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Day 7, pretty stuff

Nothing deep in this post, only a few pictures from around the grounds that I thought were pretty, and some mockingbird song, which is always worth listening to.

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* * *

* * *

I saw the bobcat again yesterday evening, while I was out walking after dinner (the weather improved a lot over what it was on Thursday). I may have found his lair, because he was lying down in a shady spot, and it was very close to the same spot I first saw him, and got his picture, on Monday. I stumbled onto him, and we looked at each other for a couple of seconds, from about 10 feet apart, and he decided he wanted nothing to do with me, and left. Pity; he was beautiful to look at. I guess I wasn’t.

* * *

The world has grown frothy with God,
Life leavened with greening grace,
rising, expanding, over-spilling its bounds,
the whole wet, messy, sticky-stuff
headiness of it all,
that blows blossoms out of their sockets,
calls the steps of the mating dance,
soars falcons through the sky,
prompts fawns to fawn and graze,
strikes full-throated exuberance from birds;
a stiff brew that enlarges the heart,
addles the mind,
and knocks you to your knees.
Can one grow drunk on prayer?


Day 6, travelogue

St Eugene de Mazenod

Catholics don’t know how to celebrate. I say this with all love, but it’s true. Here is proof:

Today is the 125th anniversary of the passing of St Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, under whose auspices Lebh Shomea operates, and to which order Fr Kelly belongs. It is, therefore, the feast day of St Eugene and his order. In the little room off the vestibule of the church, where the tabernacle is kept (a complaint for another post), there is a small statue of St Eugene and a relic of his. Whenever I come into the chapel, I always stop here first and pay my respects to the Lord in His tabernacle and to the local Saint. Seems the Christian and neighborly thing to do.

There were proper readings at Mass this morning for St Eugene, I will give them that, and Fr Kelly offered some reflections on his life in a brief homily. He was born of French aristocracy some six years before the Revolution in France and his family fled to Italy to escape the Terror. The family was dysfunctional, with his parents separating in a vicious divorce and mamma taking up incestuously with a cousin of hers. Yet in the midst of such horror and pain, Eugene found Christ and went on to found an order of missionaries, as well. This much we learned. Apart from that, nothing else was done to mark the feast.

I couldn’t stand it.

I collared Fr Kelly as he was recessing out after the Mass and asked if I could offer a blessing, to which he consented, so I sang him and his order “Many Years,” to the general pleasure of everyone there (I think, too, that many people love Fr Kelly dearly and maybe they don’t have many opportunities to show it, given the ordo of this place).

Now, had this been an Orthodox church, there would, of course, have been Vigil with Litya the evening before, the Icon of the Saint and his relic would have been in the center of the church for everyone to venerate, neighboring clergy would have come to concelebrate (admittedly, there are no neighbors, much less neighboring clergy, in these parts) and he would have had a Troparion which we all would have known and sang. There would be a relaxation of the rules of the monastery (perhaps no work obediences today); dispensation for fish, wine, and oil (had it been a fasting day) or something special to eat in the refectory, along with a cup of wine, for the glory of God.

But this is not an Orthodox place, it is Catholic, and Catholics, I maintain, don’t know how to celebrate. I suggested to Fr Kelly and Sr Marie that, in honor of St Eugene, there should be ice cream at lunch.

I’m not holding my breath.

* * *

Yesterday it was hot. Really hot, as in 93 degrees and God-only-knows-how-high-the-humidity hot. Anybody working outside in such weather is doomed to misery and sweat. But I, I was standing still to pray in my cell and sweat was dripping down the small of my back and rolling off my face to hit the floor. When you sweat like that just standing still, it’s too damned hot. I gave up being macho and turned on the air conditioner.

The big ol’ pot o’ pinto beans that appears every day at lunch has become as comfortable as an old shoe. I caught myself smiling when I saw them today in their usual place, two big serving spoons sticking out of the bowl, and had mine garnished with sweet Vidalia onion. Cold cuts every night for supper, however, have gotten old. Maybe cold cuts have had all the soul pressed out of them while pintos still possess their beany souls. I don’t know, but it’s hard to love a cold meat sandwich.

* * *

A snake crossed the road this morning
like a train
I stopped my prayer to let him pass
without the clatter, smooth as oil,
as quiet as I hope to be.
I marked the point of his tail on the road
when his head touched the grass.
Six feet long he was,
longer than I am tall.
He sought a cool place to rest,
moving as his nature bids,
closer to God
for trailing on the ground.

* * *

I take it all back. There was ice cream at lunch.

Day 5, a little about prayer

Chapel of the Little Children

I am one of those people who is tempted to read about something rather than actually do it, and it is the same with prayer. Sometimes I think I haven’t spent as much time praying as I have spent reading about prayer. Here at Lebh Shomea I’ve been given an opportunity to do something to change that. Apart from my usual level of mindfulness of God throughout the day (minimal); reading and meditation on Scripture (Bible? What Bible?); the (very) brief prayers I pause to offer; and wandering around the grounds prayer rope in hand (gawking at the wildlife); I’ve settled into this daily routine of formal prayer:

5:30 am, Morning prayer rule (45 min).
7:00 am, Mass with the community (30 min).
10:55—11:55 am (when the lunch bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
4:55 – 5:55 pm (when the dinner bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
6:30—6:45 pm, evening prayer rule (15 min)
Bedtime prayers (5 min)

That’s 3 ½ hours of standing-before-the-Icon kind of prayer a day. It ain’t easy, especially the Jesus Prayer part.

I say the Jesus Prayer before lunch and dinner because it’s easier to concentrate when I’m not full from a meal, and also because the bell will tell me when my hour is up and I can better resist the temptation to go look at the clock to see if I’m done yet. (Yeah, it happens to the best of us.)

I remember reading about Elder Sophrony, when he was still a monk at St Panteleimon’s on Mt Athos, how a respected brother came to visit him and Sophrony was offering him hospitality by brewing a pot of tea. The monk asked Sophrony about prayer, and Sophrony said to him, “You stand at the edge of the abyss for as long as you can stand it, then you step back and have a cup of tea,” and he served the monk a cup of tea. I am trying to push myself a little, to stand, if not at the abyss, at least within sight of the abyss, for a little longer than I think I can stand it, because I’m figuring I underestimate what my endurance really is, and I know where the desire for that cup of tea comes from.

Some observations about prayer, a few of them actually based on experience:

It’s better to keep your eyes open when you pray, even if you catch yourself studying the patterns on the wall.

Staying in the present moment, in the here and now, is very hard work. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Repeatedly, ’cause you will. And then you’ll fail some more. Just bring your attention back to the prayer.

When you get tired, simply try to focus and keep your mind on the words of the prayer, which St John Climacus says is the safest way to practice the Jesus Prayer anyway.

Don’t expect to pray well. Don’t expect to pray poorly. Don’t expect anything at all.

Just showing up to pray is half the battle. Continuing to show up, moment by moment, is the other half.

Prayer won’t get any easier with practice. One of the Fathers of the desert says, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” That shouldn’t discourage us from praying; it should just clear away some false expectations.

The best prayers seems to be the briefest, like the Jesus Prayer, or the prayer of the Canaanite woman (“Lord, help me”), or the prayer of the father of the paralytic boy (“I believe, help my unbelief”), or like the Psalms (“Give me understanding according to your Word”).

Thinking about prayer isn’t praying. Reading about prayer isn’t praying. Wanting to pray isn’t praying. Intending to get up and go pray isn’t praying. Praying is praying.

If your attitude toward prayer is carnal or psychological, feelings matter. If your attitude is spiritual, they don’t.

One of the Fathers says, if prayer goes well, everything goes well.

The Benedictine abbot, Dom Cuthbert Butler (no relation) said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Day 4, travelogue

So cute!

Cell phone reception here at Lebh Shomea is abominable, since we are in the middle of nowhere, but curiously, 3G internet reception is marginally better than abominable, and when it works, I can tether my netbook to the internet through my phone (Droid rules!). But I wanted to talk with Annette, so yesterday afternoon I felt like adventure and drove 25 miles into Kingsville to a coffee shop to have a cup of real coffee and talk with my wife.

The coffee was bliss, but it actually felt strange being back in “civilization,” and once I had finished my phone call and the coffee, I got right back into the car and headed back to my cell. The kind of peace I have here is precious, and I found I missed it.

At any rate, I didn’t really want to drive 25 miles for a cup of coffee; so on the way back, I stopped in the little town of Sarita, which is only 5 miles from the House of Prayer, to inquire after the local coffee shop. There were a couple of old Hispanic women talking outside the food bank, whom I asked. They laughed at my question. There isn’t a coffee shop in town. Actually, there’s scarcely even a town to call “Sarita.” It’s the county seat of Kenedy County, and, as far as I could see, it consists of

  • (1) the courthouse,
  • (2) the courthouse annex,
  • (3) the sheriff’s office,
  • (4) something call the Kenedy Pasture Company,
  • (4) one little church (Our Lady of Guadalupe, of course),
  • (5) a very small elementary school (part of Kenedy County Consolidated School District, which tells you the ratio of cattle—or oil/natural gas wells—to people around here),
  • (6) the local food bank (which tells you about the economy), and
  • (7) a couple of dozen houses.

There’s no coffee to be bought in all of Sarita, though I was kindly referred to the vending machines in the sheriff’s office if I wanted a snack. (God bless ’em, you can’t make this stuff up.)

The nearest coffee shop is in Riviera, about 5 miles up the road. I’m actually curious now, and will have to make an excursion to find it; if I do, I will report back.

Random observations:

The big bowl of pinto beans appeared on the buffet table at lunch again today. Methinks it’s part of the daily fare in these parts. In Guatemala, you got your daily black bean paste; in Mexico, you got your frijoles refritos; in Texas, you got your big ol’ pot o’ pinto beans, which all true Texans love anyway, since we were all weaned on red beans and rice. And yes, there was a bowl of rice (with butter in it, such as my Mamma used to make), to go with, as well as the customary raw onions and jalapeño peppers with which to garnish said beans. (It’s probably a Really Good Thing that this is a hermitage and we all live by ourselves in separate cells…)

My old friend the armadillo, the Texas national mascot, stopped by to pay his respects last evening. I returned his kindness by immortalizing him in the photo which graces this post. Javalinas also came calling, but well after dark, and I never saw them, but I heard their grunts. St Gerasimos of the Jordan had a lion. St Seraphim of Sarov had a bear. Me? I get hairy wild pigs. I’ll take the armadillo instead.

Breakfast here consists largely of fiber. White bread seems to be disallowed, there is only whole wheat. Of four kinds of breakfast cereal set out, one is 100% bran something or another, and one is Grapenuts (the other two are sensible cereals, Cheerios and plain corn flakes). And there is the usual dish of prunes. Prayer isn’t the only thing that’s regular around here…

If we sang Liturgy as slowly as these Catholics say Mass, we’d be at it four hours.

Part of learning the eremtical-contemplative life is developing buns of steel. There isn’t a soft chair in the whole place.

Today it decided to rain, so instead of 85 degrees and 85% humidity, it’s 85 and 100%. I do love Texas. There is a small air conditioner in my cell, but I haven’t used it yet, out of fear that I’ll not venture out of doors if I get used to it being cool. I may be forced into using it at some point though; everything in the cell is now damp: clothes, books, and bed; the towel isn’t drying out. A man can take only so much clamminess.

But all of that is by the way. The day is good. Serious, substantive reflections if and when any occur to me.


Day 2, my choirs

My Vespers choir from last evening:

My Matins choir from this morning:

And just to carry on the nature theme of this post, I met a few more of my neighbors while out walking this morning. First, there’s the ubiquitous fire ant colony:

Fire Ants!

Then there’s the local sanitation engineers, the dung beetles:

Dung Beetle

Then I came across these two handsome fellows, and I’m not sure exactly what they are, beyond raptors of some kind:

Raptors? Yes, Crested Cara Caras

I caught an example of their call. There’s only one instance, and it’s about 1/3 of the way through this audio clip, at about 10 seconds, so don’t listen further than that:

And then, as I was walking about the ranch, about 3/4 mile from the House of Prayer, I saw something far ahead of me on the road. I though it was a coyote, and it had upset some white-tail deer that were nearby. When I got the picture uploaded onto my netbook and zoomed in on it, lo and behold, it wasn’t a coyote, it was an ocelot [correction: bobcat]! First one I’ve ever seen in the wild.

Ocelot! Nope, Bobcat, but cool nonetheless

You can tell it’s an ocelot [bobcat] by the tufts of fur on the tips of its ears. They’re about 4 times bigger than a house cat. I caught some audio, too. If you listen carefully, in the first several seconds, what sounds like a child crying, or a cat meowing, is the ocelot [bobcat], and the loud barking noise is the deer in distress:

Day 2, reflections

1 hour a day, 3 times a day

Awake at 4:15 this morning (still on Eastern Time). No going back to sleep, and with my choir already starting Matins, I got up for my rule of prayer.

Attended Mass with the other retreatants. The Catholic Mass can be beautiful, even when done with spare simplicity, as it is here. (I can’t abide, however, some Catholic casualness, like sitting through parts of the Anaphora, and I had to stand up.) There was one interesting departure from standard Catholic practice: after the Scripture reading, we were invited to turn to our neighbor and say, briefly, what had struck us most from the readings. They had read from Acts, 11.19-26, about the founding of the church in Antioch (“where the disciples were first called Christians”), and I was struck by the disciples who went to Antioch and dared to preach to the Gentiles, thus violating the the early Church’s expectations and practice of preaching only to the Jews. I noted how God blessed their efforts, even though they disregarded the boundaries, went outside the “safe zone” and preached to people who “aren’t like us.” Perhaps this was a word for the man sitting next to me. He was struck by the description of Barnabas being “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Perhaps this was a word for me? The recollection of it certainly stayed with me all day.

Arranged to see Fr F. Kelley Nemeck after lunch for spiritual direction. He suggested that, for my time here, I pick one book out of the Scriptures, whichever appeals to me, for spiritual reading. Read it whenever it strikes me to read it, and for however long, then put it down again. But read it without purpose or agenda, not looking to find something in particular in the text, but to read it simply, as Eli told Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, your listening servant.” Leave God free to speak through His Word, or not.

He also suggested I pray three times a day, for an hour at a time, simply listening to God. The Jesus Prayer is okay for this. (As Fr Zachariah says, simply to “present myself before the Lord.”) But don’t read Scripture during prayer time.

I had asked him about hearing Confessions, or listening to people who come to me for counsel. He says it isn’t always necessary to answer. If God doesn’t give us a word, that’s okay (note that Fr Kelley implies that it is God who answers, not us). Listening, and listening well, is very important. It’s also important not to fill all the time with talk: let the silence be. (We shouldn’t be too quick to speak because we can’t stand the silence ourselves; this may take some work on our part.) The silence is important because it leave the other person free (by not imposing our words, or worse, our preferences, opinions or agenda) on him/her, and it also leaves God free to speak, both to the other and to me, if He chooses.

In all that Fr Kelley said, the common theme was not to impose my own agenda or assert my will when I go to encounter God or my neighbor, but rather to leave both God and neighbor free when we meet.

Day 1

Random thoughts for the day, because I’ve changed time zones and I’m tired.

Left Cleveland this morning, 43 degrees and raining (for how many straight days now?). Annette & Chris took me to the airport to see me off. ‘ppreciate that.

Airports not a hassle today, though I’ve got to get me that way-cool app for my Droid phone that conjures up your boarding pass. I felt vaguely un-cool using a paper boarding pass, even though I had checked in the day before by computer and printed it out at home.

Flights to Houston and San Antonio uneventful. Got the rental car quick, too.

Hat tip to Andy Morriss, who sent me the name of his favorite place to eat goat in San Antonio: El Jarro de Arturo, a scant 3 miles from the airport. So there I sat, on a shady patio, 81 degrees outside, not a cloud in the sky, a light breeze blowing, eating the best cabrito, I ever put past my lips, homemade flour tortillas, and fresh guacamole. It was so good, I scarcely cared that I was eating it all by myself.

3 hour drive to Lebh Shomea. Gosh, I love Texas. Fields of cattle next to fields of ripening sorghum. Oil and gas wells. Scrub Oak, mesquite, and ebony trees, prickly pear cactus, and yucca in bloom. Dairy Queen advertising “Taco Special”. Good ol’ boys that nod to you or wave as they pass. Country Western music crooning about every psychopathology known to man (and woman). Helpful signs that say, “Next Service Station 60 Miles,” and mean it. Country is flat, flat, flat here, near the Gulf coast; you can see for miles.

Lebh Shomea is on the property of the Kenedy family summer house (the Kenedy’s were/are an old family of Texas ranchers who reckon up their acreage into 5 or 6 digits). I was met at the gate by Fr Francis Kelly Nemeck, whose books I have read, very old now, driving a golf cart, and given the tour of the place. Got the schedule (which is very light), and the rules (which are not). Basically, the place is for eremtical-contemplative retreats. That means, in easy words, nobody talks, except to God, and even that is done very quietly. Talking to each other is allowed during lunchtime on Sunday. I think it’s going to be a long week.

Because I’m still keyed up, this being new and all, I walked around this evening and took in the sights. I’ll put up a few of the pictures in the next post. I also have my digital voice recorder and tried recording some of the birds singing. If the recordings turn out to be okay, I’ll post those, too.

Texas evenings are beautiful. After dinner, the heat of the day breaks, and a cool breeze starts up and blows until dark. It’s a fine time to be alive. I remember, as a kid, that was the time to go swimming, or put fajitas on the grill, or (back when you could drink at 18) open a cold one, or, if it was a fine evening, do all three at once.

Dust in the air makes for gorgeous sunsets. Evening birds chirping: mourning doves, bob white quail, crows, raucous mockingbirds, birds I don’t even recollect, all singing a fine Vespers. The cool evening breeze (when the breeze blows through you, instead of on you, you’ve found peace). Deer come out. Wild turkeys, too. Something has climbed into a tree next to my cell and is seting up a racket; still not sure if it’s ‘possum or ‘coon; it’s too dark to see. Two separate packs of coyotes howling at the moon, somewhere off in the distance (they can stay there, too). I don’t know how I’ll sleep with all this “peace and quiet” going on.

There are 8 or 9 other guests here. We’ll see each other at Mass in the morning, I suppose. Since this is an eremetical-contemplative place, I suppose I ought to quit talking to y’all and go talk to God.

Peace & blessings.


Day 1 pics

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, May 16, 2011 – Sabbatical, day 1. Lebh Shomea House of Prayer.

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2011-05-16, posted with vodpod

Trip 1, to Texas

I’ve structured my sabbatical in 5 parts: 4 week-long stays at various monasteries, with time at home in between, and a vacation with my family. The first week-long stay will be at Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, a Roman Catholic hermitage and retreat center near Sarita, Texas, which is south of Corpus Christi, near the coast.

I decided to go here from having read some of the books written by two of the members of the core community there, Marie Theresa Coombs, a hermitess, and Fr Francis Kelly Nemeck, OMI. Some of their books that I’ve read can be seen here.  The Spiritual Journey was especially helpful to me when I read it, as the authors lean heavily on St John of the Cross, who discusses in detail the transitions between the stages of spiritual life, something I haven’t found so clearly put in Orthodox writings.

“Lebh Shomea” is Hebrew for “a listening heart,” from 1 Kings 3.9, Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, where he asks, “Give your servant lebh shomea, a listen heart, so that he is able to discern.”

The House of Prayer offers solitary retreats and the possibility for spiritual direction while staying there. I am looking to take advantage of both the solitude and the direction, to pray and to be guided.

After a week at Lebh Shomea, I’ll drive to my hometown, Clute, TX, and visit some relatives and family friends, and then go on to Comfort, TX, where my parents live, to see them for a little while before I fly home.

Sabbatical destinations

For those not familiar with Google maps: click and hold your mouse button to move the map around in its frame.

Use the plus (+) and minus (-) buttons on the left to zoom in and out. Or just double-click on the map itself, near the spot you want to zoom in on, and you’ll zoom in there. You can zoom in really, really close and see some interesting details.

Double click on the blue place markers for a brief description of the location.

If you click on the “View larger map” link that’s directly underneath the map, it will take you to the Google map page, where you’ll get a really big map to play around with, and use some really cool features. E.g., switching between satellite and map views (and Google Earth views, if you have Google Earth installed), and clicking on the “photos” option in the upper right corner, which will call up any pictures people have taken at that location; click on them to get a ground-level picture taken at that spot (the pictures taken at St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Mt Athos are really spectacular; check ’em out!)