Friday, June 29, 2012

Relationships and all that jazz

Today I had lunch with a parishioner with whom I have a special relationship. This woman has had a pretty remarkable journey through life, and we often have deep conversations about all manner of things. At various times she has offered to be a listening ear and confidante for me, and I believe that she is an appropriate person for me to trust in this way.

Today we talked about relationships. I shared with her the gory details of the ups and downs of the close friendship that has been causing me significant grief of late, and she listened. She also made some insightful comments, and offered some suggestions of things that I should raise with my counsellor when I see her on Monday. She also spoke of some books that she had found helpful in her own struggle with relationships and boundaries in the past.

I feel so blessed to have a number of close friends that I can talk to about this deep emotional stuff, and that the people whom I can trust in this way come from different eras and spheres of my life. So among them, they have a variety of experiences, insights and wisdom that they can share with me. 

Tonight when I arrived for the Beechworth pub night (gotta love a congregation that says the only compulsory event for their minister to attend is the monthly pub night), there was a sealed paper bag waiting for me, with "Books for Caro" written on it. My lunch partner had hunted down the books she mentioned and sent them along to the pub with another couple from the congregation, with the instruction not to open the bag till I got home. 

When I got home, I discovered that in with the books on relationships she had told me about, there was also an autobiography of a lovely lady who I know from one of the nursing homes where I conduct worship services, and who my friend had regarded as a mentor and role model as a godly woman she had known for many years. Along with the books, there was also a note, saying what a blessing I am to her. The feeling is certainly mutual.

So it looks like I have a whole lot more reading material for my time in Sydney, that will certainly keep my mind off illness, cancer and death.
Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Joys of Ministry

When I first discerned a call to ordained ministry, I was strongly influenced by the role model of one of my former ministers, Rev Rob Brown, who was minister at Sandy Bay Uniting Church for 10 years. Rob was a great operator; he didn't subscribe to the "minister does everything" style of ministry. Rather, he almost seemed to be working to do himself out of a job. He was very good at identifying gifts and potential in others, and challenging them to develop those gifts, and exercise them in the church. It was Rob who met with me for lunch at the university refectory one day, and suggested to me that when our congregation changed its structure to have a single church council, that I should accept nomination to be the chairperson of that newly formed church council. It was also Rob who had put my name forward to the Synod as someone who might have the gifts and graces for ordained ministry, and it was in response to this suggestion that I ended up on the pathway to ordained ministry where I now find myself.

It's always been my aim as a minister to follow Rob's example of being an enabler and encourager of people in my charge; to help them discover and develop and exercise their particular gifts. On Sunday, I witnessed what I believe is a significant success in this particular area of my ministry.

On Sunday the Beechworth congregation commissioned our two prison chaplains, Rosey and John. The UCA is contracted by Corrections Victoria to provide 3 hours per week of chaplaincy services to Beechworth Correctional Facility. As an interim measure, I had gone into the jail a few times to try to get to know the guys and spend some time with them, but realised that I just didn't have the time to do this on a regular basis, and that ideally we needed to get someone from the congregation who lived locally.

Enter John, a lovely guy and dedicated member of the congregation. He was nominated for the church council, and when I was discussing this nomination with him, he made the mistake of telling me that he isn't much into committees, but sees his particular gifts as being able to get alongside people and talk to them one to one...(do you see where this is leading? :-) I tried not to appear too eager as I suggested that he might like to think about the prison chaplaincy ministry. He initially thought it might be a good idea, but after a while came back to me with some doubts. I talked him through these, and wondered if it might be helpful for him to have a partner, to share the chaplaincy with him...

Enter Rosey... who is already very busy in the congregation, serving as an Elder, teaching RE in local schools, as well as working as a nurse and on the farm she and her husband run. The new chapel at the prison was officially opened and dedicated, and a group of people from the congregation (including Rosey) attended. As we were leaving the jail, Rosey wondered what else we could be doing in the jail as a church. So I asked her about chaplaincy, and she was quite interested.

That was some months ago now, and John and Rosey have been working together as UCA chaplains in the prison for some time. On Sunday, as part of their commissioning (where as a congregation we recognised their ministry in the prison as being a part of our congregation's mission, and so acknowledged our responsibility to support John and Rosey in prayer and other ways) they shared about their work.

I selected Matthew 25:31-45 as the reading, as it contains a good theological basis for prison chaplaincy, and there was a theme throughout the worship of caring for those who might be dispossessed or damaged. One of the hymns we sang was A Touching Place, by John Bell and Graeme Maule, and the refrain goes like this:

To the lost Christ shows his face;
to the unloved He gives His embrace;
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ, makes, with His friends, a touching place.

As we sang this, I couldn't help but think of how great it would be if all Christians were able to be as radically inclusive as this hymn calls us to be; in being Jesus' friends to make this touching place for those who are rejected by the world.

(but I digress... :-)

When John shared about how he came to be doing this work, and how my encouragement for him to move outside his comfort zone played a significant part in his decision to accept the challenge, I couldn't help but feel proud. Proud of/for John, that he has discovered this great area of ministry that is just right for him and his personality and gifts; and also proud that I had played a part in this process. My ministry is bearing the kind of fruit that I had always hoped it would.

Praise God :-)

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Well, as expected, today was not a Good Day .
Mum's visit to the oncologist revealed that the three cycles of chemotherapy she has endured have basically done nothing to arrest the progression of her cancer. The lung nodules are greater in number and size, and the pancreatic tumour has also grown. In addition to this, there are two new tumours on her spine, at T8 and L1, the latter of which has eaten away about a third of the vertebra and is causing pressure on the nerve (and hence the excruciating back pain Mum has been suffering).

From the start, it seems that Mum's cancer has been abnormal in its behaviour. First of all, it took months to actually find it. Myriad blood tests (for all kinds of things, including cancer markers) all came back negative, and numerous scans of different kinds also failed to show anything. We are thankful to the gastroenterologist Mum was seeing at the time for having some kind of diagnostic sixth sense; he was convinced there was something there that we weren't seeing, and was determined to keep looking until he found it, which he eventually did. 

Then, the nodules on the lungs (whilst the liver remained, and still remains, clear). Quite unusual for the cancer to throw metastases to the lung, rather than the liver... but biopsy showed the nodules were indeed mets of the pancreatic cancer.

Now, the back pain: despite the oncologist's insistence that it couldn't possibly be related to the cancer, because pancreatic cancer doesn't usually attack bones... but sure enough... the tumours are there...

So today, the oncologist decided to stop the chemo, as there's no point in forcing Mum to endure more of that if it isn't doing anything for her. Given that this drug was the strongest, and most effective drug against pancreatic cancer, there isn't really anything else that can be done for the overall disease. So the oncologist referred us to a radiation oncologist, to give Mum some palliative radiation therapy on the spinal tumour, with the view to shrinking the tumour and relieving the pain. A temporary measure, to attempt to improve the quality of whatever life Mum has left. (and from talking to the oncologist, the prognosis has now been somewhat truncated- the cancer is obviously more aggressive than any of us thought, so it really is likely to be just a matter of months now, although the oncologist was still very reluctant to give any kind of estimate as to how long Mum might have left to live.

Needless to say, this all came as a stunning blow to us; Mum's neighbour Kay was with us (as she is the main support person for Mum when I'm not around) and we all collapsed into a sobbing mess when we left the doctor's office today. 

Fortunately, the radiation oncologist (who is really lovely) was able to see Mum today, and also to arrange the initial CT scan for today, to place the target markers for the radiation therapy on Mum's body... so this means she can get started on the treatment proper on Monday.

Throughout this whole ordeal, we have really been blessed that Mum has been under the care of so many really nice and caring doctors, and the treatment she's received at the San has been amazing. All the staff have been wonderful (and she's also very glad that she stayed in her top cover health fund, which has enabled her to receive this great treatment through the private hospital system, with very little out of pocket expense).

I am also grateful for the immense group of people who have been so supportive to Mum and to me through all of this... friends, neighbours, family members, from nearby and far away. There is such a great mantle of love and care around us, and some surprising expressions of that love and care at various times.

Not quite sure what the future will hold, or how things will go from here, but I know that God journeys with us. And I guess, I can't really ask for anything else.

Friday, June 22, 2012

It's hard watching from the sidelines...

Today I arrived in Sydney, so I can go with Mum to her oncologist appointment tomorrow. Today she had a series of CT scans, so that the oncologist can compare these with the original scans taken before she commenced chemotherapy.

Mum's been in excruciating pain with her back, which seemed to get worse today when she needed to drink a large volume of water in preparation for her scan. When she breathes, it catches, and she's been moaning in pain ever since I've been here. It's been so horrible to stand by and watch her suffer in such pain, and there's just nothing I can do about it. The GP has given her Endone tablets for the pain, but these hardly even touch the sides. The heated wheat pack helps a little, but she generally finds it really hard to get any relief.

Tomorrow we go to the oncologist for his interpretation of the new CT scans. Being me (the bossy bitch that I am) when Mum brought today's scans home, I ripped open the envelope and read the radiologist's report. From what I could tell, the news is not likely to be good tomorrow. Despite what the oncologist said earlier, it looks like the pain in her back is, indeed, from metastatic tumours on the spine (two of which were identified in the scan), so I'm not sure what this will mean for Mum's prognosis, or treatment.

I guess we'll learn more tomorrow. I feel so helpless, and wish I could do more for Mum... and also feel bad that I have to fly out tomorrow night, so won't be able to stay around to be with her and deal together with whatever news we get tomorrow. 

I have this feeling that we may not have as much time as we initially thought.

Monday, June 18, 2012

... and we all fall down...

It's interesting how dynamic life is, how incredibly quickly a day, or emotional state can go from being great and on a high, to falling to pieces.

I've recently been experiencing some ups and downs in a particular friendship. This person and I have known each other for a long time, and have been especially close for the past 18 months or so. A little while ago, our relationship took a bit of a beating which caused a great deal of pain.

However, in the past few weeks, my friend and I have talked a lot about how things are, and about how much we value the friendship that we have shared so deeply for so long, and I thought we were heading in the right direction to salvaging our friendship. Things were looking up; I was starting to feel at peace about the whole situation, and accepting the changes that needed to happen for us to continue on as friends. Things were starting to feel comfortable again. Yesterday, my friend had a great day, and was celebrating how great his life has become, and I was genuinely able to celebrate with him and feel happy for where he was at. I thought things were really looking up. 

That was yesterday.

Today, everything fell into a heap for my friend, and also, it seems, for our friendship. It's a complicated situation, and I can't really share any more details, except to say that this is the significant relationship I wrote about in a previous post; the relationship that I was hoping and expecting to be a source of support and nurture for me through my mother's illness. After initially grieving the loss of this relationship, it seemed that it might have been salvageable, and I was feeling quietly relieved and happy about that, but now, I really just don't know what's going to happen.

Today I've been a bit teary. I think it's had something to do with my mental/emotional preparation to leave this place of healing and peace tomorrow, and during afternoon prayers, for some reason, my thoughts strayed to my mother and her situation, and the fact that one of the psalms chanted in that office was one I use frequently in funeral services, just set me off; and so I was sitting in the oratory, with tears streaming down my face, trying not to sniffle too loudly as I tried to keep up with the chanting. It was after this- in my already slightly dampened state- when I got back to my computer, that I received news of this new friendship issue. So during the next office, Vespers, the tears started again (it seems that once the floodgates open...)... and again during Compline, my favourite office of the day.

I usually find the Psalms used for Compline to be quite reassuring and steadying, so tonight, as the tears flowed (and yet again, the monks thankfully didn't seem to notice) I tried to hold onto the reassurance in these Psalms.

When I call, answer me, O God of justice;
from anguish you released me, have mercy and hear me!
It is the Lord who grants favours to those whom he loves;
the Lord hears me whenever I call him.
"What can bring us happiness?" many say.
Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord.
You have put into my heart a greater joy
than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.
I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once
for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.    (from Ps 4)


Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty
say to the Lord: "My refuge,
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!"  (from Ps 91)

So now, I will make myself a coffee, drink some more water (to replace those tears) and do my best to lie down in peace and hope for sleep to come at once.

Love is...

When I was a kid, there used to be a daily cartoon in the newspaper called Love Is... the picture would always have the same two characters, the boy and girl, naked and cherublike, with some kind of cute or witty saying about what "Love is... "

This cartoon came to mind today, because I've been thinking about love a lot recently, and how blessed I am to be loved by so many people in so many ways.

When Mum got sick, and we eventually got the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I was overwhelmed by the love and care of people, from all different areas of my life, through phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook messages and even some old fashioned snail-mail cards, and so many people praying for Mum and for me. It's been a very humbling experience, and thinking about it still brings me to tears :-).

More recently, when I was going through some other difficult emotional stuff, expressions of love and support came from some very unexpected sources, which made me realise that I have a depth of friendship with some people that I hadn't realised before.

And then, there is my experience here in New Norcia.
I have felt surrounded by love here. I am a 'regular' visitor here, although my visits tend to be only once or twice a year, and it's been around 2 years since my last visit. However, when I arrived here on the bus at 11:30 am on Tuesday, settled into my room, went to midday prayer, and then after lunch Dom Chris (who seems to have been dubbed "The Hospitality Monk" in his current role) came looking for me to say hello, and I got my usual 'hug and kiss from Dom Chris'.  I was reading in the Rule of Benedict the other day something about the requirement for the monks to offer visitors a kiss of greeting... but only AFTER they'd prayed together... and when I thought of my arrival on Tuesday, I was able to tick that box... 

But in addition to Dom Chris taking that part of the Rule seriously, most of the other monks, whilst they didn't kiss me per se, did make a point of lurking about after the afternoon prayer, to say hello and welcome me. Now, when  you think of  how many people pass through New Norcia as guests each year, and how infrequently, in the overall scheme of things, I come here, that's pretty darned impressive. I've obviously made an impression in them, and there's a certain mutual relationship that has built over time, and I do feel loved in all of that.

There have also been other staff around the place- the librarian, the museum collections manager (whom I have done some work for on past visits) and other people around the place, who recognised me and greeted me warmly when they saw me. And of course, Gabrielle, the monastery organist and liturgy coordinator and Peter, the archivist, who are always very warm and genuinely seem to enjoy catching up with me when I come here. Again, when I think of how many people they would encounter in their roles coming through the community, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy to think of the warm relationship that I have developed with both of them too.

Love is an interesting thing. There can be times when we can want love in certain ways from certain people, and be disappointed when we don't get that. And I can certainly relate to that feeling. However, when I look around me at the people in my life who genuinely love me, I can't complain, and am truly blessed. So for those of you who fall into this category of people who love me... thank you. :-)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stats and stuff

Since I've been here in New Norcia, and blogging a little more regularly than usual ("but can she keep it up when she gets home?" I hear you ask... your guess is as good as mine! :-) I have discovered that Blogger does page stats... So I can find out how many people have viewed each post  in the past week, month, day, or 'right now'... what internet browsers have been used, and the countries where my 'audience' is accessing from.

Now, even though I keep checking the 'do not track my own page views' box, it somehow seems to keep unchecking, so that some of the page views I see are probably my own, when I go back and forth to edit little bits (because you know how it is... always find the typos AFTER I've published it... D'oh!)

But when I posted the last epistle from New Norcia, I checked my page stats 'right now' and found it had already had 6 page views... and at least half of them were definitely NOT by me, as they were from different browsers (a couple from mobile Safari, one from Internet Explorer, and a few from Firefox- some of which could have been me)

So this got me thinking that there must actually be people out there reading the drivel I write here. I know who some of you are, because you write comments here on teh blog, or on Facebook, where I am in the habit of linking my blog posts now... but there must be still quite a few of you who read this stuff and just lurk in the background without saying anything.

So, out of curiosity... please feel free to say hello and let me know who you are... (and is there REALLY someone from the Ukraine reading my blog? Really? Please say hello! :-)

Bits and pieces

Today has been a bitsy kind of day in New Norcia.
As always, I was up at 5am, for prayer with the monks at 5:15, but today was not the only extra body there. Another fellow, who I think is staying in the monastery clericatus, was there.

The clericatus (thanks for asking) is a section within the monks' cloister where visiting clergy, special guests with a close association with the monastery and some staff or volunteer workers are accommodated (as long as they have the right kind of genitalia).

But all jokes aside, it makes sense for only males to be accommodated there, as the monks' cloister is the private space where the monks live in close community with each other, and get to be blokey blokes together. This section of the monastery also includes the refectory, where the monks eat their meals, the monastic library, music room, monks' parlour and various other rooms that make up the private living and study space of the monks.

It used to be that women were not allowed in this section of the monastery at all, although the previous Abbot, Placid, started to relax those rules, by allowing some women into this sacred space on special occasions. Whenever any Good Samaritan Sisters are visiting the monastery, they are usually invited to eat with the monks in the ref, and Abbot Placid also always invited the members of the UFT study groups to share a meal with the monks during their stay. I was fortunate enough to do this on my first visit here in 2007. UFT groups also usually receive a guided tour of the monastic library, which is just to die for. My reaction on entering the space was to drool, and exclaim that it would almost be worth having a sex change and becoming Catholic so that I could become a monk and study there. (ALMOST... :-)

Since the current Abbot, John, was installed just over three years ago, he has relaxed the rules even further, so that he regularly invites female staff and visitors to the monastery to join the monks for meals in the ref, however the procedure is that any male visitor coming to New Norcia can request to eat in the ref with the monks, but females have to be invited. Since John has been Abbot, I have usually been invited to share a meal with the monks on each visit. This also includes sharing post-prandial coffee and port in the parlour afterwards (and if it happens to be a Sunday, there is also chocolate! :-). The first time John invited me to such an occasion, was for Sunday lunch, after the conclusion of a spirituality retreat on women in the Scriptures. A couple of female staff were also invited, as was the facilitator of the retreat. 

As is usual in the refectory, the meal is eaten in silence, as one of the monks reads to the group. At each meal the readings usually include a passage of Scripture, an excerpt from the Rule of Benedict and a reading from a book selected by the Abbot as being beneficial or interesting for the monks. On that occasion, the book was The History of Vatican II (can't remember which volume... I think there are 7 in total, and they were working their way through them all... although interspersed with something a little lighter in between volumes, according to the Abbot).

After the meal we were invited to join the monks for coffee and port, which a few of us did. By now, I had had one or two glasses of wine with the meal (because The History of Vatican II will do that to one), and the Abbot's secretary (Fr Ian) had plied me with a couple of glasses of port. Also present was Joanna, who with her husband, managed the New Norcia Hotel. Although I'd seen Joanna around, and knew her to say hello to in the past, we only really got to know each other during the retreat, which was great, and were happily chatting away over our port and coffee in the parlour.

When the time came for us to leave, Fr Ian escorted us out of the parlour, and rather than leaving via the side exit into the guesthouse cloister (the way we came in), he led us through the courtyard to the main gate of the monstery - the one that has a big "PRIVATE" sign on it. As we approached the gate, we were talking and just a tad giggly (as one is after a couple of glasses of port in the middle of the day). Fr Ian (who was wearing a very daggy tracksuit, and didn't look at all like a priest) said, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if there was a town tour group stopped at the gate, and the guide's in the middle of saying, 'here's the private section of the monastery where only the monks are allowed to go... and women are not allowed in here', as I let you out". We all giggled at the thought.

The monastery gate

So picture if you will- two giggling females, one only slightly less giggly male (looking very daggy and un-priestlike) approaching the main gate of the monastic enclosure from the inside, to find an ABC television film crew camped just outside the gate, with a camera trained on the monastery gate as we approached. Joanna and I laughed so hard we almost fell over, and I don't think Fr Ian blushed, but he came close (as I asked him how long he'd had the gift of prophecy ;-).

As it happened, that weekend, a group of pilgrims who had been walking the Camino Salvado trail, from Perth to New Norcia, had completed their pilgrimage and walked into New Norcia on the Saturday, shared some of their story during Mass on Sunday, and the film crew from Compass had been around New Norcia all weekend, filming the walkers, interviewing monks and generally shooting footage of the town. When the program was aired on television, I watched it with great interest, but it seems that someone edited out the footage of women in the cloister (probably just as well, really :-)

Hmm... this post hasn't really gone where I was expecting it to... not really much said about today's happenings, but perhaps that's enough for today. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

The love of Christ

Today, in the Catholic liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Christ, so this means that this theme will run through all of the prayer times today, and also this morning's Mass was a special liturgy, including special sung eucharistic responses and the traditional 'bells and smells' that are usually reserved for Sunday Mass in New Norcia.

I was asked to read the second reading, from Ephesians 3:8-12, 14-19, and as I was reading it, and afterwards listening to Fr Anthony's homily, I was struck by the words of the last part of the reading:

Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit fo your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.

... knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.

Certainly gave me something to think about, and take into the rest of the day with me.

Variety is the spice of life

... especially in a monastic town.

Today I finished the project I was working on for the New Norcia Archivist, to type up all the NN cemetery burial records to create a computerised index of all the burial plot numbers and their occupants' details. When I finished the list, it occurred to me that at least three monks I knew who had died and were buried in the cemetery in the past few years were not on the list, so this prompted Peter the archivist to run to the nearest phone booth, change into his superhero costume and whip out the parish burial register, which confirmed that there were about 17 people who had been buried since the last  update of the cemetery list I'd been working from, so it looked like an excursion was in order.

So, after checking that the earlier rain had abated, we sallied forth from the Archive building, and made our way to the cemetery, in search of the newest graves. Thanks to Peter's local knowledge of who was buried where, and my correlation of family names with some other records, we managed to find most of the graves, and make a pretty good 'educated guess' as to what the plot numbers were, based on a rather complex map that Peter had. I was then able to take this new info back to the Archives office, and enter the data on my index list (with appropriate notes that some of the plot numbers still needed to be officially confirmed), but essentially, the job was as complete as it could be, and the Archives now have a much neater, and more easily updatable cemetery index (and Peter will no longer need to feel embarrassed about presenting the Abbot with a dog-eared, scribbly list (not very legible in some places) whenever he needed to confirm the location of a particular grave for the benefit of researchers or family members.

After this achievement, I had a rest after lunch, and then after Afternoon Prayer, sought out my usual little corner of the guesthouse reading room. As is my wont, I moved the furniture around so that I could put my feet up (the big armchairs up there are very comfy!), with a heater beside me, and a reading lamp over me... I was ready to finish off that great book by Margaret Silf.

All was going well until about 3pm, when the weather got a bit wild outside, and then the lights (and everything else powered by electrickery) went off. This wasn't a problem, as I was sitting near a window, it was still light outside, and I had enough layers of clothes on to be warm without the heater, so I ploughed on... after about half an hour, the lights came back on... only to go off again about half an hour later (again, no probs, as there was still enough light to read by... just)... and then the lights came on again... but after only a brief period this time, they went off again- this time for good, so I packed up and went to my room, via the kitchen to dispose of my coffee cup. Whilst in the kitchen Dom Chris, battery powered lantern in hand, came swooping by, asked if I was ok, and upon seeing my book on the bench, stated, "the other side of chaos, indeed!" before continuing on his way.

Once in my room, I retrieved my little LED torch (SO glad I packed that!) poured myself a glass of wine from a bottle I brought with me, (as I figured it was wine o'clock), and then proceeded to finish off the last dozen or so pages of my book by torchlight. After that, I thought it best to go and gather with the other hardy souls in the guesthouse lounge, before heading down to the oratory for Vespers.

By this time, it seemed that some power had been restored, but it was all a bit random. The guesthouse lounge, dining room and kitchen were all without power (and aren't we glad that the monastery kitchen cooks with gas, people?! .. although the staff were working by battery lantern light :-)  Some of the rooms in the upper guest house had some power, but my room had no power (although I later discovered that the aircon/heat pump is working... must be wired to somewhere else) The lower guest house is fine, and that's where I am now, typing this, as I need power because my laptop battery is dead. 

Because the issue is an internal one, it means that monastery is responsible to fix it and can't call the state power people... so this means they have to get an electrician to come up from Perth tomorrow to fix things, so life could still be a bit interesting... especially when it's time to have a shower at 6am; it may have to be a cold one... or I might have to sneak down here to the lower guest house and use the communal bathroom here.

The power outage certainly made for an interesting dinner by torch and candle light, but people have been in generally good spirits, and a sense of cameraderie is prevailing. 

So that was my day today... in between the prayer times, when I was the only guest present for some of the offices- especially the early morning ones, so it was just me and the monks :-) Varied, unexpected, but full of God in all kinds of ways. And now it's time to go to bed.
Tomorrow I plan to tackle Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan... more later.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thankyou Margaret Silf

I'm currently in New Norcia, WA for a 'reading week', amidst the prayer and serenity of this lovely monastic town. I brought with me a few books to read (or at least to attempt to read), but the one that has really captivated me thus far is not one that I brought myself, but one that was loaned to me by a friend in Perth. I think it's really been the case of God's timing in putting this book into my hands exactly when I needed it.

My usual drill when visiting New Norcia, is to fly to Perth on a Monday, stay overnight with my friend Adrienne, and then catch the bus to NN on the Tuesday morning. So in the process of our conversations on Monday night, I was telling Adrienne about some of the emotional turmoil I've been experiencing in recent months, and how exhausting it's all been.

Adrienne very wisely recommended I read a book by Margaret Silf called The Other Side of Chaos; breaking through when life is breaking down. Adrienne is a bit of a fan of Margaret Silf, having attended a couple of retreats that she has run when she's been in Australia, and has a number of her books (and has also recommended her to me in the past, so it's good to finally get to read one of her books).

So Adrienne handed me this book, and suggested I take it with me to New Norcia, that it wouldn't take very long to read, and I might just find it interesting. So I took it with me, and started to read it on the  bus. I got about a third of the way through it in that first sitting, and since then, in two afternoons have almost finished it (only about 50 pages to go- it's been slower going since I got here, because I've been taking copious notes- because it's not my book, I can't exactly underline or highlight bits I want to remember).

The 'chaos' in the title refers to the chaos of change, and the messiness of transitions. Margaret Silf claims that change is something to be embraced, rather than feared; that transitions are never comfortable, and that in the chaos of crises (or 'breakdown') there is often opportunity for 'breakthrough', as the other side of the coin.

Now, I know that on the surface, this could sound a bit like when you're going through tough times and a Christian friend, trying to be helpful, quotes Romans 8:28 at you ('We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose'), and you just want to smack them (or maybe you don't, but I usually do). But this is really much deeper than a platitude, and some of the things she says in this book really got me excited.

With one particular experience I've had in recent months, I could really resonate with her breakdown/breakthrough idea. I described in an earlier blog post the 'loss of a particular relationship' that had been a cause of grief and a whole miasma of confusing feelings for me (to the point that at one stage it felt like the inside of my head was full of slimy spaghetti, all knotted up and a great mess). The thing that made this situation really hard for me to deal with was not the situation itself, but the fact that it hooked into a whole lot of emotional baggage that I've been carrying for a long time, and that was really painful.

When I decided to enlist the aid of a counsellor to help me navigate through the spaghetti in my head, she very astutely and quickly put her finger on the historical baggage, and said that this was what she wanted to work on with me, because I'd been living with it for 47 years, so it was time to try to sort it out.

So, to relate this to what Margaret Silf is saying, the 'breakdown' (the loss of relationship) led to a 'breakthrough' (seeking counselling and through that getting the opportunity to work on some long-term underlying issues that I otherwise wouldn't have worked on). So this made me think that in a way, the painful situation I was experiencing has really become a great gift to me, as it has enabled me to recognise and start to deal with some deep internal issues far more significant and damaging than the situation itself could ever be.

A quote I really liked:
Are we hoping that God, or faith, will rescue us from the breakdown and repair the damage, or dare we trust that God is inviting us to engage in the coming to birth of something new, in and through the labour pains of loss and disintegration? (p.16)

I have found lots of other wisdom in the book, which I might share a bit later, but needless to say, I currently find myself in a place where I am much more at peace with all the emotional turmoil that's been happening recently, and really think I've turned a corner in coming out of the pain and confusion. The combination of the therapy I'm undertaking, the opportunity to come away to this beautiful place of prayer and peace, and this book, have all breathed life and hope into the painful corners of my heart and mind. God is indeed good!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tall tales and true... from Kalumburu!

This evening after dinner, the small group of monastery guests were treated to an audience with Fr Anscar McPhee, one of the monks here at New Norcia. Fr Anscar is the author of two rather notorious books, about Senor Pilich, monastery cat (which are delightfully fun and also share the heart of the monastic life) and I had never met him before, because until recently he was posted at Kalumburu, near the Drysdale River (which is the most northern settlement in WA). In 1905 the Benedictines established a mission in Kalumburu (originally named Drysdale River Mission), and Fr Anscar had been the parish priest there for the past 28 or so years, until the Abbot called him home to New Norcia last year.

It was a real delight to listen to his jovial storytelling, and join with his infectious (and somewhat uproarious) laugh as he told us of the time when he was struck by lightning (and walked away unscathed); when he found a bull raiding the banana storeroom at Kalumburu; when a king brown snake wrapped itself around his feet one day as he was talking on the phone, and he nervously waiting for it to go off on its way, praying that his feet woudn't twitch in the meantime... and it seems he has no end of stories. I expect (and hope) that I will get to hear more of his stories as the rest of my week here unfolds.

Some of my fellow guests at dinner tonight included two young brothers (as in siblings, not religious brothers) who were rather delightful, and talked of many Catholic youth events that they've been involved in over the years. As we were finishing dinner, I asked them with a twinkle in my eye, "So has Fr Bernard bailed you up against the wall and talked to you about vocations yet?*" They answered in the negative, and we all had a giggle.

At this point Fr Anscar joined us and Dom Chris, one of the other monks came bustling into the dining room, trying to serve us all seconds of the evening meal, to use up the leftover food. I jokingly whispered to the boys, "See? Fattening you up for a vocation", to which Dom Chris responded with a grin, "Yairrrrrs... a healthy appetite means a healthy vocation, isn't that what we always say, Fr Anscar?"

So after all the food was finished, we repaired to the lounge room to be entertained by Fr Anscar. A very pleasant evening indeed :-)

* I should point out that I said this because a UCA (male) colleague, who has also visited New Norcia a number of times, has told me that every time he comes here, Fr Bernard makes a point of wanting to spend time chatting with him, and we're both sure Fr Bernard is trying to groom him, hoping he will some day jump ship from the UCA to seek a vocation with the Benedictines :-)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How's that for Serenity!

This morning I arrived in the monastic town of New Norcia, for a week of theological reading, reflection and prayer (and a bit of volunteer work in the Monastery Archives).

Ever since I first visited New Norcia as part of my ministerial studies, I have come back almost annually to enjoy the environment of prayer and peace ('Pax' being the Benedictine motto). New Norcia is a strange place (in a good way), as it is a town full of grandiose Spanish buildings, in WA's sticks, on the Great Northern Highway on the way to Geraldton, about 2 hours from Perth. 

Whenever I'm here, I like to slip into the rhythm of the monastery, praying the Offices with the monks 7 times each day (which means getting up at 5am- yes, really!). My daily schedule looks like this:

5am rise
5:15am- Vigils
(shower and breakfast)
6:45am- Lauds
7:30am- Mass (in the Abbey church)
8am- Work (which is either some volunteer work in the Archives or my reading)
12noon- Midday Prayer
12:15- Dinner (the main meal of the day- 3 courses: soup, main and dessert)
rest time
2:30- Afternoon Prayer
3pm- Work (more reading and journalling)
6:30pm- Vespers
7pm- Tea (the 'lighter' evening meal... only 2 courses, soup and main)
8:15pm- Compline (the final prayer of the day, and my favourite of the Offices)
I usually head back to my room, do some reading, journalling (this year I have my laptop and a mobile internet connection, so I can blog as part of this), and go to bed around 10-10:30pm.

The monks observe the Great Silence between 8pm and 8am (or, effectively from after Compline until after Mass the next morning), and I also like to maintain silence during these times, so as not to lose the gentle and almost visceral sense of being sent off to bed during Compline, and to help me reflect on the day, and then prepare for the coming day in the early part of the morning.

It's a full day, and in between prayer times and meal times and the after lunch rest time, I manage to fit in 7-8 hours of reading 'work' in my cosy little nook in the upstairs guesthouse reading room, so have no trouble at all justifying this time as work-related study leave. But there is also a sense of gentleness to the day, as it's broken up by the different prayer times, each with its own style (some offices are spoken, others are chanted).

I really do love this place.