An Exclusive Interview with Sister Macrina Wiederkehr

 

Sister Macrina has lived monastic life for fifty years and makes her home with the Sisters of St. Scholastica, a Benedictine monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The Cathedral Book Store caught up with her for a brief phone chat recently about her recent work and upcoming visit, Thursday, June 27, 7:30 p.m.. This is free lecture and book signing event but please R.s.v.p. to 404-237-7582 or cbs3@mindspring.com

 

Q: In your latest book, Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God, you write that the Bible can seem like a "jumble of words" if we're reading it without a sense of connection. Tell us a bit what you mean by that and how you formed that connection.

Sister Macrina:  The practice of the term lectio divina is known to many people. Ultimately, it means divine or spiritual reading and that has been the background and heart of my monastic prayer. As I learned how to do lectio divina, it was first just a prayerful reading, trying to interiorize what I'm reading and then kind of reworking it from own personal life. Recently, I've taken another look at lectio divina, particularly for this book, and got some wonderful ideas from the Cistercian tradition and Esther de Waal.  First, reading a Bible passage is kind of like looking at a painting - you look at it literally. Then you have to open it.   I like to use the image of taking the husk off, or peeling an orange.  Until you open it,  you can't get the fruit. So that's what I really did in Abide. I sit with that fruit and have to be able to wait.  I know the emphasis in Ignatian prayer is to very much dwell with the word, but mine is a more monastic way of trying to be comfortable in the waiting, not looking necessarily for answers but for union with God.  The connection is always in that you can't hurry and that's so hard for us.

 

Q:  In your experience as a retreat director, what are some common frustrations people voice about developing a practice of contemplative prayer and what advice do you give them?

Sister Macrina:  Busyness is one, but there are also so many distractions since we're in the age of communications, with email, texting and being connected 24/7.  People don't know how to get away from it, especially our young people.  I worry about them.  I do see people who are mid life and older really looking for ways to slow down and wait and listen, but young people need to be called to that. Also, I see discouragement with life in general as another hurdle. Some people want everything fast because we live in world of instant gratification and get discouraged when there aren't ready answers.  One of the things I ask people to do and emphasize in my writing is to watch yourself live.  I don't mean in a judgmental way, but  in that mindfulness, you learn. One of the Benedictine treasures is moderation There's nothing wrong about the computer or email  but we have to stop and ask how can we be moderate. One of the things I've discovered is abstinence is easier than moderation. Dwell on that a little. Moderation is healthier, but really abstaining is almost easier. It's very difficult to be moderate, but we long to be moderate.

 

Q:  In your book Seven Sacred Pauses, you focus on prayer at special times during the day. What are some of the benefits of that practice?

Sister Macrina:  Well, it helps call you to mindfulness. I don't belong to a cloistered community and we don't pray all seven hours. But in that book, I was trying to do a meditation on the sacredness of the special themes of each hour and encourage people that this isn't about bringing all your prayer books into a chapel, you can do this even sitting in your office chair. I use hours as a metaphor and a help.  In mid-morning hour, for example, my prayer focus is on the sacredness of work, which is very dear to me and something our world really needs to hear. Many people have to work at jobs that are too small for their souls, but the attitude we bring to our work is so important. In the Benedictine tradition, we really stress that work is sacred.  Try to focus on "being prayer" rather than just "saying prayer." One must be aware that "drivenness" not healthy for the soul.

 

Q: What are some of your daily spiritual practices?

Sister Macrina:  I'd like to first mention that when I say monk, I'm really talking male and female - I'm talking about monastics living in a community under a rule.  People come to our monastery and are surprised how busy we are. I also find myself getting far too busy, since I do apostolic works too, going out and leading retreats. I say a monk doing apostolic works without a monastic heart is deadly.  We have to find ways in the midst of that busyness to keep these spiritual practices alive. To keep that sense of a monastic heart, I have to create my own sacro specio, sacred space, and I have to find ways to do that. It's not just about going to chapel to pray at certain hours.

Of course, one way is doing lectio divina in the morning. Another is to try and wake up "awake" as a practice. I don't just jump out of bed, but I try to be really aware of morning, that a new day is being given to me and in my prayer, I try to open myself up to that practice of presence. St Benedict's call for us is to simply live in the presence of Christ. And Christ is in one another so we also live in the presence of one another. Since I live in community, one of the things we're asked in the rule is to be mutually obedient to one another. That can be a little complicated to understand. It doesn't mean being a doormat for each other or slave to each other's wishes. The word obedience means listening. It's a listening. If I live in community, then we listen to one another, even listen to what's not said. We're aware of one another. That is all part of the practice.

 

Q: You've collaborated with musician Velma Frye on a CD  "Seven Sacred Pauses: Singing Mindfully Dawn Through Dark," that you often use on retreats. Tell us a bit about the role of music in prayer. 

Sister Macrina: When I was working on Seven Sacred Pauses,  I was so aware it would be wonderful to have some chants or prayers put to music so that we could sing those or listen to them.  I'm the first nun Velma had ever met. It was kind of nice she didn't know a lot about about the practice of praying the hours. So we went off to Dog Island in Florida. I talked about the hours, and we lived them. I had my prayers and she wrote the music and we sang it. It's been a wonderful companion and help for the book.  It's a different kind of music than one might be expecting for what we call the liturgical hours, not traditional chants. But one goal was to offer Seven Sacred Pauses and the music to a wider audience, people who may not know a lot about the liturgy, maybe even the unchurched, something anyone with this spiritual longing for presence could relate to.  When I use the CD to teach, I tell people to listen to the music, even sing, then after it to be silent, alternate song and silence. Velma has a second CD called Take Heart,  and I plan to use a song from that called "Ever Flowing," in my talk at the Cathedral, since that's kind of my image of what a monk needs to be.

 

Q: What do you find most gratifying about writing?

Sister Macrina:  When I write a book, writing it is one thing and living it is another. And even now, after I look at Abide, sometimes I think of all the comments I hear from people about it, and I think I need to go back and read it again. And pray it again. The most frequent comments I get from my readers is that what I write resonates with where they are, what they're feeling in their search for God, but don't have the words to express. I'm really happy about that.

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