Over the past couple of days, I found myself driving across state lines into the town of Ft. Smith, AR to retreat at St. Scholastica Monastery under the direction of Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, a Benedictine nun, an author, a sage. I was given her book, “Seven Sacred Pauses” by my friend Anna for my 40th. Anna is a soul sister and we’ve traversed several terrains (both geographically, and that of the soul) together. Anna decided it would be great fun for us to participate in Sister Macrina’s retreat in light of my crossing over the second half of life. “To adventure!” we cried! These two Enneagram 1s couldn’t wait to get a little time away together and let ourselves loose. Anna texts, “I just read the fine print, this is a silent retreat. Do you still want to drive 6 hours to stare at each other and not talk?” We howelled then both decided our noisy lives could probably learn from a few days at the St. Scholastica Retreat Center and Monastery. This would be a first for us both.
At our first session, before we enter into the silence, we are greeted by Sister Macrina. She is 78 and currently hobbling around with a boot on her foot and smile on her face. She is tall and thin, with long arms and hands that gracefully whirl and bend outward toward us when she talks. Sister Macrina is quite the punchy nun: “I named this retreat ‘Standing in the Presence’ as I want us to learn about the Benedictine way, God is everywhere, you know? But really, I could have easily have titled this retreat ‘The Art of Shutting Up.” She throws her head back for a laugh and we erupt. She continues, “Words are the least important part of prayer. God is not gonna have a bad day if He never hears from you again.” She grins and we laugh some more. She quiets her face, her eyes focus intensely: “You all came here for something that only the silence can teach you. What is the storm you carry? Can you name your chaos? Are you living awake? Most importantly, you begin at Beloved.”
Every session she presents the words of saints and poets, artists and contemplatives. She gives us enough fuel to withstand the Sahara Desert of silence and yet my “monkey mind” wants to get back to flitting and flirting with chaos as soon as I exit to my dorm room. Just past our tiny “Call the Midwife”-esque kitchen there’s Merton Lounge. Think of your college dormitory social room that hadn’t been renovated since 1955, complete with well preserved floral, velveteen furniture and builder’s grade carpet. There is zero pretense or performance here. This place does not need any fixing up in order to rehabilitate weary souls. I pick up a compilation of Thomas Merton’s works called “Love and Living”. I curl up in my provided dorm recliner (which is quite comfy) and within the first few pages I am undone:
“Education..means more than learning; and for such education, one is awarded no degree.
One graduates by rising from the dead.
Learning to be oneself means, therefore, learning to die in order to live. It means discovering in the ground of one’s being a 'self' which is ultimate and indestructible, which not only survives the destruction of all other more superficial selves but finds its identity affirmed and clarified by their destruction.“
Rising from the dead is a lot like “awakening hope”, we say that a lot around JSL...it is a mantra that means “to rouse a feeling of trust from slumber”. Awakening hope is a resurrection. I can’t get over the resonance in my bones. Merton is describing the “education” we learn through the Gospel work of JSL. Not only our ACCESS participants, but each of us who are a part of our family - staff, Alliance Partners, and any volunteer willing to look in the myriad of faces (icon’s of God) and see themselves there.
So many of us have buried superficial selves, those masks we have worn to protect our ego structures. I still have grave-dirt on my shoes. How many selves have we developed just trying to avoid their painful destruction? There is a LOT that gets buried during ACCESS, the grief is palpable. Our women are exiting a life that affirmed them, even as it stole. A life that filled the ego while draining the spirit. An identity that protected, while marring their beauty.
Through ACCESS, we must welcome the grief, and honor it, as the old dies and the feeling of trust begins to wake. A new creation is born in each woman. And at the bottom of the floor of her soul, my soul, there is hope. There is a true self, someone that has long been inside of us that we haven’t known...our inner woman...our truest identity. That woman can rise from the ground because, in that place, where sorrow dug the pit for old ways to be buried, there stood Love. Strong and pure. Gentle and good. Jesus, at the very depth of the hell we embodied. He rises with her, and she in Him. And it’s not just the great cloud of witnesses who affirm her Christ-like resurrection, it’s the very destruction that tore the veil of the temple and destroyed it so a better one could exist. The thunder of death becomes a resounding applause. Breakthrough is a loud ruckus in the silence of our souls, like an intergalactic battle underneath our very skin.
This fall we welcome at least 4 confirmed applicants to our third round of ACCESS! There is potential for 10 total. Our former graduates will now participate as “Big Sister” figures, mentoring and providing support to the women who will come behind them. This kind of resurrection is no small task for ACCESS students. They need your prayers, your financial support, and Alliance Partners. We are still looking for AP’s (Alliance Partners), women in the community to walk hand in hand with ACCESS students. AP’s are trained, they are NOT counselors or mentors per say, they are available to talk, meet, pray, lunch and play together, expanding our students' connections in Waco.
Financially, this course requires $5000 per woman. Remember, she is paid a stipend as she shows up for classes, like a scholarship. If your church, Sunday School class, or corporation would like to sponsor a woman through ACCESS as she transitions from a life of sexual exploitation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Would you stand in this space with us as we create an environment for death, resurrection, and ascension? Would YOU take part in awakening hope at JSL?
In LOVE! - Emily