longing/desire goes into it that when it finally arrives, we’re paying more attention to the fact it’s going to end and dreading the return of the ordinary than we pay to the actual extraordinary experience itself.
    1. i.e. Christmas. How many of us spend so much time buying gifts, planning parties, cooking food, etc. that once Christmas day (and the Christmas season which only begins on the 25th) actually comes you’re ready to take down the tree, cut the lights, and crash on the couch before the night even ends?
    2. Or a honeymoon or vacation that takes so much planning and build up that once the time comes it’s a whirlwind that’s hardly remembered, the trip ends, a month passes and you find yourself asking- When can we start planning another trip? Can we spend two weeks this time? Can we go even further from home than last time?
        

As Fr. Mark Toups said, “Joseph found God in the ordinary. Therefore, there was no need to overindulge or escape the ordinary because after all, what would he be looking to escape?”


 So the question then becomes, how do we keep the extraordinary special?

  1. We acknowledge there is a time and season and it’s not meant to last forever. This is a legitimate true fact about its reality. Again, consider Christmas, or your birthday, or a pregnancy, or a vacation- they all last for a certain length of time.
  2. We find what is special about the ordinary in its own right.
    1. The ordinary gives us peace, stability, a place to grow & learn, form relationships & invest in others, embrace silence, grow in humility & virtue, repent and forgive often.
  3. We have to be intentional.
    1. Find ways to focus on the extraordinary during its rightful season so it doesn’t get lost, forgotten, or mistakenly seen as ordinary.
    2. The ordinary can be special too, it doesn’t necessarily mean boring or dull. Intentionally live your everyday life well and with joy. However, it can also be boring and in fact needs to be at times because boredom inspires creativity and encourages silence which is where we meet God and are called deeper into our co-creator relationship with Him.
        

Fr. Mark Toups again reiterates the importance of the separation here when he says, “If we are not intentional, we actually may lose sight of the extraordinary because of the extraordinary.”

As we try to wrap our minds around this idea of the ordinary and extraordinary, I ponder one more question. What do we all have that is both ordinary and extraordinary?

A heart.

We all have one. In its physical manifestation it beats at relatively the same speed each moment to keep us alive. Yet, in its spiritual manifestation it is also what makes us each so incredibly and uniquely different. Ordinary and Extraordinary.

Joseph’s Chaste Heart

Mary’s Immaculate Heart

Jesus’ Most Sacred Heart

Use your heart and the hearts of the Holy Family to guide your journey through the ordinary and extraordinary.

BONUS: I also want to share a quote that I read from Matthew Kelly’s book, Life is Messy, shortly after my retreat. He titled this section, “Cherish the ordinary”.

“It was the ordinary things that saved me. I have experienced enough extraordinary to know that I would choose the ordinary over the extraordinary all day long. Learn to cherish the ordinary. Make a list of 20 ordinary things that bring you joy when you experience them consciously. Here’s my list: Breathing. Sleeping. Waking. Water. Nature. Food. Reading. Thinking. Conversation. Music. Art. Seasons. Friendship. Children. Kindness. Chocolate. Laughter. Hugs. Holding hands. Home. Allow the ordinary to heal you.”

 

Be Still: Right Where He Wants Me

Going into this retreat I was sure it was where God wanted me, but I also had no idea what to expect- nor did I want to set any expectations. I wanted this to be plain and simple time with the Lord. In fact, I was quite adamant about this with myself. Not having expectations set a precedence for what I brought with me, what I left behind, and the attitude I had surrounding the whole week. That being said, I really had no idea how this week would go, and it can be a little unnerving to step into the unknown, even if you are holding the hand of someone you deeply trust. If He wanted to reveal a particular direction or focus, great! If He didn’t, great! I was ready and open to whatever He wanted. And let me tell you- He wasted no time making it clear.

That first night, after joining the Benedictine’s for Evening Prayer, I went back to my little room named after St. Theresa of Avila. With its twin size bed, basic dresser, plush chair, small but endearing desk, and even a kneeler, I found myself in there often, feeling cozy, secluded, and peaceful. This first night I pulled out my Rejoice! Advent Meditations book as I hadn’t done the meditation for the day yet. I found it very fitting that that day’s theme was “Remember” and was asking us to review the last 20 days of Advent and all we had reflected on during them. So, my first night was filled with memories and seeing how past insights settled on the current state of my heart. Little did I know what tomorrow would bring…

The next day, my first full day, I didn’t rush myself to wake up but I did make sure I got to the 9:30am Mass. After that and making myself some breakfast, I grabbed my Bible, the Rejoice! book, a pencil and got comfy on the living room couch. There were a couple others utilizing the retreat house at this time and I shared the living room with two of them as I opened my Bible to try and catch up on my Bible in a Year readings (side note- proud to say this retreat allowed me to catch up on the two weeks of readings I was behind, which meant I was able to finish it in exactly 365 days alongside my parents and Fr. Mike Schmitz of course! 😉). Throughout that time, one of the guests packed up to leave and the others disappeared into their own time with God. Thus, I found myself alone in the quiet of the living room.

It was in this solitude that I then turned to the Rejoice! book for that day’s reflection. Now, let me preface by saying- I. Cannot. Make. This. Stuff. Up.

I kid you not- I opened to Saturday’s reflection and what was the Bible verse for the day? Psalm 46:10- “Be still, and know that I am God.”…

BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD!

So many thoughts and emotions raced through my mind- astonishment, joy, confusion, excitement, laughter, disbelief, and pure love. I quickly turned to the reflection and began reading to try and understand how in the world the same verse was being used and HOW IN THE WORLD IT WAS FOR THAT DAY OF ALL DAYS.

After yesterday’s reflection asking us to review the last 20 days, today’s was meant to remind us of where we started (Psalm 46:10) and where we were now in relation to that starting point. Wow.

Here is a quote from my reflection on that’s day’s readings:
“Peace. I feel peace in reading this verse and Psalm again. I feel seen and loved…You knew. You knew today would be my first full day on this retreat that You called me to with this very verse. Thank You. Do not let me miss anything You are trying to share.”

And here’s a quote from a separate journal entry from that day:
“Once again, God knew I would be here, reading that verse and reflection on the very first day. The smile it brings to my face and the peace it brings to my heart. Praise be to God! I love You, Thank You  ❤️”

If that wasn’t yet again confirmation that I was exactly where I was supposed to be then I should’ve just walked out right then and there because nothing else could’ve been clearer.

But something else amazing happened too- the theme for that reflection was “Ordinary”. Beyond the obvious gift of that verse, that theme and associated reflection actually gave me great insight into a bigger dilemma I had been facing for quite a while.

Stay tuned for how I found out what it means to be still in the ordinary…

P.S. I was hoping to get this blog post done during Saturday’s snowstorm but I couldn’t get myself to sit still and write all weekend. It took the discomfort of forcing myself not to watch another episode of that meaningless show I’ve been binging to finally make me be still and write. And what a joy it was as I was actually writing. It’s a never ending process, this getting good at being still thing. Just remember that.

 

Be Still Verse from Rejoice! Book

Be Still: A Series

One month ago, to the day, I concluded my first ever silent retreat, and a weeklong one at that! This was something that had been on my list, but I never found or made the time for. It wasn’t until God made it perfectly clear that this needed to happen that I actually went for it. And let me tell you, my gratitude is overflowing even a month later.

Now, some of you may know that the Lord has put a certain phrase on my heart since June 2020: Be Still. It all started when He spoke to me through the Bible versus Exodus 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you, just be still.” This came at a time when I wanted anything BUT to be still. Yet in his omnipotent wisdom God knew best, and I followed suit. This post is going to focus on my retreat, but I’ve decided there is too much to say about “Be Still” that it needs to be an ongoing series. It will have no official number of posts within it, rather I will simply add to it as inspiration and memories strike.

That being said, I feel it’s important you understand some of the “behind the scenes” for how God got me to this retreat in the first place. So that is what this post will be about. The following one(s) will go into more detail about the retreat itself.

For the last year and a half when the Lord wants to get my attention, keep me from doing something, or to do something, He’ll send a Bible verse with the words, “Be Still” in it. It’s actually been quite an amazing experience to have Him communicate with me in this way.

This November, before Advent began, I had decided I would use Fr. Mark Toups’ Rejoice! devotional, but not the newest one. I had bought the St. Joseph one two years ago but hadn’t ended up using it for a variety of reasons. So, I figured- this is perfect, it’s the year of St. Joseph why not use it now!

These devotionals follow a certain outline. Each day has a theme, Bible verse, reflection, prayer, and space to journal. Excitedly on the first day I opened up the book and my jaw nearly touched the floor. What was the first verse? “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. I could not believe it. When I bought this book, God knew I wouldn’t use it then but even more so He knew I’d use it in the year of St. Joseph and when He had already placed “Be Still” on my heart in such a profound way. Excitedly, I texted a bunch of my friends to bear witness to how God knows and sees us and is working all things for our good even years ahead of time.

Fast forward to the next night and I decided to end my day with a chapter from the book, “Pray, Decide, and Don’t Worry” by Fr. Mike Schmitz and Jackie & Bobby Angel that I’d been very slowly and randomly picking up whenever I felt the urge to. Well wouldn’t you know, the last line of the chapter for that night was, “Take a breath. Be still, and rest in God’s love for you (see Psalm 46:10).” This time my reaction was not excitement. I texted a friend, sent him a picture of the quote, and said something along the lines of, “I swear, if I’m any more still I’ll just die and then maybe God will have me right where He wants me.” Dramatic? Not at all 😉

Why the sudden shift in demeanor? The first time I felt seen and guided. The second time I felt reprimanded and stifled. Was He actually reprimanding or stifling me? No, of course not. But He was trying to get my attention. The next day, as I wallowed a bit in self-pity, I did recognize that something different had stood out to me in the line from that book- “rest in God’s love”. Well, a day or so later I was talking to my therapist and she mentioned that I should try to get away for a few days. I agreed but in the back of my mind thought- I can’t afford anything and where would I go anyways? Well, that’s when God really started to work. He reminded me how last year at that time I had wanted to go on a silent retreat up in Vermont, so why not this year? I began to think about it more and actually got excited about it. I remembered that the Benedictines in Petersham, MA have a guesthouse and it was a heck of a lot closer. So, I sent them an email inquiring about coming December 17th-23rd, they replied with a yes and so did my boss. It was all falling together. I was determined to Be. Still. even if it killed me. (JK, I was just really ready to embrace it).

With no idea how this would go, if I’d be bored out of my mind, or if I’d come out of it with some big realization, I packed my bags and right after work on Friday, December 17th I headed to Petersham for a week of silence and stillness.

To be continued…