Laundry Ritual

"For some people, laundry seems to satisfy a need for ritual. A television commentator with a hectic schedule once told me that the best, most contemplative part of his day was early morning, a time he set aside for laundering and ironing his shirts."
The Cloister Walk

The Psalms and Comfort

"The psalms make us uncomfortable because they don't allow us to deny either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise."
The Cloister Walk

Suicide and Acedia

"The exhaustion that I'm convinced lies behind most suicides finds its seed in acedia; the rhythms of daily life and of the universe itself, the everyday glory of sunrise and sunset and all the 'present moments' in between seem a disgusting repetition that stretches on forever. It would be all too easy to feel that one wants no part of it any more."
The Cloister Walk


"I should try telling my friends who have a hard time comprehending why I like to spend so much time going to church with Benedictines that I do so for the same reasons that I write: to let words work the earth of my heart. To sing, to read poetry aloud, and to have the poetry and the wild stories of scripture read to me. To respond with others, in blessed silence. That is a far more accurate description of morning or evening prayer in a monastery than what most people conjure up when they hear the word 'church.' "
The Cloister Walk

Reclaiming the Book of Revelation

"The Cherokee writer Diane Glancy once told me that she liked Revelation because there was so much to look at, so much that resonated with Indian culture. The Book of Revelation does not make for easy listening, but Diane's comment reminded me that I could simply shut my eyes and let the pictures unfold. To my surprise, I found it a relief to listen to John's baffling, wild, beautiful, and often frightening images without resisting, without always seeking to make sense of them. Slowly, I began to grasp the consoling and even healing power of apocalypse. Most important of all, I saw the need to reclaim it as poetic turf."
The Cloister Walk

Restorative Worship

"I realized suddenly that I'd been most fortunate in being given another chance to encounter worship, in middle age, in a context that restored to me the true religion of my childhood, which was song. For me, participating in monastic lectio has meant rediscovering a religion that consists not so much of ideas or doctrines but of song and breath. It's encountering the words of scripture in such a way that they become as alive as the people around me. As Emily Dickinson put it, words that 'breathe.' "
The Cloister Walk

The Great Commandment

"The great commandment, to love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbor as yourself, seemed more subtle than ever. I began to see the three elements as a kind of trinity, always in motion, and the three loves as interdependent. It would be impossible to love God without loving others; impossible to love others unless one were grounded in a healthy self-respect; and, maybe, impossible to truly love at all in a totally secular way, without participating in the holy."
The Cloister Walk

Good Liturgy is a Living Poem

"Good liturgy can act like an icon, a window into a world in which our concepts of space, time, and even stone are pleasurably bent out of shape. Good liturgy is a living poem, and ceremony is the key."
The Cloister Walk

Tree to Talk With

"Nearly every morning I walk past a young tree — some sort of locust — that signifies survival against all odds. Most likely it was stripped bare in its earliest years, when, every summer, a farmer mowed the roadside ditch for hay. But it lived on, a leaf or two surviving each year, until the farmer noticed it and decided to mow around it. It's now nearly seven feet tall, the only tree for hundreds of feet around. Standing alone at the very bottom of the shallow ditch, this clever tree catches what moisture it can. It feels natural for me to converse with it, in any season, in the light just before dawn."
The Cloister Walk


"Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It is a marked characteristic of contemporary American culture. . . . Martha Stewart might be seen as the high priestess of Perfection: one dare not let the mask slip, even in one's home, where all is perfect, right down to the last hand-stenciled napkin ring.

"I had never before thought to compare Jesus Christ to Martha Stewart and am fortunate that the gospels themselves can rescue me from my predicament. The good news about the word 'perfect' as used in the New Testament is that it is not a scary word, so much as a scary translation. The word that has been translated as 'perfect' does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or the perfectionism that would have me strive for it at any cost. It is taken from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey 'mature' rather than what we mean today by 'perfect.'

To 'be perfect,' in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse."
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

An Open Mind

"Perhaps the greatest blessing that religious inheritance can bestow is an open mind, one that can listen without judging. It is rare enough that we recognize it in another when we encounter it. I often see it in people who have attained what the monastic tradition terms 'detachment,' an ability to live at peace with the reality of whatever happens. Such people do not have a closed-off air, nor a boastful demeanor. In them, it is clear, their wounds have opened the way to compassion for others. And compassion is the strength and soul of a religion."
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith


"I have learned that prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can't imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. People who are in the habit of praying — and they include the mystics of the Christian tradition — know that when a prayer is answered, it is never in a way that you expect."
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Anger: An Obstacle to Love

"The desert monks of the fourth century regarded anger as the most dangerous of human passions, far more destructive than greed or lust. They had much to say about the tricks that anger plays on us. When it is absolutely necessary to correct another, do so, they said. But do it quickly and simply, then let it go. Don't get entangled in the expectation of results. . . .

"The monks saw human anger as our biggest obstacle to love. To become mindful of one's anger was seen as an essential but difficult task. The monks repeated with awe Abba Ammonas's humble admission that he had 'spent fourteen years [in the desert] asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.' "
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Monastic Liturgy as Exercise

"One of the first things I noticed on my longer retreats, when I was with the monks in choir four or five times a day for a week or more, was how like an exercise class the liturgy seemed. It was sometimes difficult to rise early for morning office; at other times during the day it seemed tedious to be going back to church, but knowing that the others would be there made all the difference. Once there, the benefits were tangible, and I usually wondered how I could have wished to be anywhere else. When I compared all this to an aerobics class, a monk said, 'That's exactly right.'

"The monastic fidelity to the liturgy is the antithesis of narcissism. It is serious play indeed. It means that somewhere, as I write this, as you read it, people are singing Psalms and praying for us all. Knowing that most of us won't notice or care, they are making us a gift of their very lives. Here we approach the ultimate play in a monastery, the monk's sense that his being there at all is a sign of God's play with him."
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Wilderness in the Plains

"Mud and new grass push up through melting snow. Lilacs in bud by my front door, bent low by last week's ice storm, begin to rise again in today's cold rain. Thin clouds scatter in a loud wind.

"Suddenly, fir trees seem like tired old women stooped under winter coats. I want to be light, to cast off impediments, and push like a tulip through a muddy smear of snow. I want to take the rain to heart, let it move like possibility, the idea of change."
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Communal Worship: Living Poetry

"In the Presbyterian congregation I learned the value of common worship with the people I live among. And in the daily liturgy of the monastery, their daily returning to the poetry of the psalms, I learned that worship itself, which for years I had thought of as static and boring, might in fact be a kind of living poem. A poem of Words-made-flesh, as it were, and far more authentic than anything I could have come up with on my own. A poem still in the making, in what the Christian creeds call the communion of saints, ancient words rendered new each day, among the quick and the dead."
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Worshipping Community

"Church is other people, a worshipping community. The worship, or praise of God, does not take place only when people gather on Sunday morning, but when they gather to paint the house of an elderly shut-in, when they visit someone in the hospital or console the bereaved, when the Sunday school kids sing Christmas carols at the nursing home. If a church has life, its 'programs' are not just activity, but worship. And this is helpful, because if the Sunday morning service falls flat, it is the other forms of worship that sustain this life."
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Boredom, Acedia and Prayer

"The desert monks termed acedia 'the noonday demon' because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself ('training' being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one's life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia's assault is not merely an occupational hazard — it is a given. It is also an interfaith phenomenon. When I asked two Zen Buddhist monks how they defined the boredom that is endemic to monastic life, one replied that as her community was founded by an Anglican, they call it acedia. The other was unfamiliar with the Greek term, but readily identified torpor as one of the Five Hindrances to Prayer."
Acedia & Me

Tedium and Monastic Life

"An elderly monk, disparaging the romantic image of monastic life once said to me, 'People don't realize how much of it is just plain tedium.' But it is tedium with a purpose. To support themselves, the first Christian monks spent their days weaving palm branches into baskets and ropes they could sell. And as they worked, they prayed. The steady rhythm of the work helped the monks memorize the psalms and the Gospels, which was a necessity in the fourth- century desert, as books were expensive and rare. But the monks also regarded this repetitive work and prayer as their way to God, hoping that over time the 'straw' of mundane tasks could become the 'gold' of ceaseless prayer.

"Cassian's story of Abba Paul reveals this hope as firmly established in the real world of unrelenting and seemingly fruitless toil because Paul lived at such a remove from civilization that he could not even distract himself with the notion of selling his baskets, he was forced to admit that he was engaged, day in and day out, in useless activity. As soon as he had filled his cave with baskets, he would have only to burn them and begin again. The tale is a wry comment on the futility of all human effort, and on mortality itself. There is no denying that we, like Paul's baskets, will one day be nothing but ashes. Our work is bound to be forgotten. But monks still tell Paul's story because they take heart from his perseverance and bold humility in the face of acedia. His steadfast labor at both work and prayer reminds us that even if what we do seems worthless, it is worth doing."
Acedia & Me

Creatures of the Day-to-Day

"The early Christian monks staked their survival on their willingness to be as God had made them, creatures of the day-to-day. They regarded repetition as an essential to their salvation, and valued perseverance in prayer and manual labor as the core of their spiritual discipline. When acedia tempted them from these tasks, they were admonished to make their way back as quickly as possible. It is all a matter of falling down and standing up again, no matter how many times. Typically, the desert fathers provide a gnomic commentary on this aspect of their lives: 'Abba Moses' asked Abba Sylvanus, 'Can a man lay a new foundation every day?' The old man said, 'If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.' "
Acedia & Me

Emptiness in the Plains

"As it turns out, the Plains have been essential not only for my own growth as a writer, they have formed me spiritually. I would even say they have made me a human being.

"St. Hilary, a fourth-century bishop (and patron saint against snake bites) once wrote, 'Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.' The magnificent sky above the Plains sometimes seems to sing this truth; angels seem possible in the wind-filled expanse."
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Silence of the Plains

"As living on the Plains has nudged me into a quieter life, I've discovered that this is what I wanted. I've had to read more, and more widely, so as not to become provincial, but interlibrary loans take care of me here. Reading is a solitary act, one in keeping with the silence of the Plains, but it's also paradoxically public, as it deepens my connections with the larger world. All of this reflects a truth Thomas Merton once related about his life as a Trappist monk: 'It is in deep solitude and silence that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brother and my sister.'

"The silence of the Plains, this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky, is much like the silence one finds in a monastery, an unfathomable silence that has the power to re-form you. And the Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays."
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

Beauty of the Plains

"A person is forced inward by the sparseness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky. The beauty of the Plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance. The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant that rises and falls beyond melody, beyond reason or human expectation, but perfectly.

"Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state. Not long ago, at a difficult time in my life, when my husband was recovering from surgery, I attended a drum ceremony with a Native American friend. Men and boys gathered around the sacred drum and sang a song to bless it. Their singing was high-pitched, repetitive, solemn, and loud. As they approached the song's end, drumming louder and louder, I realized that the music was also restorative; my two-day headache was gone, my troubles no longer seemed so burdensome.

"I wondered how this loud, shrill, holy music, the indigenous song of those who have truly seen the Plains, could be so restful, while the Gregorian chant that I am just learning to sing can be so quiet, and yet as stirring as any drum. Put it down to ecstasy."
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography


"We respect the fact that monastic people have gone through a period called 'formation,' in which, as one Benedictine sister told me, 'disillusionment is a fairly predictable outcome. But we need to be disillusioned. We need to lose our false selves.'

"Ironically it is choosing the stability of the monastery or the Plains, places where nothing ever happens, places the world calls dull, that we discover that we can change, in choosing a bare-bones existence, we are enriched, and can redefine success as an internal process rather an outward display of wealth and power.

"Maybe it's our longing for the good in ourselves that draws us to monasteries and is realized in the reciprocal gift giving of monastic hospitality. Maybe, as disillusioned adults, we first know ourselves to be good when a monk welcomes us as we are, with joyful hospitality and desire for communion. If monastic formation encourages the monk to see 'Christ in our midst as well as on our altars,' as one nun put it, it also encourages the guest to recognize the holiness within, to be more hospitable to the self, saying with the monk, in weariness and wonder: 'Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you, again?' "
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography