@story TONYA MCCOY
@images SISTER MACRINA
Sister Macrina Wiederkehr stands at a podium, occasionally lifting her hand to her heart while she speaks. Below her on a table flickers a candle beside a rock with these two words carved into it: “Be Still.”
She looks thoughtfully at the group of about thirty that’s gathered for her retreat called “Discovering the Monk Within,“ at Saint Scholastica in Fort Smith. She says, “I could sit at your feet. I really could.” She explains, saying this means she can learn from others.
But on this day she is the teacher, and she looks the part. Instead of the traditional habit, she wears a gray jacket, and peers over her glasses as she speaks. Sister Macrina is advising her pupils on their spiritual journey to “Be Still.” This is an alien concept in the age of multi-taskers, WiFi cafes, and on-demand everything.
Sister Macrina grew up on a busy farm herself. She worked in the family vineyards including the vineyard that had belonged to her grandfather, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr, who emigrated from Switzerland and started the Wiederkehr winery in Altus. She was drawn to the spiritual life at the early life of seventeen, when she entered the monastery. However, if you ask her when she decided to become a nun, she’ll tell you “this morning.” Sister Macrina explains, “We begin again each day. No matter what vocation in life we choose, seldom do we have a clear image of what it really entails and this is why we have to make a commitment over and over again.”
And Sister Macrina says that busy-ness has even crept through the peaceful walls of the monastery. She has several projects she is working on herself, including her eighth book called “Abide.” But today she stops her writing to urge her students to carve out time in each hectic day to “Be Quiet.”
She explains that the word monk comes from the root monos meaning single or alone. Some groups of monks through the ages, both Buddhist and Catholic, have taken vows of silence to obtain a closer spiritual connection. To help set a peaceful mood and prepare her students for silence, Sister Macrina clicks through her iPod until she finds a prayer of hers, set to music by Velma Frye (www.velmafrye.com).
O, ever-changing God, protect us from congealing,
Ever flowing, ever flowing, ever flowing, ever flowing.
‘Til we flow into a Sacred Stream,
‘Til we flow into that Eternal Drink which is You.
Then pour us back into the world and let the flowing begin again,
And again, and again, and again.
“And so I send you forth…”
At this retreat there are about three hours of the day spent in total silence.
“I am not a quiet person. I thought there is no way in the world I am going to be able to be quiet,” says Jacqueline Lobb, who has been on a previous “quiet” retreat with Sister Macrina. Jacqueline’s friends didn’t think she had the willpower to be quiet, “And when I told people I was going to go on this retreat, they just laughed… but I loved being quiet.”
Jacqueline says her spiritual journey began shortly after she’d read “Eat Pray Love.” She empathized with author Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to find happiness, balance, and God. “The book may have been the catalyst for me realizing I needed a change in my life.
“I was at a crossroads in my life and in my marriage. I was trying to figure out up from down and which way to go. I’m from Fayetteville and I didn’t even know St. Scholastica was here; I’d never even heard of Sister Macrina. It was in a bulletin that there was going to be a retreat, and it was called Soul Writing, and I thought – that’s what I need... I filled up an entire journal.”
Jacqueline told Sister Macrina that she was thinking about pursuing a career in film, but was afraid that it might be an unwise decision. “Sister Macrina said, ‘You need to just follow that, keep listening.’ She also told me that the difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”
After the retreat Jacqueline quit her job as a teacher to pursue her dream to be a filmmaker. She completed a summer film program and now runs her own business called Pointhouse Productions (www.pointhouseproductions.com). Also, she and her husband were able to renew their marriage. But most importantly, she is happy.
Fellow retreater Cari Kaufman, who’s from Lowell, hasn’t read “Eat Pray Love,” but says she’s been searching for a spiritual connection for much of her life.
Cari investigated several religions and philosophies, including the pagan form of modern witchcraft: Wicca. She even helped get Wicca recognized as an organized religion in the military, while she was in the Army. But none of her searching gave her the connection she was looking for. Now, as a Baptist teacher, she is content, and hopes this retreat will help her to further her spiritual journey through “quiet.”
“I wanted to experience a deeper sense of quiet. And part of the reason I came was to slow my mind down a bit.” And some days Cari’s mind races. She is a published author and holds seminars for women about building close communities and becoming closer to God. After writing her book “Living with Strings Attached,” she started a website and ministry at www.stringsattachedministries.com. She’s even considering leading a mission trip for women in India.
“If you want to mobilize a nation, you have to mobilize the women. They are the heartbeat of the family.”
And about ninety-nine percent of the people on this retreat are women. Jacqueline and Cari are just two examples of the busy, successful women that Sister Macrina is ministering to today.
Sister Macrina rings a small bell and as it vibrates around the circle of students. She says, “Put your hand on your heart and just listen.” All you can hear is the hum of the heater, as you feel the thump of your heart. Just outside cars are hustling down the street to soccer games, the mall, the park. But for several minutes, there is peace within these walls, in this haven for meditation.
Tips from Sister Macrina for Channeling your Inner Monk:
-Listen. Be aware and present in each moment.
-Silence. Carve out more time every day to sit in still silence in communion with God. She urges students to search for a balance between community and solitude.
-Poverty. Donate or give away what you do not need.
-Obedience. She explains this does not mean to be a “door mat,” but to put others needs before yours.
-Environmentalism. She encourages students to be stewards of the earth, and explains that we should take care of the planet we sometimes take for granted.
If you’re interested in taking part in a retreat at St. Scholastica, you can find a schedule at www.stscho.org. For Sister Macrina’s retreats simply click on the link that says ‘Macrina Wiederkehr.’