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Elisabeth Meadows, OSB

Elisabeth Meadows, OSBSister Elisabeth Meadows is a Benedictine Sister at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL. She directs the community's retreat center, serves in several other roles within the community, and finds great joy in the 'everyday' of monastic life and in the great gift of sharing life with her sisters in monastic community.

Sister Elisabeth's reflections begin September 1, 2019 and continue through November 2019.

Week of November 24: Hope Whisperers

Week of November 24-30
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Hope Whisperers
I am afraid of fire. Maybe it goes back to the time when I was five or six and my family and I, along with all our neighbors, were standing outside in our bathrobes in the middle of the night watching a nearby structure burn to the ground. Whatever the reason, I am skittish around fire and flame. So when I entered the monastery and was assigned to the sacristy, I found myself feeling some fear as day after day I worked with matches, lighters, candles, and wicks. Yes, I was afraid. And yet there was the necessity of my assigned work.

Somehow, over the years, at the intersection of fear and necessity, I developed a way with candles. Somehow I learned how to coax recalcitrant candles and how to tame ones that had become a bit overwrought. I don’t know how I do it or how I know what to do. I just take a candle and work with it. And somehow, the candle responds. Some in the monastery have called me “the candle whisperer.” 

It happened again tonight. Two Sisters tried unsuccessfully to coax a shy candle into flame. I went up, looked at it, and stirred a bit in the wax. I tried again to light it, the wick caught, and the candle began burning steadily. “What did you do?” I was asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. Because somehow, at the intersection of fear and necessity, I had become a candle whisperer, and one can’t explain these things.

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Week of November 17: From Confusion to Confession

Week of November 17-23
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

From Confusion to Confession
Tonight I was reading a pdf document on the computer that was shrunk down to a miniscule font. Being too lazy to right-size the text with the cursor, I just squinted and read on. When I got to the part of the document about the Prayer of Confusion I was, well, confused. 

What in world is the Prayer of Confusion, I thought. I mean, I’m reasonably well-versed liturgically, but I’ve never heard of that! Squinting even further I saw what it really said: Prayer of Confession. Oh. 

I chuckled to myself over the mistake, but as I thought about it I realized there is hardly a more appropriate malapropism than accidently substituting confusion for confession. 

Truly, I am confused most of the time. I’m even confused in my confession, not always fully aware of my own mistakes or the condition of my own heart. I stumble through confession as I stumble through life, not always knowing the true state of affairs. 

Indeed, I - and dare I say "we" - see through a glass darkly, confused about the extent of our infirmity, or too afraid or too spiritually sluggish to open our hearts to the illuminating light of Christ. We just squint, and walk on in the darkness. 

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Week of November 10: Signs and 'Wanders'

Week of November 10-16
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Signs and 'Wanders'
It seems that with any gathering of people, a gathering of signs inevitably follows, and the monastery is no exception. If you were to wander around our house, you would see signs aplenty. Posted at various places are prayer requests, sign-up sheets, instructions, reminders, thank you notes, meeting minutes, interesting articles, monastic labora assignments, and on and on. 

Mostly, our communication takes place on a person-to-person level – whether one-on-one, at table, at work, in living groups, or in the gathered community. But posted signs are a kind of shorthand that helps keep us organized, on track, and informed. 

Our signs are mostly functional and mundane, dealing with the day-to-daypracticalities of life in community. Yet I would venture to say that there’s something in our postings that transcends mere practicality. Underlying our varied signage is a kind of monastic decorum rooted in respect for individuals and a desire to create an atmosphere that is conducive to seeking God. 

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Week of November 3: Everyday Saints

Week of November 3-9
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Everyday Saints
Yesterday, just in time for the Solemnity of All Saints, I returned to the monastery following my family visit. I drove for hours and hours across the Deep South along roads that flowed like a line of chant through cotton fields and woodlands, towns and cities. The towns formed a kind of litany along the way: Summerville, Bamberg, Denmark, Williston, Augusta, Madison, Atlanta, Bremen, Cedartown, Piedmont, Gadsden, Walnut Grove, Holly Pond, Cullman… 

After a drive that felt endless, I pulled into the monastery parking lot just a few minutes before the Vigil of All Saints. Sister Dominica welcomed me as I entered, Sister Benita helped me carry my luggage up the final flight of stairs, and then I went straight to chapel. We chanted the Litany of the Saints, and as Sister Lynn Marie intoned the names of saint after saint, I thought about the litany of towns I had just driven through, places to live, of course, but also places in which to minister, to heal, to help, to love as Christ loved, to serve as the saints served.

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Week of October 27: The Sidewalk Side

Week of October 27-November 2
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

The Sidewalk Side
Care of the sick and the reception of guests are about the only reasons we don’t head to chapel at the sound of bells, so it was a strange sensation last evening to be standing outside as the final Vespers bell called the community to our evening prayer. Guests were expected though, and it was my charge to greet them, so I planned to pray Vespers at my desk in the Retreat Center office.

As the evening air absorbed the last reverberation of bells, I paused outside the office. Quiet chant began to flow from the open chapel windows and I suddenly realized I didn’t have sit at my desk for Vespers. I pulled a sidewalk chair within a viewing angle of the retreat entrance and grabbed my prayer book. With the retreat center to my right and the chapel to my left, I prayed the Psalms of Friday Vespers surrounded by climbing vines, a delicate breeze, slanting sunlight, and quiet lines of chant that streamed from the chapel windows. 

Our chapel is arranged in traditional monastic fashion with the choir divided into two facing sides. We informally refer to the two as ‘St. Scholastica side’ and ‘St. Benedict side’ based on the statues that anchor the apse. Last night, with the breeze dancing and the Psalms of Vespers flowing, I sat on the ‘sidewalk side,’ yet united as one in prayer with the community in the chapel above me.

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Week of October 20: Strangely Familiar

Week of October 20-26
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Strangely Familiar
Do you know the sensation of simply taking a breath or casting a gaze and being flooded with a sense of memory, as if the air itself, or a even a scattered leaf blowing within it, is familiar, is family, is somehow part of you? Yesterday morning, with sodden maple leaves underfoot and the air damp with laurel and rain, I had that sensation as I gazed across a Blue Ridge horizon. The atmosphere was heavy with a kind of high barometric pressure of familiarity and the memories of many a rainy Blue Ridge day.  It was an atmosphere that I knew, within a landscape that unfolded like an old family quilt. And then, yesterday afternoon, when I opened the car door to the salty, sulfur breeze of the Carolina low country, the same sensation swept over me.  Humid air, palmettos, wooden porch steps – everything felt familiar. 

Each Sister has a family story. We have big brothers and little sisters and favorite aunts and uncles and treasured nieces and nephews. We have hometowns and favorite childhood haunts and landscapes that are etched within our very being. For each of us, certain places and people awaken a sense of home, of familiarity, of family, of memory. Certain vistas unfold like an old family quilt. 

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Week of October 13: The Photographers

Week of October 13-19
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

The Photographers
I answered the Retreat Center phone yesterday and a voice said: “Come to the Sunken Garden, and bring the camera!” A little family of wood ducks was wandering by, and that called for a photograph.

Several of our Sisters enjoy photography, but three of us - Sister Regina, Sister Therese, and myself - are currently the ones most likely to seen with camera in hand as we go about our daily rounds of work and prayer. We take photographs for our website, newsletter, bulletin board, archives - and of course, as a way to experience and enjoy God's beautiful creation. Two cameras float between the three of us and we are constantly passing them back and forth, swapping out USB cables, trading jump drives – and making quick phone calls when a unique shot presents itself, such as a family of wood ducks wandering by. 

Although we share equipment and subject matter, each of us peers through the lens with a slightly different perspective. Sister Regina enjoys taking nature photographs. She is a gardener of roses, vegetables, and saplings; a birder who can identify at a glance just about every winged creature under heaven; and is so at home amongst the blossoms, blooms, and birdhouses on our grounds that you can almost say that she doesn’t take pictures, she grows them . Many of the landscape shots on our website were seen first through her lens. 

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Week of October 6: Fireflies

Week of October 6-12
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Today my hands were filled with many types of work. At various times during the day my hands held a laptop, a chalice, a pitchfork, skeleton keys, dirty dishes, notes for a meeting, a draft brochure, a liturgical vestment catalog, a jump drive, and of course, my prayer books… All in a days work here at the monastery. 

Most of us have a variety of roles within the community. My responsibilities range from hospitality to liturgical music to computers to sacristy to household chores. My full-time ministry is in our Retreat Center, which means that I work at home and thus am able to help with many other day-to-day needs within the monastery. My hands stay full and busy as I move hither and yon about the house tending to the varied responsibilities the community has asked of me. I put down keys and pick up a chalice. I put down the chalice and pick up a flute. I put down the flute and pull a jump drive out of my pocket. I put down the jump drive and pick up my prayer book. All in a days work and prayer… 

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Week of September 29: Grounded

Week of September 29-October 5
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Yesterday, I walked up to our small Lourdes grotto to show Sr. Therese a ground hog burrow I had discovered the day before. (The ground hog is pictured at left, but difficult to see against the earth). As we watched one of the family members peer at us from within his earthen home, I realized this was a good image for earth day, this day of gratitude to God for the gifts of such a beautiful home, its bountiful fruits, and the many other created beings who share this earth with us.

You might say that every day in a monastery is earth day, or better yet, “heaven and earth day” as we daily bring fruits of the earth to the Eucharist to be consecrated for our spiritual sustenance. Also, the Rule of St. Benedict, with its sensible, often earthy, guidance, keeps us grounded in the daily, practical realities of living and working on earth, even as we seek our spiritual home in God. Here at the monastery, nothing happens on an earthly plane that does not have an underlying spiritual dimension. Eternal truths underlie our day-to-day incarnate lives. 

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Week of September 22: Stopping in Our Tracks

Week of September 22-28
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Stopping in Our Tracks
You know how sometimes a work of art, or a beautiful view, or maybe a sublime piece of music will grab your attention and cause you to just stop in your tracks? Whatever it is, you stop, you stay, you stick with it. You return again and again to the painting, or the poem, or the favorite vista. If it’s a piece of music, you listen to it (or play it) over and over, perhaps for years. Whatever it is, there is both depth and beauty, and one encounter is never enough. 

In the last post, I wrote about pausing to look beyond our usual perspectives to encounter the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. Yet we also need to pause and focus and enter into the depth of the matter, not just the breadth. I’ve been reading a book by an art historian who spent months returning, sometimes daily, to the same two paintings, as he came to realize that images don’t revel themselves all at once. There is always more to be seen. 

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Week of September 15: Earthen Vessel Days

Week of September 15-21
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Earthen Vessel Days
Have you read the words of St. Paul about earthen vessels? And have you ever just had ‘one of those days?’

Yesterday I had one of those days – a genuine, bonafide ‘earthen vessel’ day. During Mass, as I prepared the altar for the Presider, I shuffled around in my squeakiest shoes ever, trying to minimize the noise by feebly attempting to move without actually walking, an awkward effort that likely drew even more attention to my noisily shod feet. In the process I unfolded the corporal upside down, clanged the chalices against one another, and none too soon shuffled meekly (and loudly) back to my seat. 

That was just the beginning. In the afternoon I forgot an important meeting. Then I was nearly late to something else and arrived breathless and scattered. Like I said, it was a genuine, bonafide earthen vessel day. Not only did I feel my fragility, it was painfully apparent to everyone around me. 

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Week of September 8: Humility

Week of September 8-14
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Recently at dinner, a Sister somewhat kiddingly asked me if I had gotten a "big head yet." I was mystified by the question and responded “about what?” She then cited an accomplishment from several weeks earlier. I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but inwardly I was thinking – “That was weeks ago. There’s been a hundred leveling events since then.” 

St. Benedict describes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service,” but it wouldn’t be out of line to also call it a "school of humility.” Not only does Benedict emphasize humility in his monastic rule, the life itself moderates inclinations toward pride. 

It’s important, though, to know what humility means to a Benedictine. It doesn’t mean low self-esteem or any of the negative connotations our culture attaches to the term. Rather, for a Benedictine, humility is a virtue to be cultivated. An entire dissertation could be written on St. Benedict's view of humility, but in encapsulated form it can be described as a right view of one’s self before God and before others. We are created in God’s image, yet we are formed of dust and clay. We are both gifted and frail. We are prone to missteps and stumbling, and heroic acts of charity. 

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Week of September 1: Not a Quarter, Not a Crescent

Week of September 1-7
Elisabeth Meadows, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL

Not a quarter, not a crescent

Tonight the moon is so luminously elegant that my impoverished words stop short in approach. Even the stars keep a deferential distance, and the humble sky offers a muted canvas of colorless black.

This moon...under which Abraham tented, the Psalmist sat in awe, the Holy Family slept, St. Paul traveled, holy ones kept vigil, and untold millions - arrayed like stars through the centuries - have lived, slept, suffered, rejoiced... this same moon graces the night sky above us as one by one the windows of Sacred Heart grow dark and we slide into the peacefulness of night.

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