Wednesday, February 22, 2012

'To putter is to discover'

It was the perfect setting for a bookstore.

When I stepped inside Bethany Books in Bridgewater, I entered a magical place like Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden.”

The old Victorian clad with delightful architectural flourishes lured me through a maze of small rooms, each stuffed with all sorts of interesting books and bric-a-brac, resting on shelves and displayed in nooks and crannies.

A writer’s dream assignment, I remember counting my blessings as I wandered around the house on company time, enthralled by my surroundings.

When I reluctantly left a longtime later, I took with me the makings of a fine story, as well as a paper bag tucked under my arm, a souvenir of my visit.

The red and yellow cover had attracted me, and once I read the title, I knew that I wouldn’t be making much on this assignment. I bought the book.

Now 25 years old, “Living a Beautiful Life” by Alexandra Stoddard is still one of my favorite books.

The how-to book is chock-full of wonderful suggestions, but the most valuable piece of information is the pastime I adopted and incorporated into my own life, the author’s penchant for puttering.

Webster’s “New World Dictionary” defines “puttering” as “frittering and busying oneself in an ineffective way,” but Stoddard disagrees.  

“Puttering is really a time to be alone, to dream and to get in touch with yourself,” said Stoddard. “Plan for this kind of essential, unstructured time alone; give yourself time to become influenced by your private feelings.”
This winding road leads to our summer house by the sea.

 At our seaside place in Tiverton, we get the concept of puttering. One can saunter in the sand seeking sea glass, sit on a rock and gaze at the crest and fall of the waves for hours, or take a dip in the ocean and air dry slowly under the warm summer sun.

Leisure time lends itself to quiet contemplation and puttering.

But lessons learned at the beach are easily forgotten at home.

“I’ve noticed that many people have a tendency to save up 95 percent of their money and effort to spend on 5 percent of their lives,” said Stoddard. “Instead, the way to live a beautiful life is to make the daily 95 percent of your life wonderful.”

While I write this in my home office, I look out the window and see bands of blue sky, squirrels running along the branches of the oak, and tranquil pond waters across the street. These little breaks spark the creative process.

Folding a load of laundry, washing a sink full of dishes, making beds, stirring cake batter, taking out the trash – all these routine tasks offer unhurried time to ponder.

Puttering around the house, “you’re free to let your mind travel to new distances,” said Stoddard. “The smallest gem of an idea can turn into a real jewel, and puttering allows you time and space to develop your concept. To putter is to discover.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All creatures great and small

When I awoke this morning, I peered through the window and saw movement in the woods behind our house. As my vision cleared, I made out the outlines of two white-tailed deer.

Living in dense woods populated with hundred-foot pines, I am accustomed to coming upon these beautiful and gentle gray-brown animals, but it was a welcome surprise to observe them unannounced outside my bedroom window.

Even in winter, I dwell in a veritable zoo. Twenty wild turkeys congregate in my neighbor’s front yard. A family of geese lines up in single file and takes their time crossing the street, while an impatient driver honks to no avail.

Our bird feeder attracts a menagerie of fine-feathered friends, especially my favorite couple, the bright red Northern cardinal and his buffy-brown mate, who take turns nibbling delicately on the seeds.

We also feed many uninvited guests. A freeloading Eastern gray squirrel hangs upside down from the kennel fence just in reach of the bird seed, while our Jack Russell terrier growls beneath. The squirrel chatters and clucks as he overfills his mouth, puffing out his cheeks.

Finding the feeder empty, the brash blue jays complain.

Even with the constant companionship of these incredible creatures, I catch cabin fever in the middle of February and succumb to the seasonal malady. In deep winter, the house in the forest can feel confining after a glut of short, lackluster days with little sunshine. I start climbing the walls.

“Most of us, I thought, are caged in some way all our lives,” said Gladys Taber in “Country Chronicle.” “There are walls and bars and fences of all kinds, invisible but tangible. We spend a great deal of time climbing over obstacles – perhaps this is what life is all about. But we must all, I think, long for a brief time of real freedom outside the restrictions of our existence.”

Seeking escape, I yearn for open spaces, and I head to our summer place by the sea 40 minutes away. At the beach, the truck navigates over frozen tundra, the stretch of sand interrupted by occasional potholes brimming with icy shards.

The winter sun cannot penetrate the windshield to warm the small cabin, and when the wind whistles, it rocks the vehicle and sends shivers down my spine.

In discomfort with my arms wrapped tightly about me, I gaze at the steel gray seas that lure me away from the rigors of a New England winter and direct my thoughts to the beauty before me. I feel a calming presence as I realize there is so much greater than ourselves at work here.

“Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we try to muffle its demands in distractions,” said Anne Morrow Lindbergh in “Gift from the Sea.” “Instead of stilling the center, the axis of the wheel, we add more centrifugal activities to our lives – which tend to throw us off balance.”

The truck’s heater hums, and I slowly begin to thaw. The warm air circulates, and sitting in silence, I feel warmth radiating from within.

Seagulls stand together on the seashore, buffeting themselves against gale-force winds. The sea pulses with life, teeming beneath the waves.  

The old Anglican hymn by Cecil F. Alexander comes to mind:

“All things bright and beautiful, / All creatures great and small, / All things wise and wonderful, / The Lord God made them all.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The gentle, generous spiritual perspective of Sister Vilma

Walking by the sea, I am on pilgrimage in close companionship with saints.

“Solvitur ambulando,” confesses St. Augustine. It is solved by walking.

St. Benedict instructs: “Be mindful of the little things.”

“May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be,” assures St. Therese of Lisieux, the foundress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns.

Today my journey is filled with visions of one of her own, Sister Vilma Mathilde Seelaus of the Infant Jesus.

A kindred spirit, she took frequent walks along the shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

“Vilma gradually began to see the power and glory of God even in each little grain of sand on the beach – the power of God holding it in existence, the glory of God who made it uniquely different from every other grain of sand on the face of the earth,” said Carmelite Father Kevin Culligan, a close friend of Sister Vilma’s for over 40 years. “And if God’s power and glory are in each grain of sand of the beach, how much more, she concluded, must the divine power and glory be present in each human being? In fact, she realized, God is everywhere. And the fruit of this realization was Vilma’s great reverence for life, for all of creation, for each human being.”

Born in Philadelphia, Sister Vilma entered the Carmelite community in Newport in 1946.

As the years went by and they discovered her many talents, she was called upon to serve her sisters as a director of formation of new members and then as prioress or local superior.

Eventually, when Vatican II called for the renewal of religious life, Sister Vilma was asked to serve in leadership on a national level with the Association of Contemplative Sisters and the Carmelite Communities Associated.

As a young nun, she had discovered a translation of the 19th-century theological masterpiece “The Mysteries of Christianity,” by Matthias Joseph Scheeban. Likewise, she found God speaking to her in books of contemporary psychology.

“She reasoned, rightly, the more she could understand persons from a human, psychological perspective, the better prepared she was to understand this mystery of the divine-human interrelationship which was the consuming interest of her life,” Culligan said.

Her understanding of Scripture, theology, psychology and other sciences manifested itself in both the depth and balance of the books and articles she wrote, her taped lectures, and other conferences and talks.

“Her reading especially bore fruit in the wise personal guidance she provided, both for her Carmelite sisters and brothers, and for so many other men and women beyond Carmel,” said Culligan.

Twenty-two years ago, a group of psychotherapists and caregivers formed at Sister Vilma’s monastery to explore the connection between psychology and spirituality.

“The therapists brought their applied knowledge of the theory and practice of psychotherapy while Vilma supplied the spiritual perspective,” said Dan Musholt, a clinical social worker. “The group’s monthly discussions might involve taking on some difficult psycho-spiritual issue, such as the persistence of evil or the process of addiction.”

He added that the members always valued Sister Vilma’s gentle, generous perspective that the divine presence permeates all of human life – the dark parts and the light.

“Group members invariably left each meeting feeling renewed by the power and presence of Spirit,” he said.

According to Ethel Fraga, a member of Contemplative Outreach and a Centering Prayer facilitator, Sister Vilma also worked on the Carmelite Forum with other nuns and friars, committed to interpreting the texts of Carmelite mystics, including John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity.

“She lectured and wrote for 15 years as a member of the Forum, which drew people to hear the works of the Carmelite mystics reinterpreted for a new age,” Fraga said. “Her book on Elizabeth of the Trinity will be published during Lent.”

Sister Vilma died on Jan. 26.

“I could feel her presence next to me as I prepared this homily, and she kept nudging me to allow her to speak to you today,” said Culligan to those gathered at her Mass of Christian Burial. "She told me, 'Tell them how important the divine-human relationship is. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we are always in relationship with God, whose power and providence sustain us in every moment of our lives. This is also our most important interpersonal relationship, potentially more intimate than the relationship of spouses, more faithful than parents for their children, more lasting than the best of friends. Encourage them to make this relationship the center of their lives, and they will discover the secret of human happiness and fulfillment.'”

Vintage Vilma.

Sister Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D.