I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday 2011

St. Walburga nuns, 1992
As I wake in the darkness on Easter morning 2011, my thoughts are of the community of nuns that I knew in Boulder.  I spent at least five Easter mornings with them. Meet the Benedictine Sisters of St. Walburga, a small group of contemplative nuns who used to host retreats at their abbey just outside of Boulder. They moved from Boulder to the farming community of Virginia Dale in 1997.

When I was growing up, moving frequently from place to place with my family, we never attended church. My parents were not religious in any sense. My father had been raised in a family that followed no faith that I am aware of, and Mama was raised as a Catholic. To marry my father she left the church and never spoke of it to me, that I remember anyway. My grandmother lived with us for a time and she never mentioned going to church. It was only the secular holidays of Easter and Christmas that we celebrated in the fashion that so many do these days: Christmas is presents and shopping for gifts to wrap and put under a Christmas tree, wondering what those presents with your name on them contain; and Easter was pretty dresses, baskets filled with hard-boiled eggs that we had dyed in pastel colors. There was never any mention about the meaning behind these two holidays.

In my late teen years, just after having graduated from high school, I discovered religion. My father was stationed at an air base near Albany, Georgia, and when we moved into our rented house, a priest from the nearby Episcopal Church, Fr. Shipps, came to welcome us to our home. He also was interested in finding out what church we belonged to. I don't remember what was said to him, but I remember promising to come and visit the church. It must have been the right time, I'm not sure what triggered it, but I became intensely interested in learning everything I could about Christianity and was baptized and became a member. I just looked on line to see if I could find that church from all those years ago, and I think it was St. Paul's that I joined. But what I remember more than anything is that I was like a hungry person sitting at a banquet table. I could not get enough information fast enough, reading the Bible every day, studying everything about my new religion and becoming convinced I was meant to join a convent. (I have never done things half way, but this new tangent was a bit extreme, even for me.) My parents were very concerned but would have allowed me to follow whatever direction I chose.

I know I wasn't really all that serious, looking back, because I perused information about several different Episcopal convents and looked for the most attractive habit to guide my choice. When fashion is your guide to a convent, you can't be all that serious. But instead of joining a convent, I met a young airman who caught my eye, and we began to date. You can't have both of those things, apparently. But all of that information and what happened to me is another story.

The religious conversion was real, however. I have called myself a Christian and attended several different churches over the years, but as I have grown older I realize that the internal journey is still in progress. Prayer has always been something I've received great solace from. My life has not been an easy one, and so many times there was nowhere else to turn. In the years I lived in Boulder, I found it important in my life to find times to spend in concentrated prayer and meditation. St. Walburga's convent gave me that opportunity.

I would take a vacation from work and head to the Convent on Wednesday of Holy Week. The nuns provided me with a little cabin of my own, furnished with a bed, a writing desk, and a chair. If I chose to have a completely silent and private retreat, they would have left a meal for me outside the door, but I decided to take my meals with the other retreatants. The Benedictine nuns have designated times for all things, following the offices of St. Benedict, and strict times for meals. When I entered the little dining hall, a place was set for each of us, and we ate in silence while we were read a passage from the Bible. We were allowed to chat after the meal was concluded. This was the only time I spoke to anyone for the entire five days. I went into the chapel to listen to the nuns gathering to sing their offices several times during the day.

On Thursday, the nuns washed the feet of the retreatants, and I was quite moved to find how this affected me. It was humbling to have this lovely cloistered nun performing the ritual, one of so many she followed every day of her life. Since I was spending my time in solitary prayer and meditation, perhaps this is one reason why it seemed so meaningful. Everything, including walking quietly on the grounds of the Convent, took on a different light.

Saturday before Easter was like no other day. It is the only day of the entire year that Mass is not performed. No one takes communion that day. Christ is dead and has not yet risen. The feeling of the nuns on Saturday was mournful and quiet. But just the opposite occurred on Sunday morning: they had been up all night baking cookies and breads, and each of us was presented with a beautiful basket filled with these freshly baked goodies. Not your traditional Easter basket of jelly beans and hard boiled colored eggs, but one that was filled with lovingly prepared treats.

The Sunday service was packed, with all the faithful residing in nearby Boulder pouring in, and it truly felt like a celebration. I would pack up and leave after the Sunday service, filled with gratitude and spiritually renewed. Each year for at least five in the mid-1980s I spent Holy Week with the nuns at St. Walburga, and I have thought of them with fondness many times during the following decades.

Today, sitting in bed with my dear husband gently sleeping next to me, with the sun's rays beginning to come through the window, I realize how blessed I am to have the life we share today. For Easter this year, we will dress in nice warm clothes and drive to a nearby lake and walk around it together. I will have time to take pictures and we will discuss things going on in our lives. We will both be contemplative in such a beautiful setting, listening to the birds sing and watching the ducks and geese swimming on the lake. It is the church I attend these days, and it's a good one.

But I am also aware of what the nuns are doing right now, how joyful they are, and what they gave me that will never leave me as long as I'm alive.


Teresa Evangeline said...

"Love has rolled the stone away." What a transcendent post for this morning. I went back and read your "another story," DJan, and several posts that also relate it. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see you now, on the far side of all of that, and with love and nature surrounding you. Resurrection comes in many forms.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Beautiful thoughts, and Teresa's comment is fabulous, too. You have become a deeply spiritual person. I think we can learn concepts and practices from church participation, and that we really grow when we make those things our own. Nature is perhaps the ultimate place of worship.

Oh, and this: "When fashion is your guide to a convent, you can't be all that serious." Cracked me up. I went through that phase, too, but had forgotten until I read this. Have a wonderful Easter, DJan.

Buz said...

A beautiful post, and it sounds like a wonderful way to spend your Easter day, surrounded with life, contemplating things that are gone and things that are yet to come.

Norma Jean said...

I do believe our father's family were Christian Scientists, although I don't think Daddy ever practiced it. We come from quite eclectic roots.

Have a wonderful day...

Grandmother Mary said...

Thanks for sharing your spiritual journey and the place you made for prayer and meditation in your life. It makes me feel closer to you knowing that we're walking this path and drawing strength from it in its various manifestations. I had my most profound spiritual realization as a young adult when on retreat with nuns. It has underpinned my journey ever since. Happy Easter or Buona Pasqua as they say here.

Red said...

Great post written in a contemplative manner. At least it makes me think.
I couldn't help but see the complete opposites in our experience with faith. From the day I was born the bible was read to me. Church was attended 4 or 5 times a week. There was much pressure from those around me to conform. When I grew up I gradually moved away from this rigorous pattern and today have very little to do with organized worship.
I feel comfortable and also very accepting of those who find a way to express and follow their faith as long as they don't go out and try to push others to make similar commitments.

Gigi said...

DJan! I so love coming over here. I, too recall wanting to be a nun at some point - but worrying about the fashion side of it. I'm Catholic, in a very loose sense of the word these days, I think you have found the perfect essence of it all. Prayer is comforting and healing - whether it be to God, Allah or Nature. What a wonderful retreat that sounds like; I wish I could find one here. Happy Easter, my friend.

Sally Wessely said...

DJan, if we ever meet in person, I think we could talk for a week, non-stop. This post was so reflective and honest that I again had new respect for you. You are one of the most genuine people I know. I love how you have thought deeply about your life and your experience toward it.

I then went back and read your older post on being "trapped." I was touched even more by your ability to be so transparent, You have suffered so much loss. I gain great strength from you.

I've not shared my personal spiritual and marital journey because the time is not right. I will when I feel that I can, but I also have had a complex journey.

It is good to be at this age and have the ability to look back without bitterness, even if the memories are bitter. Happy Easter, dear one.

Anonymous said...

Great post! It amused me that you based your decision on the type of habit the nuns wore. lol.

I think a lot of Catholics and Episcopalians think of joining the religious life at one time or another. My aunt was a nun for over 10 years, spending time in Korea as a Maryknoll missionary. She left the convent when she was around 37 or 38 and hasn't looked back.

CrazyCris said...

Sounds like it must have been a beautiful experience!

My mom wanted to be a nun when she was a teenager as well... a good friend of hers -a jesuit priest, who came all the way to Panama to baptise me!- talked her out of it. Teenage fantasies of what convent life is like! :p

I didn't know there were Episcopalian nuns... I thought only Catholics had monks and nuns!

Leave a Legacy said...

I just love your Sunday posts! What a wonderful experience to have lived with nuns. I find it difficult to be so transparent in my posts because I have so much family, including parents, that I feel I can't share some thoughts. I can say that my religious past is varied and Hubby and I consider ourselves very good and spiritual people but just can't bring ourselves to feel real close to any one physical church. We feel like you, being close to each other and nature feels more spiritual than being inside a church building. Why is it I feel comfortable telling you that and not my family?

Paul C said...

You provide an intimate part of your spiritual journey. How uplifting and meaningful.

Donna B. said...

DJan...I could not express my feelings any better than Teresa E, Blissed Out Grandma, and Retired English Teacher... You are an exceptional person the way you bravely, honestly, peel back the layers of your life.

I laughed too when you mentioned you were concerned with the various fashions of the nuns. I watched Nuns Story with Audrey Hepburn, and may have fantasized about the romance of becoming a nun, only due to the movie...but I never thought of it seriously.

Reading your story, I can't help but think how great it would have been to spend times with the nuns... What a unique, incredible experience...

Our family came from many different religions, but when I was 9 years old, after visiting a Catholic church in Washington state, I wanted to become a Catholic. Again, I was taken with the romance and rituals of it.

In my teen years, I became embittered with what I saw as hypocracy withint the Catholic Church...I saw my family struggling with so many kids and the church against birth control...a family friend/priest was arrested for molesting boys and commited suicide...so I began exploring different churches and faiths.

I found a progressive church in Tucson, AZ, run my Jesuit priests. I even took a life drawing course from a Jesuit. What a shock that was!

For a time, I also found time with nature as a beautiful place to worship and contemplate...

In 1998 I became a Christian and for the first time, really felt I had a genuine relationship with the Lord.

I so look forward to your weekend posts...

Linda Reeder said...

I enjoyed reading about your spiritual journey. Mine is quite the opposite, having been raised in a strict evangelical tradition, I went to a Christian College because it was 'safe'. But somewhere along the way in my adult life I realized that none of this fit me at all. I am now a happy agnostic, but I also find my sanctuary in nature.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Hi DJan, What a lovely and loving Easter post this was..even though I am reading it three days after Easter. I was raised Lutheran, going to church every Sunday..still am Lutheran..just not every Sunday. I know that I am going to heaven..that part has been bought and paid for during Easter week..and I have a ticket!!
There are many ways to touch people besides bashing them over the head with a Bible..or being in church every Sunday..like God keeps track.
I have a blogging friend who goes to a writing retreat every August at a convent, the sisters welcome her with open arms..and she always come back so full of renewed hope and excitement..it is a joy to listen to her talk about her quiet time.
Thank you for sharing:)

Stella Jones said...

That's something I've never done, but would like to do, i.e. spend some time on a retreat. I'm glad you found it a rewarding experience.

Whitney Lee said...

Interesting experience. I could probably benefit greatly from some quiet contemplative time. I was raised in the church and find that I have a very strong religious foundation. I was fortunate enough to have parents that also encouraged me to learn more about other faiths and belief systems. Perhaps encourage is the wrong word, but I never felt anything but acceptance from them in that regard. We were raised Methodist, but my dad had a man, a bit of a surrogate father, who was very close to us and a devout Catholic. He often took care of my sister and me when my parents were out of town and I went on hunting trips with him and my dad, etc. One year he took my sister and I to the monastery that was part of the church he attended. We actually spent the night and got up at the crack of 4:30 or something for an early mass. It has been years upon years since this event, but I can still remember the quality of the silence there. It was the warmest, most comforting silence I've ever experienced. I'm certain you know exactly what I mean.

Nancy said...

What a beautiful and soulful post, DJan. You have had so many transforming experiences in your life - no wonder you are so multi-faceted.

Trish said...

What a beautiful post. You write from the heart and that always speaks in such a powerful way.