An Invitation to Slow Time from a Lifelong Learner of Rest

— Carrie Rehak, Ph.D., Oblate, OSB Cam.,
Executive Director, SAT

The original article appeared in The Occasional Newsletter - Fall 2016 published by Incarnation Monastery, Berkeley, CA

http://www.incarnationmonastery.com/newsletters/2016_sept.pdf


The late poet John O’Donohue begins his blessing in, ‘For One Who Is Exhausted,’ with the following words:

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

It seems to me that most of us have experienced, or will likely experience such exhaustion, which is why, I suppose, observing the Sabbath is not only a commandment but a gift from God. The Divine, scripture assures us, desires to give us rest: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ (Matt. 11:28).

You may consider me a slow learner of slow time. Even with many wise and patient mentors, I am still a beginner when it comes to contemplative rest. I am a student of Scripture. Of the natural world. Of trusted teachers, family, and friends. Of poetry and my own practice in art. Of beauty and loss. And, of spiritual and religious traditions, my own as well as others, that practice some form of holy leisure.

Since June 2015, I have been serving as the Executive Director at the School of Applied Theology (SAT) an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). SAT, an urban oasis in North Oakland, honors the Hebrew understanding of Sabbath and the sabbatical year by providing a leisurely learning environment that seeks to apply theology and spiritual practices to work, ministries, and life. That is, we offer a holistic Sabbath experience of rest, study, reflection, art, contemplation, meditation, movement, and prayer to those who come to us for a day, a week, a month, or a semester or two of Sabbatical. With nearly six decades of serving thousands of laity, priests, deacons, and men and women religious, SAT is more aware than ever of the need of all people, from diverse walks of life—whether working in the home, in the church, or in the world - to take a break.

In a recent phone call an alumni of five years, who is currently pastor of two parishes, told me that his SAT Sabbatical not only saved his vocation but his life. Another participant, an engineer and mother of a young son who joined us for a couple days of Sabbatical, commented that SAT is the ‘best spiritual spa day for a mom taking a day off!’ To quote Wendell Berry: ‘Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.’

Through my work at SAT I am learning the value of attentive rest. That it is a value in and of itself. I am also learning that it is a means for emboldening inspired action in the church and in the world. It connects us with others, particularly the most vulnerable, human and other-than-human - protecting them from exploitation. To quote Joan Chittister: ‘The rabbis taught that the Sabbath was threefold. The first purpose was to free the poor as well as the rich for at least one day a week, and that included the animals too ... The second purpose was to give people time to evaluate their work as God evaluated creation to see if their work, too, is really life- giving. And the third reason for the Sabbath was to give people a space to contemplate the real meaning of life. If anything has brought the world to the brink of destruction, it must surely be the loss of Sabbath.’

Admittedly, I still have much to learn when it comes to living a balanced life. In many ways, those who know me well find it ironic at best that I am working in a field that is in the service of rest. My work at SAT, however, has been a supreme teacher: over the past year I have witnessed, time and again, the transformation that occurs in the lives of our participants who come to us exhausted and who depart radiant. One participant commented: ‘The SAT program helped me to discover more of my True Self. I rested, relaxed, related to new friends, visited new places, got new insights for future ministry. Transformation happened.’

Finding a spiritual home at Incarnation Monastery has also instructed me in rest, in contemplative rest. In fact, being an Oblate and sharing in the Camaldolese Benedictine charism and rule has been among my most liberating, life-changing, and life-giving experiences. My relationship with this praying community continues to open in me a more spacious spirituality that, to quote Josef Pieper on leisure, ‘... is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.’

Lately, I have been dipping into a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled How to Relax, in which he offers simple techniques for experiencing rest, such as returning throughout the day to the ‘refuge of your breath.’ He writes: ‘Whenever you’re carried away by thinking, overwhelmed by strong emotions, or feeling restless and dispersed, return to your breathing.... With awareness of the breath, our breathing naturally becomes light, calm, and peaceful.’ He also suggests calendaring light, calm, and peaceful.’ He also suggests calendaring for ourselves ‘lazy days,’ with unscheduled time. He says, ‘A lazy day is a chance to train ourselves not to be afraid of doing nothing.... Your time is first of all for you to be - to be alive, to be peace.’

One of my favorite suggestions is the ‘breathing room,’ which consists of a dedicated space, no matter how simple or small, in your home for the sole purpose of relaxing. He says, ‘This is not a space for eating or doing homework, or folding laundry or building anything. This is as essential as a place to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. We need a small space where we can take care of our nervous system and restore our tranquility and peace.’

This learning process on slow time is my camino. I am on a journey with hills and slopes, twists and turns, and some benches that look out over what appears to be endless vistas. I invite you to sit with me.

In closing his blessing, ‘For One Who is Exhausted,’ John O’Donohue writes: 

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time. ◆

 

Exposure at Tenderloin, Fall 2015 Program at SAT

By Percy Bacani, MJ

Perhaps Pope Francis is bringing back to us what it means to live the spirituality of Jesus in our times. He says in his proclamation of the Year of Mercy:

The call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable. No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one. Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.[i

More than what the Pope says is his action. His visit to the US and his address at the U.N. puts him at the center of power politics. An article from Washington Post “The paradox of Pope Francis’s power” states what is captivating:  

What’s fascinating, watching Xi, Obama and Putin on the same global stage with Francis, is that the political leaders seem to crave the authenticity that the religious leader commands so effortlessly…He disdains the trappings of power, the pomp and fanfare, and thereby enhances his real power. All of his words and actions seem to be going in the same direction… This bishop of Rome has unusual impact because he disdains the throne.[ii

Another person that captures the humanity of Jesus is Mary Ann Finch. The sabbatical program at the School of Applied Theology (SAT), an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), in Berkeley, gave us the opportunity to have a day of immersion at the Tenderloin, which is the locus of San Francisco’s homeless and victims of drugs. Prior to the immersion with them, Mary Ann shared her life story of wanting to provide a service to the poor as a qualified massage therapist: “I realized that this was an area that I didn’t really know that much about. I decided to travel to India, to work in a leper colony, hoping to increase my understanding of the work I was drawn to do. When I arrived I was confronted with a group of women covered in scars and bandages. I thought, ‘My God, how do I touch them?’ There was this moment of terror. I glanced over at the director and he indicated that they wanted me to put out my hand. Hesitantly I did. One by one, the women gently took my hand and softly kissed it. That gesture took down a wall of fear for me. In a sense, they anointed me. They opened me to my heart.”[iii]  

The day came for the exposure, and the first place to go to was the Church of Saint Boniface, a Franciscan parish in the heart of the city. Moving inside I saw poor and homeless persons sleeping on the pews. There were many and one was loudly snoring. I felt bothered and I smelled something unpleasant. I needed a place to keep my fears under control and feel safe. I went near the altar and a white male person was sleeping with his head resting on the front side of the pew. Looking back, I saw an old black woman reading a note and murmuring. To her opposite side was a young black woman staring at the altar. I looked too and saw the cross of Jesus. All of a sudden a troubling question took hold of me and I asked “Lord are these homeless not your crucified body today?” Silence enveloped my heart, grappling not with answers but with the dissipation of my fear. 

Afterwards, we went to the dining hall to eat with them.  Fr. John, one of the priestson sabbatical with me took our trays as we looked around to find a place and have a moment of conversation with anyone at the dining hall. Initially there were three adult males talking together. An Asian-looking person joined in and immediately I sensed he was, like me, a Filipino. We began talking in Tagalog and he is from Cubao, Quezon City. His name is Rico. He is forty years old and working in the city. When I asked him “why don’t you go back to Sacramento where you parents are?” He said “I am working here.” I did not push my query sensing that he was ashamed to share more about his plight. He looked haggard, trodden, and rumpled. He ate his food and gently smiled and said “bye Fr. Percy.” I said “bye” even if deep in my heart I wanted to know more about what happened to him. It was a moment with a Filipino homeless in the midst of prosperity bubbling at the heart of the Silicon Valley, the technological wonderland of the world.  

Before the day ended, we had time fora processing of our experiences together with our teachers - former homeless and addicts who painfully recovered and were still recovering from their brokenness – who toured us around the city showing where the homeless go and the different services provided to them. During the sharing, what struck most was the sharing of Walter, one of the teachers. With stuttering voice, he said “do not sugar coat what you have seen. Do not sugar coat what is.” Deep within I was struggling to feel what he was feeling, I was allowing myself to let suffering be, letting hopelessness seep in without any cause, letting his narrative speak for itself not needing any intervention and interpretation except to listen and be part of his story and those who have no home to rest. Maybe by listening for a moment, I provided a home. 

Another homeless and teacher-guide was Valerie. Her lot is difficult to image – sleeping on a chair in a crowded room of forty homeless women for the past three years. Her “descent to hell” is when she lost her job. She ended among the homeless of San Francisco and found herself wandering on the streets.  She said a finding a shelter every night can be a nightmare. Her sharing was calm and not bitter. What led her to discover her dignity was when Mary Ann gave her a massage. The touch was not just a familiar physical touch; it was a profound spiritual experience of belongingness and acceptance. She felt worthy and loved. She felt she got back her dignity and her wholeness. Mary Ann provided a home she was longing for; she gave more than a room; she offered a room for her heart to rest and dwell. The touch is holy. The heart of Mary Ann is God’s heart. Is this not a visible experience of the mystery of Incarnation? 

What Mary Ann does with people who are homeless and addicts, symbols of marginalization and brutality of the 21st century market economy, parallels that of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943 at the age of 29. Carol Flinders reflecting on the life of Etty writes: “Because she learned how to let go of the merely personal, she could fully receive the sorrows of others without holding on to them – she knew in effect how to lift the gate and let the grief flow on out of her. Everything could circulate through her. Joy, grief, anger, despair and of course love above all must be able to circulate through ourselves and one another and all of life.”[iv

Etty Hillesum’s writings articulate a remarkable experience of God during times when many just abandoned a faith that seemed so useless. Who could still talk about an almighty God in Auschwitz? In the same way who could speak about a Compassionate God where people who are homeless and the despised are considered deadweights of a prosperous society? Why would we need a God apparently so indifferent, or perhaps helpless in a world of massive poverty from Africa to Asia? Etty Hillesum writes with hope against hope. She believes that at the heart of inhumanity, the Divine is like an ember that we need to kindle. Without kindling that fire, we would find ourselves in despair and in hell. 

I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (12 July 1942)[v]  

My immersion at the Tenderloin, though a glimpse of the anguish and suffering of humanity, gave me a picture of what the cross of Jesus means. The cross means a lot but this this time I saw the gift and the challenge to my life as religious and missionary. As a gift, I saw the “back of God” manifesting compassion for the poor and the marginalized, not above, not below, but deeply being one with them, homeless and without security. As a challenge, I saw the back of God inviting me to provide a home by touching their lives in many ways but more in terms of listening to their sacred stories and taking their stories as my own. And as we share the same scarred-sacred humanity, that we can hold and nourish God’s presence in our hearts and not drowned by numbness and indifference. Etty Hilsum insight in life’s meaning is tied to our relationships and becomes a corrective to our feeling of isolation and loneliness. She writes:

I know two sorts of loneliness. One makes me feel dreadfully unhappy, lost and forlorn, the other makes me feel strong and happy. The first always appears when I feel out of touch with my fellow human beings, with everything, when I am completely cut off from others and from myself and can see no purpose in life or any connection between things, nor have the slightest idea where I fit in. With the other kind of loneliness, by contrast, I feel very strong and certain and connected with everyone and everything and with God, and realise that I can manage on my own and that I am not dependent upon others. Then I know that I am part of a meaningful whole and that I can impart a great deal of strength to others. (9 August 1941)[vi

What separates us are all the artificial boundaries and hollow walls created by human insecurities and shadows fêted and sanitized at the altar of technological power and indecent wealth of the present socio-economic system. All these constructed barriers intensify our alienation to who we are. We begin to own manufactured desires. It is captured by the dictum “I buy, therefore, I am.” The ubiquitous gadget is the smartphone; it is the symbol of our busy and emotional world of instant and constant communication, of amusement, of distraction, and of nourishment 24 hours a day. Ronald Rolheiser comments on the machines and shopping malls that rule our lives today: “While that has made our lives wonderfully efficient it has also conspired against depth. The danger, as one commentator puts it, is that we are all developing permanent attention deficient disorder. We are attentive to so many things that, ultimately, we aren’t attentive to anything, particularly to what is deepest inside of us.”[vii]  We end up disconnected to what gives direction and meaning to our lives as persons in a web of relations. Isolation and alienation become the dominant expressions of who we are. There is a homelessness in a deeper sense as having no soul at all. Pope Francis says:

Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capaci¬ty for making decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.[viii]  

Richard Rohr in his meditation about “Power and Powerlessness” says: “When you are aligned with Empire, you are forced to prefer a spirituality of achievement, performance, worthiness, and willpower, and surely not any talk of “all people have sinned” and “fallen short of the glory” (Romans 5:12, 3:23). There is no longer room “for the last to be first and the first to be last” (Mark 10:31). Conformity to cultural virtue becomes much more important than love of littleness itself or love of any outsider (read “sinner”).”[ix]  The narrative of the dominant culture becomes the center of any discourse. It proclaims constantly the values of technology and progress. Those who find themselves outside this vortex are simply left behind. There is no room for them in a globalized cold world. Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan writes about the impact of technology in our lives for the next 10 years, the digital divide in the modern world and what is the challenge for us today: 

…the pace of innovation will accelerate at a dizzying speed as the world’s best creative minds try to sate the demands of our insatiable appetite for progress and an insta-lifestyle that’s faster, cheaper, easier and better -- whatever ‘better’ might mean. Right now in my region, the Middle East, men are beheaded for sorcery while children are forced to watch. Women are enslaved and abused for belonging to ‘another’ religion. Around five million children are out of school -- missing out on the a,b,c’s and the 1,2,3’s of their future and the future of our region. Elsewhere, the ugly scenes in Ferguson and Baltimore remind us that below the surface and, too often, above it, injustice and prejudice simmer across the US. We’ve seen religious intolerance manifest itself in terrifying massacres in Kenya. And already this year, around 1,500 refugees, in search of a better life, have drowned, in part, because of the global community’s indifference to their plight. As long as progress is exclusive and not inclusive, shared by some and not all, the more we’ll see incidents like these. And the more we’ll see lone wolf terrorists and groups, such as ISIS, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram feed off people’s sense of injustice and seek perverted fulfillment. To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back. Back to basics. We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other. And we must be as hungry and restless for them as we would be if they were the next smart phone or Fitbit or video game. [x

With the egoic consciousness having become so dysfunctional, and now having at our disposal all these enormous technologies and scientific advances, if nothing changes the ego will use those things - as it already has been doing - and will amplify the technology that we now have. The scientific advances, to a large extent, will be used in the service of the ego, and they will become more and more destructive. - Eckhart Tolle

Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. – Arthur Schlesinger

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. – John Naisbitt

 

Fr. Percy G. Bacani,mj
Antipolo City, Rizal
Philippines

 

 

[i]http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/03/13/pope_francis_homily_with_announcement_of_year_of_mercy/1129218

[ii] http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/opinion/the-paradox-of-pope-francis%E2%80%99s-power/ar-AAeL5cG?ocid=SK2CDHP

[iii] Mary Ann shared this story at SAT (school of applied theology) October 26, 2015. Her program “Care through Touch is documented in the Kindred Spirit issue 50, Spring 2000.

[iv]  http://globalsistersreport.org/column/speaking-god/spirituality/2015-year-love-17406

[v]  http://www.theway.org.uk/Pleshayono%20on%20Etty.pdf,8.

[vi]  Ibid,7.

[vii]  http://ronrolheiser.com/a-conspiracy-against-interiority/#.VkAjheLo5xM

[viii]  Laudato Si,108.

[ix]  Richard Rohr’s daily meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation.

[x]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rania-al-abdullah/what-good-is-technological-progress-without-moral-progress_b_7217068.html

My SAT Sabbatical Experience

by Charles Buckley, OSB
St. Gregory's Abbey, Shawnee, Oklahoma

Last spring sometime Abbot Lawrence invited me into his office, commented that I looked tired, and asked me to think about something:  “I’d like you to think about taking a sabbatical,” he said.  So I thought about it for a while – probing my energy like you probe a chipped tooth with your – and after about 20 seconds said Yes.  Many sabbatical programs surfaced by an internet search were merely places to stay, not programs as such.  An exception to that is the “School of Applied Theology” in Oakland/Berkeley, California.  I cleared my teaching schedule for the fall and headed out there in August.

I was ready for a sabbatical; the people who ran the program insisted that it was for rest and renewal, and they promoted that.  No papers, no tests, but great classes; the San Francisco area is rich in excellent faculty who presented short courses to us in a great variety of areas:  much on personal renewal and spirituality, scripture, moral theology, interfaith dialogue, an astronomer’s conception of the evolving universe followed by a student of theology from that viewpoint.  And there was a marvelously diverse group of participants in the program.  The 16 participants for the fall included priests, brothers, sisters, and one lay woman; they came from seven countries, having ministered in several others.  The program was housed at a Dominican priory; most of its members were students at the Dominican school that is part of the Graduate Theological Union; the association with the GTU is how the sabbatical program got its name. 

One of my goals in the program was to take my brain out for a walk.  Teaching mathematics, sitting on committees to formulate policies and make recommendations – the analytic side had been working very hard and very long; it was time to give my imaginative/creative side some room.  So it did.  Many of the presenters punctuated their sessions with poetry, and I got to meet for the first time the poetry of Mary Oliver.  Look her up.  One presenter spoke about dreams and some simple steps in processing them, so that let loose a torrent of dreams for me.  Every morning at breakfast, the group would ask:  what was the dream last night.  And half of them involved basketball; I didn’t figure why that was a theme.

There were structured ways for us to share our reflections on the program and many informal ways.  We spent 2-1/2 days in silent retreat in the hills east of Berkeley, and said our goodbyes to the program at a retreat house on the beach in Santa Cruz.

We took advantage of being in the San Francisco area.  We explored the glories of nature.  Most of us went on a weekend visit to the Monterey Peninsula with its aquarium, the 17 mile drive, and Big Sur, where we visited the Camaldolese monastery that sits high up overlooking the coastline; we celebrated the Eucharist with them in their elegantly simple chapel on Saturday.

Another trip was to Yosemite National park – after the summer’s forest fire there was extinguished.  The rock faces were magnificent, the sequoia groves were impressive.  Because it was fall and the area was experiencing severe drought, the waterfalls and rivers were very calm, but I found a quiet trickle of water gurgling its way between rocks that captured my attention.

And most of us went one day to the Napa Valley were SGU alumna Beth Nickel gave us a grand welcome to her Far Niente winery.  Individuals and small groups did a great number of explorations to the neighborhoods and museums in the area and to the different churches to experience the variety of expressions of the Sunday liturgy.  Some anonymous angel with some role in the San Francisco Symphony provided tickets available for many of the performances – two or four for any given night.  We simply signed up for them and were treated to marvelous music.  We had an opportunity to do a spiritual exercise reflecting on one of several works of art, and a session challenging our own creativity.

Now I don’t want you to think that this was just a three-month vacation; these adventures were indeed part of it, part of our expanding our minds and our souls.  We were urged to have a spiritual director, and that was a great experience for me.  And the ones who presented our courses challenged us to grow.

One of the presenters who moved us all greatly was Fr. Michael Fish, a member of the Camaldolese monastery at Big Sur.  He had originally been a Redemptorist from South Africa.  He beguiled us with an Old Testament view of God, the God who was bursting with love for us before creation, and so created us humans to be able to share with Him.  In fact, the whole of the Old Testament is the story of God’s trying to develop a relationship with us humans, with his own people, a relationship we so often soured.  So when Adam and Eve sinned, God was lonely.  God went into the Garden and called to Adam and Eve:  “Where are you?”

The other side of the story is that we feel as part being human.  We experience the gap, the ache, the pain.  It is this to which St. Augustine referred when he said:  Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in You.  The gap is part of any real spirituality.  But what Michael Fish was saying was the God experienced this gap, too, this separation between God and his people.  I saw a phrase in a book on the spirituality of St. John of the Cross to the end that God wants us to be part of God’s life.  And so the remedy for this separation/this gap is Jesus Christ – true God and true man.  It is through Him that we see and interact with God and God with us.  Jesus shows us how to live in the gap, how to live our humanity.  Jesus is the longing of God, searching for us, made flesh.  Every time we anesthetize the gap (eating, drinking, shopping) we anesthetize God.

And so Michael’s message, echoed by many of the other speakers, was that our call, our mandate is to become human, because God created us good and loves us fully, and so our task is to respond to this love.  One of the church fathers said that Jesus Christ became human that we might be divinized – and thus fully human in the way God intended for us.  Fr. Michael quoted Merton:  We are never simply a being that is “there” and “ready-made,” just for the asking.  From the very start we are something that can Be, a being who must win selfhood and decide what it is to be.  We must fully become what we are – a human being.

Now none of this is a denial of other ways to speak to God, ways when the reflection on who God is was done in the context of philosophical language.  But no particular view can exhaust our speaking of God and appreciating God, and the insight above gives us a way to accept the dynamic of God’s powerful love for us, and to receive God’s loving care.  It allows us to value the creation we are and to realize that we do well to take good care of ourselves as instruments of God.

And so Michael left us with some strong advice about caring for ourselves and making our spiritual search real as we return to the “real world” at the end of sabbatical:  walk every day, take a siesta, be reading a novel all the time, devote an hour to God daily, take a day off every week, have a hobby, keep intellectual and creative stimulation, live with beauty and simplicity.  Okay, he admitted that was a long list, which he might be able to carry out successfully some of the time, not having full time assignments.  But he did encourage us to find ways to keep these elements alive in our lives, so that we might maintain this active search for God.

Well, I’m back at the Abbey now, and it will be up to me – and the Spirit – to see if this sabbatical was just a pleasant interlude, or a transforming experience.