Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Comtemplative Arts

Header photograph - Main Altar, chapel of Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center, Esopus, New York

The Holy Face

Image Not Made by Hands

Icon Writing Retreat/Workshop

In its intensity and its demands for personal discipline and dedication traditional iconography is a metaphor of the spiritual journey. I never expected to return home so elated and so tired after six eight hour days in the icon studio.

I was among four rank beginners in a group of fifteen, many of whom had returned time and time again for this experience of immersion in icon writing taught by Sandra June Hofstead.

It was a great delight to find that the icon chosen for me was that of the Holy Face, an image of Jesus. What better subject on which to concentrate and meditate for the week! St. Therese of Lisieux had as the predicate of her religious name "of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face." There are photographs of her holding this image and these days some icons have been painted in which she holds the icon in her hands. The "image not made by hands" is part of ancient Byzantine tradition and is spoken of in liturgical prayer as "the image presented to King Abgar of Edesa." Jim Forest, in his wonderful book Praying with Icons, explains further: "According to legend, the first icon was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edesa and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent a healing gift. He pressed his face against linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear his image. The miraculous icon remained in Edesa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared altogether."

In the western Church this depiction of the face of Christ on cloth is connected to the story of Veronica (which, by the way, means 'true image') who offered her veil to Jesus to wipe away the blood and sweat on his face as he carried the cross to Golgotha.

My effort at reproducing this holy icon appears here. It was painted in egg tempera on gesso applied to an icon board made of poplar wood. It is gilded in gold leaf. When it is oiled in another month it will appear to have taken on a new life of its own. It has been blessed only with incense and awaits a full blessing with holy water and oil of chrism once the finish has dried.

Icons have been described as doors to the sacred, windows opening to the mystery of the Incarnation, and revelation of Transfiguration. They are works of tradition, silent images that teach theological truths without attention to more modern artistic techniques and, above all, both the fruit of prayer and the invitation to prayer.

The moment of the process which was most moving for me was the step in which one has to bring themouth very close to the surface of the icon without touching it. Then a deep breath is taken and breathed heavily on to the icon, the same way you do when cleaning eyeglasses. This act of breathing hot, moist breath onto the icon places just the right amount of moisture on the surface of clay and glue mixture that has been painted onto the places that will receive the tissue paper thin gold leaf. It must be done over and over again because you can apply only about a square inch or so of gold at a time. As I breathed on the halo of Christ's image it felt as if I were breathing life into Him, bringing Him alive. I remembered the priest forcefully breathing the words "Hoc est enim corpus meum," (This is my Body) over the elements of bread and wine in the Latin Mass. And I connected with the charism at the heart of my own contemplative life, the call to be a "living memory" of Jesus Christ, to be His life in this world.

Here is the link for Sandra Hofstead at St. Elijah Icon Studio:

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Special Memory for All Nuns - The Day of Entrance

Noli Me Tangere by Maurice Denis
This may be a simple Sunday in Ordinary Time but for me it remains the Feast of Mary Magdalene. I entered this monastery only seven years ago on this date. It was a Saturday, an endless Saturday, it seemed because I was not to arrive here until 5pm by which time my family (three sons and one daughter-in-law joined by my mother, father and sister) would assemble for the brief ceremony of entrance, sung Vespers with the community and then my last dinner with family in the guest dining room.

After morning mass in my parish church I enjoyed breakfast with friends at a favorite place and then tried to make the rest of the day move along with last minute packing and a householder's last cleaning effort coming from nervous energy. (God knows that the house, inhabited by two bachelors and a variety of friends hasn't seen much cleaning since!)

The ceremonials were not without nervousness either. My parents did not approve of this move of mine and, without a doubt, I worried about my sons, especially the unmarried ones. Was I deserting them? Was I letting them down? It was a time when things were particularly unsettled in Israel and my father noted prayers for the peace of Jerusalem included in the Palms of that evening's Office. He may have been disappointed in my choice but he paid attention to every word and action.

The community provided a lovely dinner along with wine for our last toasts and good-byes. It wasn't forever. My parents are an hour's drive away and my youngest sons only 20 minutes from the monastery. But in another way, it was forever. Things would never be the same for any of us; new levels of relationship, independence and dependence, love and respect and cherishing.

When the date of July 22nd had been settled upon, I felt it a blessing that it was the Feast of the Magdalen. For a long while I had felt an attraction to her and with this turn in my life I called upon her to be the patroness of my incorporation into this community of women as one who knew the experience of being an outsider, of wanting to join with others in support of Jesus, of faithfully and loving him and following him and, in the end, being the one to receive the announcement of his Resurrection and the commission to become Apostle to the Apostles. She seemed to have mastered the art of being lovingly and attentively present to Jesus while integrated into a company of women.

About eight months later at the end of my ten day in-house retreat just before becoming a novice, I received a note from the Prioress. "Do you have any request regarding your name in religion." My note of response read, "As if the name Hildegard was not sufficiently daunting , and if the line on the necessary document is long enough, I would like the name Hildegard Magdalen of the Resurrection." With great joy, I received just that name the next day when I appeared at Morning Prayer in Redemptoristine red and wearing a white veil.

Leave for Icon Writing Retreat this evening with great anticipation.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

How Can Contemplative Nuns Take Retreat?

An Icon Writing Retreat
(Icon by Mary James)

Don't recall mentioning this before but I do think of myself as an artist of sorts. There must be something in the familial DNA. My mother trained in fashion design and discovered a particular gift for water color in her 50s which she has exercised to the pleasure of many into her 80s. Used to tell her to clean less (she is a spotless house keeper - no DNA carry over there) and paint more.

My middle son, Matthew, whose drawing tops each episodic addition to "my story" (see archives for "When Mothers Become Contemplative Nuns"), is also an artist. When he was in 4th or 5th grade he could spend hours drawing a space shuttle, registering every rivet in its plated 'skin.'

My brand of artistry has been expressed in all kinds of needlework. Don't remember learning how to crochet. Have just always been able to do it. Knitting, needlepoint crewel, counted and not counted cross-stitch all followed. But in 1975 I was introduced to quilting and fell in love. More about that affair at another time. Just before entering the monastery I was lured into spinning wool by a group of avid knitters who assured me that I just would not fully appreciate the fiber arts until I learned to spin. It is very comforting to know that each of St. Teresa of Avila's nuns had spinning wheels in their cells. She would approve of mine.

Years ago too, perhaps out of the same DNA that made Matthew want to place every tiny rivet in his picture of the space shuttle, I was attracted to pysanky, Ukrainian wax resist dyed Easter eggs. After all, if I could do fine hand quilting certainly I could draw those intricate designs on eggs. Perhaps that art form was my introduction to things Orthodox, Eastern European in flavor, leading the way to a natural affinity for the icon form which was becoming so popular in spiritual circles.

Then I met Mary James, the painter of the icon shown here. She is a true artist who can draw anything and works in varied media all with great success. I can never, never attain her skills - my particular strain of DNA only goes so far. But she made me want to try it as I have tried and enjoyed and been blessed in the doing by so many other crafts and art forms. Now my community is giving me a chance to bring that desire to realization.

This is a retreat and not just a workshop because in the true tradition of icon writing the work gradually emerges not merely from the media but from the aura of prayer, the unceasing prayer of the iconographer in an atmosphere of silence and reverence. I have asked my sisters to pray that, regardless of the quality of the end product, my effort alone will be something beautiful for God.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Contemplative Nun Blogger Responds to Comment

Given all of the typos in my response to Kate as a comment on my last post, I've decided to correct them and publish those remarks here. Kate was very complimentary in her comment to the second post concerning contemplative prayer which focused on its fruits. Internet media seems to be the way of the future in communication. Unfortunately, technological skills do not come to monastic contemplatives at a pace that keeps up with the speed of developments on that front. When I entered the monastery seven years ago I came with word-processing and library automation skills and that was about it. Thanks to a wonderfully skilled woman who spent time in our community I learned a great deal - enough to give me the push to try to set up this blog on my own.

No, we have not used the Internet as much as we could. It all takes time. The learning curve and interest varies from person to person. The beginnings of our website are accessible at the Metropolitan Association of Contemplative Communities link on this blog. (See the side bar for links.) The site is very much 'under construction' but a great beginning an will give anyone a good idea of who we are and what we are about.

I have just spent a couple of days revamping our own vocation and informational brochures taking advantage of the templates offered in MS Publisher. What a difference that makes. And we are about to format materials that can be sent via e-mail.

I have noted with interest that the national organization of vocation directors, those in communities who deal directly with prospective candidates, are beginning to sponsor workshops on blogs, My Space pages, etc. We are paying attention. But like everyone else, we are trying to do more with less, fewer resources, fewer people. But the Spirit continues to work powerfully among us, even if we do not understand how.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Contemplative Nuns Celebrate Feast

Header photo - Main altar, Chapel of Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center
Esopus, New York
Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer

July 15th is the patronal feast of both the Redemptoristine Nuns and Redemptorist Priests and Brothers (respectively the Order and Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer). It no longer has a place in the general calendar of the liturgical year but we are able to celebrate it as a solemnity since it is Proper to our spiritual family.

At Easter time we celebrate Redemption as an historical event. This feast puts before us the deep mystery of Redemption, its universal significance. It stresses those aspects of the Redemption which lie outside the scope of history, namely the love of the Father who gave us his Son, and the love of the Son, giving himself up in our place.

He has sent deliverance to his people

and established his covenant forever.

Antiphon, Evening Prayer I

Our Constitution and Statutes begin with a section taken directly from the original inspired Rule of the Order received by Venerable Maria Celeste Crostarosa, our foundress. It is a seminal text for us and is referred to as "The Design of the Father." This the Redemptoristine 'take' on the mystery of divine redemption.

From all eternity, by the virtue of a plan born of His mysterious and utterly

gratuitous love for us, God wishes to call us to live in communion with Him,

to give us His Spirit of love so that He might constantly live with us and in us.

So, when He judged that the time had come,

He sent into the world His only Son in whom He had had loved and chosen us

from the beginning, and predestined us to become His adopted children.

Through His life of complete humility, by his death on the cross,

by His glorious resurrection, Christ has saved us and set us free.

He has revealed to us the love of His Father and has made us able

to know Him and to respond to His love.

And it is through Him, glorified at the right hand of the Father, that we

receive the Consoling Spirit who gathers us together and helps us to live

in unity.

Having become truly children of the Father, through the Spirit, we receive

in the Son, life, holiness, truth, and all divine grace.

Constitution and Statutes of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer

Chapter 1, No. 3

Thursday, July 12, 2007

CODA to Contemplative Nuns Offer School of Prayer

" The precious enclosed garden of the Lord which is the human soul."
Maria Celeste Crostarosa, Foundress of the Redemptoristines

The Fruits of Contemplative Prayer

And what is it that happens when the soul is totally disposed to God, when the donation of self in complete abandonment and utter generosity is the desire of the heart? What happens in that prayer of nothingness called contemplation?

* It becomes the place of transformation. Over time changes can be seen in behavior and attitudes; in greater desire for quite and solitude; in a slower pace of operation, greater acceptance of what is, and gratitude in all things.

* Contemplative prayer changes the atmosphere. In his introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing, Fr. William Johnston says, "No corner of the universe is untouched by this exercise of love...It is, of course, a great paradox that we should help people by forgetting them..." Thomas Merton often wrote of this cosmic effect of contemplative prayer. His book Basic Principles of Monastic Spirituality ends with these words.

In the night of our technological barbarism,
monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark,
and by their vital presence purify the air.,

Instead of "monks" use the words "all those who pray" and read the quote again. Now go into your room and shut the door.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Contemplative Nuns Offer a School of Prayer

Today we celebrated the sixth anniversary of our first meal in this very new monastery on July 8, 2001. We were celebrating the 89th birthday of one of the sisters who came to Esopus in 1957 to make this new foundation of Redemptoristines. Sr. Mary Catherine Parks (see May 13, 2007 post for details of her life - Archives available near the end of the sidebar) enjoyed our pizza supper in a very bare house. We all had a thrill at Vespers before supper. It was the first time we prayed together in the new chapel. This was sung Vespers II of Sunday. Our choir chairs had not yet been delivered so we had no choice but to sit in the bench seats built into the rear wall. When we began to sing we all knew we had never sounded so good before. The acoustics provided by the built-in seats and the overhang above them were so impressive that we scared ourselves. That experience provided much needed energy for the demand of the next day. Moving day, we knew, would be bittersweet. Giving up the old monastery filled with memories, stories and ghosts was a very difficult break but our voices that night gave us courage and hope for the future - a continuation of that same life of prayer and contemplation, always in God's house.

And our Lay Associate Meeting.....

The documents of our Church concerning contemplative monasteries have encourged them to become "schools of prayer" for all God-seekers. Our Lay Associate Program is one of our efforts to bring life to that recommendation.

Prayer before our meeting today included readings from St. Anselm's Proslogion and St. Augustine's Commentary on the Psalms. St. Anlsem calls us to come away from the hustle and bustle of life and enter into the search for God. It ends in the most beautiful prayer pleading to be allowed to find God. St. Augustine speaks such comforting words about the desire for God is in and of itself a prayer. Both of these appear in the Office of Readings for the Advent season.

I asked our associates to consider two questions during their meditation: What is the current state of your prayer life - your practice of prayer? What is your desire for your prayer life?

We began the meeting afterward by sharing some of those desires - perseverance, deepening, growing, finding it easier to "go to that place of calm and peace." It is not my intention to post here a treatise on contemplative prayer nor did I want to put listeners to sleep this afternoon with a lofty lecture. Wanted it to be practical and encouraging. Here some of the points that emerged.

* Contemplative Prayer is not a method. It is a state of utter availability for God; of openness, of exclusive listening, of pure love, of the fixed gaze. We may use some 'method' as a transition to contemplative prayer to quiet ourselves or 'center' ourselves but these prat ices are not in themselves contemplative prayer.

* The ego can have no part here so the effort is made to put everything aside - noise, visualization, conversation and stray thoughts as much as possible.

* Contemplative prayer (infused contemplation) is also called mystical prayer and is the work of God alone. We do not make it happen. We prepare. We dispose ourselves. We invite God. We surrender. God does everything else.

* Meditation prepares for Liturgy and both of these prepare the heart for contemplation. Contemplation is, in a way, the natural response for those who have entered into these in love and faith.

* Contemplative prayer is not easy. Here we meet our own 'creatureliness' - our bodily discomforts, our destractionss, our lack of discipline, perhaps even a dark night of the soul or a crisis of faith.

* Every time we are distracted during our period of contemplative prayer, recognize the distraction, put it aside and re-enter that state of total surrender and availability we are saying, in effect, "I love you." Distraction do not negate the value of this prayer.

* When St. John Vianney observed an old peasant spending hours sitting in Church he asked them man, "What are you doing while you are sitting here?" The man answered, "I look at God and God looks at me." This description of the fixed gaze is cited in the section concerning contemplative prayer in Catechism of the Catholic Church.

* Great resources for spiritual reading include:

The Cloud of Unknowing (13th century spiritual classic)

Contemplative Prayer, New Seeds of Contemplation and The Inner Experience
all by Thomas Merton

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lay Associates of Contemplative Nuns

Contemplative Prayer: A State of Being

Cultivating the Posture of Contemplative Prayer

On the second Sunday of each month our Lay Associates come together at our monastery. They come because they are drawn by our life of liturgical and contemplative prayer and by the Redemptoristine charism to be a 'living memory of Christ, the Redeemer." They also come because they want to grow in the love of God and neighbor; they want to become ever more intimately united with God every aspect of their lives; and they say they are encouraged and enlivened for their individual journeys by association with us. In turn, we are grateful for the ways in which they keep us aware of the needs of our world and the holiness present in it. We are also most grateful for the many ways in which they support us by their prayer and generosity to our community.

Tomorrow I will be moderating a discussion with them concerning contemplative prayer. I always welcome these opportunities as occasions of grace for me because they call me to re-examine my own prayer life and invite me to revisit those favorite authors who have instructed me so well. On this go round I have re-read Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer (originally published as The Climate of Monastic Prayer) and New Seeds of Contemplation. I've also read William Johnston's introduction to the Image Press edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and some articles commenting on that great classic of western spirituality.

Contemplative prayer is not a method. It is a state of being.

Monday, July 02, 2007

When Mothers Become Contemplative Nuns - Part II

Pencil Drawing by Matthew Pleva
Original 2 x 3 inches

Early this spring, I asked for some feedback from visitors to this blog concerning what kept them coming and what was of interest to them. A number declared their curiosity about my vocation story. Part I of that story appeared in May '07. You can see it by going to the Archives in the sidebar.

Before marrying in 1967, I had lived every day of my life in the same house in which my mother was raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York. My Sicilian grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran of World War I, visited Sicily in the early 1920s and returned to the States with a young bride and her eight-year old sister in tow. By 1931 he was a widower with two young children, jobless and just managing to hold on to his house and family in the midst of the Great Depression.

My father arrived in the United States at age seven with his parents and sister. They were escaping the dire post-World War I inflationary economic conditions in Germany. My mother says that my father's family did well during the depression in comparison to hers because my paternal grandfather brought master machinist skills with him and took on the job of superintendent in their Bronx apartment building to minimize the rent. Dad speaks of getting barrels of coal ash to the street each Saturday morning and washing the floors of long hallways. My mother has memories of food baskets left at the door, long lines waiting for shoes and caring for her little brother who never knew his mother.

How did these folks meet? My grandfather brought his seventeen-year old daughter to a party sponsored by the International Ladies Garments Workers Union and my father, newly minted member of the U.S. Air Corps, was there with a friend. At the end of the evening, he told his buddy, "I am going to marry that girl." They will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary next month.

I grew up in a three generation culturally Italian household. This was the family to which my father returned as a veteran of World War II with service in the Pacific. He'd been a freshman in City College in 1939. He became a draftsman and finished his education at night graduating with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

We lived across the street from St. Mary Mother of Jesus Church. None of the adults in our household went to church but my sister and I were sent. We remember Sunday morning children's masses, confession lines on Saturday afternoon, Novena on Tuesday night, the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught us in CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and the Baltimore Catechism. We did not attend the Catholic School because our parents preferred the public school as a better reflection of multi-cultural society in which we lived and would, one day, work and raise families.

Even among these comparatively mild Roman Catholic influences God spoke to my heart at an early age. My oldest memory of being deeply touched is situated at Holy Thursday morning High Mass. I watched the procession all a glitter in gold, mystified by incense and awash in tutti frutti colored sunlight filtered by stained glass windows. I was only seven or eight years old but nonetheless awestruck as the Eucharist was carried to the altar of repose. I knew something 'other' was present there.

When it came time for high school the notion of religious vocation was percolating in my heart. Perhaps a bit concerned about their daughter's welfare in a big public high school, my parents agreed to my request to attend Fontbonne Hall Academy, a small school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. The school was located on the banks of The Narrows, the entrance into the harbor of New York City, flanked by the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Today that stretch is dominated by the Verrezano Narrows Bridge. After four years of the excellent general education provided by the sisters, I went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York. I am in debt to Hunter for its highly prescribed (before all the curriculum changes wrought by the tumult of the late 60s and early 70s) liberal arts education - double major in History and Elementary Education, minor in English - and graduated in 1967.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Contemplative Nuns in the Hudson River Valley

If you've checked out the national weather scene these last few days you know that here in the northeast we have been blessed with a string of three glorious early summer days. For part of my monthly personal retreat day yesterday, I stationed myself in a grove of majestic pines. From this spot I could see the medieval appearing roof line of Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center, its castle-like parapets overlooking the river. I could feel the breeze , smell the aroma of pine needles, and feel them gently land in my lap. After praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I wrote in my journal and then just let the atmosphere carry me into that solitude of the heart where God may speak. It was a blessed day.