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Thomas Berry, Mary Oliver and Squirrels

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

From my perch on the topmost branch of the great oak near the kitchen door, I see and hear all that is happening here. The view is great! By day I can watch immense white clouds drifting in from the West on a bed of blue and disappearing across the horizon. And at night, I live in a world of moon and stars. My tree is the perfect place for meditation. How could I not be prayerful living in such beauty?

Sometimes I hear a poem being read and that too leads me naturally into a meditative mood. There are so many great poems, but I often find something from Mary Oliver to be perfect. For instance, when I heard someone read her poem Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way, I loved how she talked about holiness being visible, even though God may not be. Holiness—it is visible. I see it all around me. It’s here in those clouds that the wind hurries across the sky. It’s here it is in the simple fact that this tree is here and that there is an earth, that there is day and a night, sunshine and rain mountains and rivers—and acorns. Holiness is here in the fact that our world exits, that through the long journey to our present existence, a journey of some 13-plus billion years, something kept evolution moving forward.

A friend of mine, Thomas Berry, inspires me the most as he tells this story, the Universe Story. In telling this story of all that exists and how all of us got here, Thomas sometimes refers to some special moments that were more dangerous than others as Moments of Grace. This is because, at each time of crisis, a major challenge was overcome and life was able to continue. The story could go on. One example of such a transformational moment was when our mother star scattered itself into the vastness of space. It was only out of this that our sun and entire planetary system was born. Another was when the first multicellular organic forms of life appeared. All future life forms are possible because of this one moment.

Tree - Grandmother 2_smallJust think, from those first small life forms comes what I see from my tree and, of course, even beyond. But I can see the fields of prairie, those big patches of waving grasses and flowers being enjoyed by bees and butterflies. Then there are cute rabbits, wandering geese, graceful deer and my fellow squirrels—all interesting to watch. Frogs sing in the pond and hundreds of birds swoop through the air. Humans too, some caring for the land, some resting in the sun, some creating those inviting aromas that drift through the kitchen window.

Thomas tells us that now we are the ones living in another Moment of Grace. The present, he says, is a time of great transformation in which the future will be determined. He tells us, though, that since we have been guided so far through many turbulent centuries, we should have confidence in the future. I think that is the mission of Prairiewoods, to offer what we can so that the transformation of each of us will help to bring about the great transformation that the future depends on. I want to be a part of that magnificent transformation that will surely happen when we take time to meditate wherever we are, in all the sanctuaries that are offered to us. Mine happens to be in a tree.

There are probably not many people who know that Thomas Berry has been a major inspiration for the creation of Prairiewoods. His vision seemed to simply grab at our hearts. In a way he opened new doors, although as we looked through them we recognized that we too felt that holiness is everywhere, that all is sacred. He verified for us that our spirituality is intrinsically linked to understanding our connections with our universe. I like to quote him as saying that “what happens in the outer world, happens in the inner world.”

Thomas and Mary Oliver make a great team as they both uncover the holy and the mythic meaning behind each new scientific discovery.

In the poem I mentioned earlier, Mary Oliver says that “all important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.” And, as for me, I naturally see the need to include the trees in this idea of what is important. One of them is my home. And I can see that I am not the only one to seek out a tree as a refuge. Almost every day I see people here at Prairiewoods who find it a natural part of a retreat to sit under a tree; and I can see that they are having a great conversation together.

The trees, the mountains and the rivers are all mystical places. Our connection with them is spiritual. They feed our souls and make holiness visible. And the last line of the poem tells me that I, Otis, am a part of it all. It reads, “The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

—Otis (as dictated to Betty Daugherty, FSPA, Prairiewoods foundress)


20 Voices for 20 Years

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a whole scurry of them!

In honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary, we asked 20 friends, “Why are you grateful for Prairiewoods?” and “How have you been transformed?” As you can see in the quick YouTube video below, they are grateful for everything from the quiet serenity they find here to the natural playground created by our 70 acres. What has been your favorite thing about Prairiewoods over the last 20 years? What are you most looking forward to? #20Voices20Years


20 Voices for 20 Years

Sounds of Silence

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday. 

You may remember Prairiewoods Spiritual Director Marj English, OSF, who I introduced you to a few weeks ago. As a retreat facilitator, she helps create a peaceful, calming atmosphere for our guests. Sometimes this peace is accompanied by total silence here at Prairiewoods (other than my chatter, of course!). Here are Sister Marj’s thoughts on the popular Silent Directed Retreats …

walker 1

Otis, did you notice the palpable silence here the week of June 5–11? It was so quiet, I bet our guests heard your scurrying here and there. I know some heard the bull frogs chatting in the pond between the Guest House and Center and the chirping birds serenading. These sounds and the silence of voices seem to call people to listen more deeply. They were a soothing respite for many from the workday noises. The silence and the rhythms of natural sounds seem to assist retreatants in going inward and listening to the often buried sounds of the soul. I truly believe peace and transformation were gifts received by participating retreatants.

Starting this Sunday (July 24), we have another one of these opportunities when we host our second Silent Directed Retreat of this season. The peace will be palpable throughout the grounds! If you are in need of some soul nurturing, come join us, and let the “sounds of silence” stimulate your soul.

—Marj English, OSF, Coordinator of Spiritual Services

Making Room for Godzilla

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

My buddy Marianne Abel-Lipschutz wanted to feel at home in my home, the woods, so she stayed overnight in one of the Prairiewoods Hermitages, rustic cabins nestled into the warm embrace of the woodlands. Here is the story of her first experience there …

Last spring I chose one of the hermitages for my first overnight at Prairiewoods. The buildings intrigued me—furnished bunkers set literally between prairie and woods. I explored the simple space while unpacking my things and making a cup of tea. A corner cabinet offered books, blank journal pages I could add to and drawers full of handy supplies—flashlights, bandages, notepaper, batteries, a transistor radio, playing cards, a phone book. A welcome binder under a daily devotional profiled the myriad possibilities of a stay at Prairiewoods.

I leafed through the binder just long enough to discover the page headlined “Nuclear Emergency Action Plan.” I scanned the two-sided sheet, imagining the “You Are Here” spot on my chair and the dotted line six miles northwest to the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) at the bullseye on the danger zone map. I felt like the stunned character in a 1970s cult cartoon, “Bambi meets Godzilla,” which showed the catastrophic meeting in the forest. Bambi, a lightly drawn image of meekness, munches twigs for 60 seconds. Then Godzilla’s right paw stomps downward through the center of the screen, squashing the fawn flat. Like Bambi, I had never considered my nuclear emergency action plan, a subject so far outside my typical circle of contemplation I could only reach for the jasmine tea.

This consciousness-raising whopper and the weekend’s sessions expanded my preconceived image of an idyllic spiritual retreat. Staying at Prairiewoods put the nuclear plant in my backyard in a way I couldn’t ignore. I’d driven past the clouds of fission-generated steam rising off the cooling towers while driving on the interstate many times, vaguely aware of their source. I casually disregarded them the way I ignored the rank smell of metric tons of oats roasting in downtown Cedar Rapids. Even though I lived 62 miles away, I couldn’t pretend my life existed outside of a nuclear energy zone. I had to make room for the specter of nuclear disaster as part of my community.

Hermitage 12_squareRight away I felt grateful that someone valued my presence enough to inform me about the emergency plan. I thought of all the placards on the back doors of hotel rooms I’d read; none of them cautioned specifically about tornado, flood or nuclear disaster. Later I learned about the reactor facility, built in the 1970s, and how years of extensive cooperation for disaster preparedness in the greater metro area helped prevent loss of life in the 2008 floods. The DAEC pamphlets used familiar words: resource use, environment, safety, protection, power, household needs. Yet their assurance of safe operations fell short of my truer needs.

At sessions during the Beauty is the Path to God’s Life Retreat, presenter Father John Quigley, OFM, helped us explore mind-shifting reversals about our images of God’s creative power that infiltrated my awareness. John cast a vision of God as “an eternal furnace freely breathing ecstatic joy,” a compelling contrast to Godzilla’s destructive atomic breath colored by radioactive heat waves flaming red and blue out of the monster’s mouth. God’s almighty breath will always overwhelm any real threat. “To just share a breath together is eternal,” John said. Love is a simple and effective emergency plan.

The generating capacity of God’s protection cannot be measured. Kindness, goodness, simplicity and love can empower our lives when we open our hearts and minds to the Source of all being. Like the concentration of spiritual energy at the center of the labyrinth, God welcomes us at whatever ground zero we face. We can walk the circular path without fear, returning to the Source again and again to restore the breath of life within us. Prairiewoods acts as a counterbalancing force in the danger zone, marked by a radiant footprint rather than a radioactive one.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschut, program participant

This Labyrinth

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

In August of 2003—and many times since—Kathleen Mullin, BVM, came to Prairiewoods to retreat from her daily life. On that visit, Sister Kathleen spent time on the beautiful stone labyrinth that sits at the edge of the woods that I and the other critters of Prairiewoods call home. She wrote this poem. As Sister Kathleen shared it with us creatures of the woods, so too I share it with you …

Barefoot trodding
letting be
feeling grounded, homebound,
I freely move
midst woodlands, insects, wildflowers
about this labyrinth.
I merge memory of Dad home from war
and his selected tales,
of caring families, of stirring architecture
like that cathedral in Chartres
with now
with unknowns
as solitude empties, energizes me.
Gnat and butterfly, going in-out with me.
You evoke reflection of flights
and changes from other times,
you urge my reverence for
and relating with all of creation.
Divine Companion,
You connect heaven with earth in me,Labyrinth at sunrise_Elizabeth McChesney
offering a path for trust,
for truth, for peace,
through beginning-centering-ending, until
graced and shod,
I pilgrimage from Prairiewoods to share.

—Kathleen Mullin, BVM, retreatant

(image: the Prairiewoods labyrinth at sunrise, by Elizabeth McChesney) 

The Prayer Room

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Have you met my friend Marianne Abel-Lipschutz yet? She is a writer, frequent program participant at Prairiewoods and friend to critters large and small. And as she describes here, she is one who is “baked in prayer” …

Last year’s sleeper hit The War Room featured the power of regular prayer and prayer warriors as key players accomplishing God’s work in this world. The character Miss Clara, a 78-year-old widow, introduces prayer as a war strategy for winning everyday battles with God’s help. “In order to stand up and fight the enemy,” she says in the movie, “you need to get on your knees and pray.” Miss Clara prays anywhere she feels like praying—out on the street, strutting around her kitchen, rocking on the sunny porch—but her favorite place is upstairs in her war room, a former closet off the hallway where she can be alone with God.

A dedicated prayer room is a frequent backdrop in the movie. Another main character, real estate agent Elizabeth, accepts a challenge from Miss Clara to spend more time praying than losing power struggles with her husband. Soon after their meeting, Elizabeth considers the options of her own closet while munching chips and sipping pop among her many shoes and outfits. Another time she prays, eats snacks, and snoozes in the afternoon bunked up against high heels. Eventually she sacrifices the stuff, like Jesus sweeping the merchants and money-changers out of the temple, and settles on a bare room with a few writing materials, a Bible, and a simple wooden chair.

Three generations of closets become part of the movie’s spiritual landscape: Miss Clara’s closet, mentoree Elizabeth’s closet, and Danielle’s closet where Elizabeth’s daughter posts her own prayers for her family and friends, her to-do list of accomplishments she trusts will be done. When a pastor and his wife tour Miss Clara’s house that Elizabeth has put on the market, the husband asks about the empty room at the top of the stairs. His suspicion confirmed, he says he knew it as a prayer room because of how it feels inside. Prayer is “baked in,” he says, and they buy the house on the spot.

Meditation Room Chairs“Baked in prayer” is my impression of the meditation or prayer room in the Center at Prairiewoods. Compared to the closets in the movie, this is a mansion. One of the more captivating indoor spaces on the property, it springs out from the main structure like a bowsprit, thrusting the energy of all that’s inside into the wonderland beyond. Here is a multi-generational legacy of baked-in prayer, a whole place prepared to receive us with thoughtful furnishings, a lit candle, and many intriguing provisions. The transparency of belief rests here, drawing us effortlessly to the Spirit through windows and light. This is prayer as a lifestyle, communication as a refuge, solitude as a harbor of holiness and peace.

One spring day I released myself into the soft carpet, surrendering some now forgotten conflict to the air. I let the everlasting wave of sunlight wash over me, casting me out further into an ocean of prayer. Time passed; I didn’t care how much. When I sat up, I felt stunned at the sensation of being wrapped in the arms of the cross as my eyes took in the structural framework that carries the room. I had never felt held by beams. Reinforced in my faith, buoyed with love, open to the light within and around me, I knelt in thanksgiving for another morning of mercy.

Saints and sinners alike know prayer as a relationship. Scriptures encourage us to seek God daily in an inner chamber, a private room, a secluded place, even a mountaintop or garden, the quiet places where Jesus often prayed, alone and with his friends. Clearing space in our lives can be a conversion that springs from a fresh commitment to the spiritual journey. The Prairiewoods meditation room is big enough to shelter whatever I bring into the space. Companionship is just another breath away.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, program participant

Walking the Labyrinth

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

In July 2012, a couple from Milwaukee who introduced themselves as LoriLee and Jeff explored the woods and prairie that make up Prairiewoods’ 70 acres. When they returned home to our neighbor to the north, LoriLee wrote a short essay about their experience and shared it with those of us who love Prairiewoods …

A charming and fragrant pine chip trail wound softly through the sun-dappled woods on the grounds of a spiritual center in Hiawatha, Iowa. As Jeff and I wandered along, we came upon a warm and worn, sand and brick labyrinth at the edge of the woods. I had read about labyrinths serving as meditation devices and was excited to try it out.

I hopped straightaway into the labyrinth at the closest random point. I felt a bit uneasy as I began to navigate this maze. The concentric and winding path led me at times closer to and then farther from the center of the network. Surprisingly, after 10 minutes of what I imagined was movement toward the heart of all the circles, I found my self standing at an outermost spot, the farthest arc from the middle point goal. It was a dead end and yet, coincidentally, the only true entrance to the labyrinth. The only available next move was to step out or to turn around and step back in.

It was clear that I had to start all over again. Apparently my arbitrary entry point choice led me not to the core, but rather directed me back to the proper place to start. I laughed and was tempted to call it quits, but I was committed to being present and fully engaged on this day of exploration. My thoughts at this moment were—no matter what my ego chooses as the easiest, safest or “good enough” starting point in this “game” (as in life) God apparently will lead me back to where I need to begin. There is only one “true” place to start—at the source. In this moment I chose to experience this “sporting” event not in my typical fashion (as a spectator rather than a full participant) and I jumped back in—mind, body and soul.

Labyrinth_LoriLee Villwock_smallAs I began, I fretted about the humidity and the length the labyrinth trek might take. Did I appear foolish by playing this silly maze-game? Was my incessant chatter a bit bizarre? Was Jeff inconvenienced by the amount of time this going around in circles was taking? Did I seem odd or egotistic, as I felt compelled to relay every little insecure and/or insightful impression? I was in a constant state of analysis and commentary feeling alternating periods of stress and peace. I literally talked to myself out loud, trying to discern the cause of both the anxiety and the calm.

While this walk was slow moving, it was equally engrossing. I had to constantly observe my feet without distraction so as not to stumble or trip off the path. The turns were apparent and sharp. I concentrated on the effort, but continued to stress about the extent and orientation of the path. It clearly must lead to the center, yet just when I thought I was close to the goal, the path steered me back toward the outer arcs of the labyrinth. I began to see the spiritual significance of this winding walk. The path was purposefully designed and thus, must be followed purposefully despite how uncomfortable and unproductive it felt to move forward only to turn another corner and fall back. This was an “aha” moment, and although I accepted this truth, I still hoped that I could soon be done with this winding up and away.

Have I mentioned that this little trek around this labyrinth was seriously slow? I couldn’t look ahead to predict how much farther I had to go because in taking my eyes off the path I would risk losing my balance. It was not possible to continue to move ahead sure-footed while simultaneously looking down and around the distant turns. I had to stay focused in the present and be mindful of my feet. Trudging ahead, I admit, I had fleeting moments of doubt. Would this path actually reach that solitary little seat waiting patiently in the middle? Ridiculous. I was certain I was on the only available route and it simply had to lead to the center. In that awareness I discovered something about my faith nature. Faith keeps me moving and steady. Faith assures the conviction in my plans and gives me clarity of purpose. I had to be ever faithful and attentive to stay steady on this path. I began to feel more at ease as I simply surrendered to the experience. I no longer saw value in the analyzing or predicting. Moving ahead became less about navigating and more about going with the flow. This concept I knew to be true on the labyrinth trail and on the walk of life.

Eventually, the path came to an end and I approached the wooden bench in the center of the labyrinth. As I sat down, it dawned on me that the trek itself far outweighed the achievement of sitting in the center and claiming the prize. Thus, this is what the labyrinth revealed—life is in the journey, not the circumstances, perils or milestones that pop up along the way. In the end, it wasn’t the arrival at the center that seemed most satisfying. I felt accomplishment in the actual walking of the labyrinth despite all the things I endured that went against my nature: the absolute, non-negotiable, non-creative start point; the need to recognize the truth of that and acquiesce in the start-over directive; the slow, methodical progress that forced me to accept and appreciate equally the forward and backward procession; the focus on one task without distraction; and the faith to know that there was an achievable end point, a true purpose to the journey in spite of my occasional and very human doubt and discomfort. Most of all, I had to acknowledge that the “prize” at the end meant far less to me than the journey experience itself.

At the end of the path I felt a wave of gratitude. I was grateful that while I started the labyrinth according to the needs of my personality/ego (just jump in and figure it out as you go), the call of my soul won the day by sending me back to the authentic starting point, the truth as it were. This allowed the full journey experience to unfold. I was grateful that I was with my husband who kept the conversation going, asked me to consider other wonders and possibilities and, I think, learned something about his own personality and spirit in the process.

It is a wonder and revelation to clearly see why my personality occasionally causes me to lose my way. In that awareness, I can trust that I will proceed on my life’s path however God directs me—one foot in front of the other. My faith and resolve to move ahead is fortified. I weathered the labyrinth, and it was good, really good.

—LoriLee Villwock, labyrinth lover from Milwaukee

Grandmother tree, the elder soul of the forest

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Good morning from Otis! I’m sitting clear up high in one of the big oak trees here at Prairiewoods. Trees are my favorite place. I’m so happy that people at Prairiewoods have protected the little woods here so I have a place to live and play. From my favorite spot up here I can see the Prairiewoods entrance. Here comes a car I recognize from frequent visits. It belongs to Jan Griffith, my friend and a frequent program participant …

Hi, everyone! I’m Jan Griffith, a frequent visitor here at Prairiewoods. I love the little winding road in and all the beautiful trees. It’s hard to believe the interstate is nearby. The trees muffle all of the traffic noise so that I feel like I’ve gone to the forest to find a place of stillness. I’m fond of places that provide eco-spirituality, the sacredness of nature, where I can find a spiritual connection within the environment.

I’m here today for “Tuesday Church” where we study Visio Divina. At Visio Divina a circle of interfaith people study a scripture passage with an accompanying illustration from The Saint John’s Bible. This art work makes the scripture passage so much more meaningful for me. It is also great fun to share all of the interpretations from many faith communities.

That reminds me of another meaningful circle I attend at Prairiewoods, Women in Interfaith Dialogue. The sharing there is special too and empowers the Prairiewoods entrance sign, which says “All Are Welcome.”

Tree - Grandmother 2_smallDuring both circles my eyes are drawn outside the windows to the elder soul of the forest here … the Grandmother Tree. Deer peek out safely from behind her. Otis scrambles up her trunk. Though aged, she stands strong and tall, her roots linked with other trees encircling the forest edge … much like the strength and empowerment I feel from others in this special place.

—Jan Griffith, program participant

Review of Renew Your Life: Discovering the Wellspring of God’s Energy by Kai Mark Nilsen

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Have you met my friend Mary Nilsen? She and her husband, Roy, have been coming to Prairiewoods for years, participating in everything from programs to holistic services. Here she tells us about a spiritual book written by her son, Kai …

How could we have known years ago, when the phone rang and the plaintive voice of our son said, “Dad?” that that call would find its way into a book; that my husband’s words, “You may have to muddle through this for awhile,” would become something of a mantra for him? But most important, how could we have known that the reason for the call, the withering time he was going through would lead him? push him? force him? into new discoveries about the restorative love of the God he worshipped and preached about every Sunday but had lost touch with?

Our son, Kai Nilsen, pastored a large suburban congregation—a dream job, but he had fallen into despair (a despair not unfamiliar to pastors or most anyone involved in a helping vocation or avocation, including parents). Simply put, he didn’t care. Not about his parishioners. Not about his community. Not about his family. And especially not about himself. The call to us, his parents, was the cry of a middle-aged man trapped in an arid, frightening place.

We were caught off guard. And after the conversation we were left with the powerlessness parents feel when their adult children are in trouble. All we could do was pray and trust that he would find some way to access the same divine energy that had helped us muddle through similar times in our lives. And trust that in this wilderness struggle, God would provide all he needed.

Mary and Roy Nilsen 3The wisdom gained from that dark time is shared in this compelling book filled with stories both humorous and poignant. Beyond that, Kai sets his experience (and the experience of so many Christians) within the biblical foundation of the creation story, where he discovers the renewable energy of God, an energy available to us all. He also gives to his readers common sense practices that can help them move more quickly through those times of muddling through.

This book can give to individuals going through dark times a sense that they are not alone. It is also designed to be read and studied in groups—granting time and space for people to admit their plunges into apathy and doubt, share wisdom gained from such times, and grow in faith that the same God who walked with the Israelites through the wilderness and accompanied Jesus during his wilderness sojourn will be with them, giving them energy for the day and hope for tomorrow.

Kai explores seven energies released at the time of creation and available to all who are open to receiving them:

1. The energy of grace—How can I both accept and pass on the graces God is eager to bestow?

2. The energy of possibility—How can I tend to the life I now have and at the same time stay open to the possibilities for something new?

3. The energy of paradox—How can I learn to accept the “unwanted” as gift? To say yes to both light and storm?

4. The energy of the natural world—How can I regain my child-like wonder at the beauty of the day? The power of a storm? The delight of a rain shower? And in so doing, how can I learn to coexist with all of creation?

5. The energy of relationships—How can I open myself to both give and receive so that I can gain energy from relationships instead of letting them drain me?

6. The energy of fruitful work—How can I be energized to develop respect for and joy in both what I do for a living and what I do to keep living?

7. The energy of rest—How can I organize my life so that I can receive the energy that comes through rest, whether that rest is sleep or meditative prayer or a long walk in the woods?

We are grateful that Kai muddled through, that he learned in and through the muddling, that he was given the energy to move out of that place of frustration, and that he has done the hard work of writing it all down in a way that can be helpful to others who wake up one day and realize that they simply don’t care.

—Mary Nilsen, long-time friend of Prairiewoods

Visio Divina at Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Remember my friend Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, who I introduced you to last month? She is a writer, nature-lover and frequent participant in the Seeing IS Believing: Visio Divina program that takes place twice a month at Prairiewoods. Here she tells us about Visio Divina, or holy seeing …

I drive down from rural Cedar Falls for the Visio Divina sessions on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at Prairiewoods. These sessions, guided by Rodney Bluml, are two hours of prayer using an illumination and an accompanying verse from The Saint John’s Bible. I know that quiet prayer happens elsewhere on the property, but not from ten to noon on alternate Tuesdays. Our group of seekers includes artists, writers, readers, and prayer warriors who collaborate in a wide-ranging dialogue with the Word. God inspires us with creative interpretations, uncanny wisdom, and honest reflections about our faith.

The Saint John’s Bible is exquisite testimony: terrific writing and remarkable illustrations presented with excellence fit for the King. Artists cooperated for more than a dozen years to reinvent the handmade treasure for our new century, blending the traditional crafts of the monastic scribes of the middle ages with the book arts skills of the modern era. Even when distorted in pixelated projections onto the electronic screen, the images accomplish the artists’ desire to communicate a true message from God.

Visio Divina, or divine seeing, is one of several disciplines used for spiritual formation, such as worship, fasting, solitude, silence, service, prayer, or study. Visio Divina joins prayer with Bible study in an active process, a group effort to enter the presence of God with teachable hearts. Each encounter with a Bible story, even a familiar one, is a way God comes to us. Each of us receives the Spirit differently. Our prayer is our conversation and we listen in while God gives individualized hope, encouragement, counsel, or direction. It’s one of those hundred-fold divine benefits of community when we hear God speak through each other.

A logical extension of this spiritual practice is to see things in new ways. Without my conscious intention, God’s shaping force through Visio Divina keeps transforming me. Many ah-ha moments connect me to the Spirit, like the other day when I realized something that now seems so obvious, I’m surprised I didn’t “see it” earlier. I’ve been using two troubling pictures from 1955 in an intensive memoir writing project over the past five years. Now I see information in these pictures that I couldn’t perceive before. I couldn’t see what I couldn’t even look at. These revelations are fruits of the Spirit looking at hard things with me that grew through my practice of Visio Divina.

Marianne Abel-LipschutzNo matter what mood I arrive in, I leave our sessions with a sense of revival and wonder. The deep fellowship, the delicious lunch, the laughter and silence, our songs and stories, everything draws me closer to God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I keep the printed librettos, with the illumination on one side and the verse on the other, in a binder. When I travel, I pick out a few sheets from my bootleg bible for daily devotions or spiritual fellowship. These sheets prove God’s sustainability, a simple renewable resource of word and image that keeps the Spirit alive.

Our prayers over each other and our lives in God touch me the most when I come to Prairiewoods. If I miss a Tuesday, I think of the circle of intent and focus myself for a few moments of prayer. How blessed we are to openly share the surprise and mystery and heartache of our days where peace and transformation are the norm. Not every place is as sacred as Prairiewoods, but I feel grateful that we can see the hope in the world more clearly after simply being here.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschutz, program participant