Many Come In Darkness

A Conversation With Macrina Wiederkehr

By Heather Webb

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 9 Fall 1997 · Issue 9: pgs 71-79.

Despite the usual constraints of speaking by telephone about matters of the heart, Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B., broke with her past reservations on the matter to grant Mars Hill Review an interview. She is warm-hearted and generous with her time, experience, and vulnerability, and she offers unassuming wisdom without pretense, in the simple hope that some of what she has gained might be to another's advantange.

Wiederkehr is a sought-after speaker and retreat leader on the subject of spiritual formation. She has been a monastic for forty years, and she makes her home among the Sisters of Saint Scholastica, a Benedictine monastery in Arkansas. Writing and retreat ministry have become a part of what she calls her evolving call. She is also the author of several books, including Seasons of Your Heart, A Tree Full of Angels: Finding the Holy in the Ordinary, and The Song of the Seed. She is currently working on a book titled, The Gold in Your Memories.

Wiedekehr considers a major part of her ministry-whether in writing or leading retreats-to help others appreciate their experience of life and faith as valuable. She calls us to the quest of finding the holy in the ordinary, and to open our hearts more fully to the love of God around, in, and through us. The goal, she says, is for us to develop eyes to see and ears to hear the gospel in all of our circumstances.

Mars Hill Review: You've said that a hope for your book, The Song of the Seed, is to "touch the poet, the artist, the one who has time for beauty." How is beauty a doorway to knowing God and renewing our souls?

Macrina Wiederkehr: Beauty calls us to attention. It slows us down. This, in itself, is the beginning of contemplation. It is difficult to hurry through beauty. Thomas Merton once said, "Hurry ruins saints as well as poets and artists." If you are in a hurry you probably won't stop to be present to "the beautiful."

Beauty has the ability to heal life's wounds. It can make us receptive to grace. In my retreat ministry, when I'm working with people who are dealing with issues of grief, pain, and darkness, I often give them reflective exercises on beauty. This can be, for example, finding a magical place and entering into the beauty, listening to music or going to an art museum, or perhaps, watching a nature video. As we are touched by beauty, we discover the poet within us.

MHR: Do you find there is any connection between your poetry and a life of prayer? In other words, is your vocation of prayer somehow related to the birthing of poems, or is it separate?

MW: I don't consider myself a great poet in terms of writing poetry. In my prayer life I turn into a poet. I no longer separate my life from my prayer. I still set aside time for prayer, but there is a difference between saying prayers and being prayer. The latter is what feeds me most these days. My vocation to pray is also a vocation to become a prayer. I see prayers and poems everywhere.

My life is one great poem and one great prayer. For example, when I see a parent being attentive to a child and I recognize how loved the child is, just beholding that scene can be a poem and a prayer. In the same scene, I may be reminded of how many children don't receive the love and care they need. That tugs at my heart and becomes a poem also. Poetry is not always beautiful. It is true. Sometimes it is full of sorrow.

MHR: As you've come to an understanding of practicing the art of presence or seeing poetry in life, there are probably a number of people who have inspired you. Your writing includes quotes from a broad range of writers and thinkers, secular and religious. How have secular writers, in particular, impacted your view of who God is?

MW: The secular writers I have been drawn to are really quite spiritual. I probably wouldn't even call them "secular." They seem free in their quest. They tend not to put God in a box. An experience of the sacred flows through their writings. They address, with sensitivity and honesty, real problems people face daily. What draws me to these writers is their passion and search for meaning, their willingness to enter the darkness, and ask questions without giving ready answers.

Perhaps there isn't as much of a gulf between the secular and the sacred as we sometimes believe. I tend to be turned off by writing that comes across as preachy or dispensing pious platitudes. I love the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In the midst of the tormenting darkness of his life, he writes beautifully of a God he does not fully understand. In The Book of Hours, he describes God as "the great homesickness we've never been able to shake off."

MHR: Why isn't the church addressing these important areas?

MW: Well, now, this is a tricky question, because it depends on what we mean by the church. The church includes not just the hierarchy, but all the people of God whose hearts are "made of longing" (Rilke again). The church is all of us-the Body of Christ.

I think we are learning how to address these issues as we meet the dying and rising of Jesus in our own lives each day. On our daily journeys we need the poets among us to help us be less afraid of ambiguity. Certitude is a trap. Those things in our lives of which we are certain are very difficult to speak about. When we attempt to do so, our words come out sounding either authoritarian or poetic.

As for the hierarchical church-it does, at times, seem to offer us rules and regulations, doctrine and dogmas, when what we long for is bread and encouragement, consolation and forgiveness. Why? My sense is that there is too much fear and control in the governing bodies of the organized churches.

MHR: As you are considering who God is, are there particular metaphors for God that are life-giving for you?

MW: In relating to God I like the metaphors "spirit" and "wind." On Pentecost the Spirit came in wind. And the wind has varying moods. It can be a gentle breeze or a great storm, yet it always moves things. As we allow God to enter our lives, we will be moved and transformed. The wind of the Spirit will blow us right out of our ruts.

Another beautiful image of God is silence. Silence is a positive experience for me-not an absence, an empty nothingness. At times I pray to God, "You who are the Great Silence in my life." As part of the monastic tradition, we enter into the Great Silence each night. It is the entering into it that is life-giving.

MHR: What does silence sound like to you?

MW: This question is a holy riddle. It can only be answered poetically. It calls out of me an unfinished poem:

Silence sounds like the space between night and day,
the glance of love that needs no words,
the full moon rising over the lake,
the morning dew on the quiet grass,
the first rays of the new day's sunlight,
a mystery too deep for words.

MHR: That you have so much to say about it sounds like it is familiar terrain to you. Could you put more words to what you mean by "mystery?"

MW: One of my favorite metaphors for God is mystery. I use the word not to suggest that God cannot be understood, but to say God is a presence we can never fully fathom-thus we are always in process, searching out new meanings. God is both the answer and the unanswer, a divine riddle like a Zen Koan.

The tension between the transcendent and immanent is a healthy tension. God is that mystery toward which we lean. We are always reaching for the divine, yet we are never fully satisfied. If we experience God only as transcendent, we become discouraged. God is too far away. On the other hand, the immanent God is as close as my own heartbeat, or as the person beside me whom I can touch. This God is tangible and intimate. If I know only an immanent God, however, there is the risk that my relationship with God becomes trite or sentimental. The tension between the two creates, for me, a healthy relationship with God.

Concerning metaphors, we have a problem with language in the church. We need to include feminine images of God. Father and Mother are equally beautiful metaphors. We don't have official sanction to use "mother" for liturgical services. And because of an overuse of masculine images, many of us try to avoid always calling God, "Father." As a result, in our conversation and writings we tend to use the name "God" too often. I certainly don't want to give up the Father. These are transitional times, and we owe it to one another to be sensitive and patient as we try to find our way.

MHR: This issue of language is an important one for feminist theologians. In your environment of the monastery, do you consider yourself a feminist theologian?

MW: I have always been a bit wary of labels. Because many people, not understanding feminism, think of feminists as just angry, irrational women, I used to be hesitant in calling myself a feminist. Yet a growing awareness of how important feminism is for the church is making me more bold. Anger can be a trap for us. It is like a door we must pass through as we see the injustice women have suffered. However, if we keep going through the anger-door, something is wrong.

MHR: Given your view that feminism is important for the church, what concerns do feminists bring that we need to listen to or learn from?

MW: A patriarchal system hurts everyone, not just women. Some of the most creative thinkers today are feminists, both women and men. Feminism is offering us a whole new model of a way to be. It offers a circular rather than a linear way to think, and a way of empowering rather than maintaining power and control. Of course feminists, too, can get into control. But true feminism is open to dialogue. In the patriarchal church I think the real issues are fear and control. We fear what we don't know or that which might ask us to let go of the power that we don't want to relinquish.

MHR: What are your hopes in terms of female inclusion in the hierarchy? Why is that important, in other words-what is missing without them?

MW: What is missing without them is the truth of the gospel. The message of Jesus is missing. Jesus was inclusive from within a patriarchal system. I am not questioning how we got so patriarchal but why it is we are willing to stay here so long. I have always thought when the apostles were trying to find a replacement for Judas, if they had really gotten the message of Jesus, they would have chosen Mary Magdalene rather than Matthias. Jesus was so open to women.

I have difficulty understanding how we profess equality of everyone at baptism and then exclude women from the priesthood. Of course the real issue goes far beyond women priests. The call is to challenge the system. Without women in leadership, what is missing is soul. There seems to be a fear of the feminine, and this can be seen in both women and men. We need to learn how to be receptive to one another, to explore and dream together, to listen in circles of shared leadership.

Recently, I co-led a workshop for a group of Protestant women. Many of them said to us, "We're sorry your church excludes you from the altar." As I observed the women priests at the altar, however, it seemed like "more of the same" to me. Our whole structure for worship feels too linear. Do women want a piece of the present pie, or do we need to find a way to bake a new pie? How can we work together to create new rituals for a new age? My dream for the church is that men and women will experience liberation by reverently listening to one another's fears. In Christina Baldwin's book, Calling the Circle, she offers the model of a circle for making decisions and solving problems. The aboriginal peoples of past cultures used this model. Perhaps it will become our way for the future.

MHR: I am aware of the Roman Catholic tradition in which you stand. In A Tree Full of Angels, you mention the church's need to become a "church as one in process." For example, you mention its male-dominated leadership. Is this an unpopular position to espouse and defend?

MW: In my community, there is a growing awareness of the need to be more inclusive in leadership, to be a church in process. We talk about these issues in small support groups, at the dinner table, in study seminars. We don't all think alike, yet there is a respect for differing opinions and a willingness to discuss.

In my retreat ministry I'm sometimes asked if I am not becoming a little "new age" in my thinking. This is a title assigned to many things that are actually quite "old age." In my approach to spirituality, I'm very creation-centered and process-oriented. Creation spirituality tends to focus on the truth that all of creation, including humanity, has been created as good. A loving relationship is emphasized and a God who is accessible to us is portrayed. Human beings are seen as caretakers and co-creators of the earth. This positive approach of dwelling on our potential rather than our sinfulness, and on focusing on creation rather than the fall, for some reason, frightens some people. Yet it is as old and older than the book of Genesis. Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Berry are two of my favorite creation theologians.

MHR: You were brought up in a rural pastoral setting. How has your background influenced the way you see life, are inspired to write, and view God?

MW: My growing up in the country influenced my spirituality greatly. I grew up without many material possessions or luxuries. That reality drew forth my creativity. The dreamer was born. My companions were the trees, flowers, plants, fields, and animals. The world of nature was where I experienced God; it was my outdoor chapel.

As I questioned the adults about what God was like, their answers seemed to limp a bit. God appeared to be a bearded old man stashed away in the sky and always watching you. But my favorite childhood image of God were the stars. They were far away and unreachable, yet beautiful and mysterious. I still remember the first time I saw fireflies as a child. I thought the stars were falling. I ran into the house crying out, "Mama, God is coming down!" The fireflies were abundant on that summer evening. When I recall this today, I always think, "Yes, in a way I was right. God was coming."

MHR: When did you realize your soul was sensitive to the Spirit's leading? In other words, when did you recognize that you were an "artist with visions," as you've described it?

MW: I was sensitive to the Spirit's leading as a child, but I didn't have words to name it. My creative and questioning heart came alive, so to speak, when I was a young sister teaching elementary school in Oklahoma. This was because of the influence and guidance of a wonderful priest, Father John Bloms. He was my pastor and did much to draw forth my creativity. He encouraged me to ask my own questions out loud. I used to say, "he was always two jumps ahead of Rome." He was a true prophet blazing the trail for the rest of us.

MHR: At what point did you receive your call?

MW: I am drawn to say, "About two minutes ago." My call has been a process. I didn't fully understand what I was doing when I entered monastic life, just as when people marry they don't exactly know what they're getting into. I grew up in a religious family, attended a girls' boarding school, and was attracted to this way of life.

A real call is one we grow into. If we don't grow into our vocation, we will probably grow out of it. I have struggled, at times, with staying or leaving. I am grateful I have stayed. Mine is an ordinary call and one I am still receiving. The call to monastic life is a call to live the gospel in community.

MHR: How has living in community with your sisters shaped your message and spiritual vision?

MW: Since I'm an introvert, I had to juggle my love for silence and solitude with my need for community. Living in community keeps me real and ordinary. As I lead retreats and write, people have a tendency to turn me into a saint. Here at home I am known and loved with all my faults and blessings.

Community reminds me not to hide. There can be a danger to solitude-I may withdraw because I don't want the hassle of being in relationship with others. There can also be pitfalls to community-I may spend too much time with others to avoid asking the deep personal questions emerging in my life, or to flee the sometimes loneliness of being alone.

Community can be a leveler. The monastic rhythm of the day is both struggle and blessing. The hours of the office, meeting for prayer, are like bookmarks in my life. They help me not lose my place by marking particular times of each day as holy. St. Benedict asks us to put aside whatever we are doing when the bell sounds and join the community in praising God.

There is an increasing interest in monasticism today. Many people are awakening to the need for both solitude and community. For those of us who live daily as monastics, it is easy to get into a routine; our passion can go a little flat. At times it is embarassing for me to notice people getting passionate about a life I often take for granted. Still, it is easier to write and read about the monastic life than to faithfully live it each day. So, sometimes this life may sound a bit more romantic than it is. Still, this growing interest reminds me that what we have here is a wonderful gift.

MHR: I assume there must have been a cost in choosing to be as vulnerable as you have in your writings. What price have you had to pay?

MW: Many people often ask me this question. My vulnerability has helped many to get in touch with their own feelings, so it seems the cost has not been so great as the gift received. I experience wonderful support in my community.

There is a woman who I greatly admire for her vulnerability. Sue Monk Kidd, in her Dance of the Dissident Daughter, gives us a bold story of her journey through the Christian tradition to the sacred feminine. She writes about her awakening to the sin of patriarchy. My experience may not be exactly the same as hers, but I certainly resonate with her story.

MHR: As you sit across from people as a spiritual director, what process do you hope for in yourself and others?

MW: I see myself more as a guide or companion. "Director" sounds too active. I prefer "spiritual companion." Companion in Latin is cum panis, which means "with bread." This suggests that I'm also on the journey. I have not yet arrived.

We are, in some ways, bread for one another's journeys. I try to create a comfortable space so that the seeker can feel safe to explore and ask questions. Encouragement and a reverent presence is important. Many come in darkness, feeling abandoned by God and by others. I encourage them to lean into the darkness rather than fight it. And to lean into their own deep hunger and longing for God. The darkness can be of value. If not for the darkness, would there be the seeking, the hunger? It is only in the darkness we see the stars.

MHR: That makes more sense, given what you've shared about your experience as a little girl. You wrote, "We need to weep over the person we've refused to become." Is this part of what you do with others as their spiritual companion?

MW: We weep in such a way that our tears are not the last word. Tears are cleansing. They remind us that we are still in process, we are jarred back to what this journey is about. In the midst of our weeping there needs to be rejoicing in all the ways God is working in us, and for the many ways we have been faithful to our hunger for God.

MHR: Tell us about your latest project.

MW: The book I am working on now is called, The Gold in your Memories. There is much work being done on healing from abuse and childhood trauma. Much of the focus seems to be on the pain. My book deals with both painful and joyful memories. Its focus, however, is on joyful memories and how beauty and joys from the past can still be healing. As they are called back into our consciousness and integrated into our lives, they can work for our good and bless us even now. There will be exercises at the end of each section to help the reader journal with his or her memories.

MHR: How were your writings discovered?

MW: I think my readers and retreatants have been my best marketers. They spread the word. Many have written and said, "You have put what I am thinking in words. I didn't know there was anyone out there who felt like this."

My writings are experiences that come from my heart. I want to help people discover that their ordinary experiences are sacred. I hope to help them find the holy in the ordinary. The small, daily miracles don't make the headlines, yet these are the real miracles. In the space of a moment they happen; we learn how to live gratefully in the present. Past sorrows need to be integrated into our lives so that healing can take place. If the past still haunts us, we can learn to make new memories. Life is too precious for us to remain victims. The sacrament of the present moment is our greatest gift.