I just finished reading Kathleen Norris' book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I had heard snippets of it in my Rural and Small Church Ministries class at Gettysburg Seminary with Gil Waldkoenig. He was reading it at the time I took that class and used it for opening reflections. It's been on my shelf awhile, courtesy of a priest friend who bequeathed her library to me.
It's a fascinating book about monastic spirituality ... not agriculture. Ms. Norris is originally from NYC and moved to Lemmon SD when she inherited the family home there. Lemmon is due north from where my mother's family came from, so I felt some connection to much of what she described about living in that environment. It's hard for anyone who's never been there to really grasp how vast the sense of space is. You can stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees and see horizon in all directions. At night, the lights in the distance are towns 40-50 miles away. The sheer vastness of space is only equaled by our great deserts. It's a place where you really understand how small you are. The isolation makes you face two realities: your true self and God. Both prospects can be terrifying.
Norris talks about how she became connected to a Benedictine monastery in South Dakota. She eventually became an oblate, living the Rule of Benedict but as an outsider. Interestingly, her monastic retreat experiences and her friendship with the monks brought her back to her Presbyterian tradition and exorcised the "Monster God" her fundamentalist grandmother had imparted to her as a child.
One aspect of Benedict's rule is that we always begin again. Our lives are to be a continuous beginning again and again. I find this concept helpful when I find myself thinking I have things all "figured out." Just when I think I know somebody or something or I think I understand about the nature of God ... well, that's the time to set my thoughts aside and begin again. If I don't, I run the risk of rigidity and hubris. When I think I have things all figured out, I start to miss so many little details precisely because those things don't fit my perception of how things work. I've constructed a box that only lets some things in and leaves so much out.
Benedict's reminder to always begin again challenges me to let go of the boxes I construct and start looking at my relationships again with new eyes. Seeing others and God again for the first time is a challenge, but one which keeps me humble and sharpens my ability to get past my own filters and perceptions.
Advent is a time to begin again. It's the beginning of the new church year. I don't know where God will lead me and my family this year, but I've asked God for the grace to dismantle the boxes I've been holding on to. Happy New Year!