Class Visit to Merton’s Hermitage

One of the benefits of participating in the M.A. in Spirituality program is the opportunity to spend time at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Dr. Greg Hillis, director of the M.A. in Spirituality program, recently taught MAS 555 – Introduction to the Life and Thought of Thomas Merton, and as part of the class, he and the students traveled to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a day.  Br. Paul Quenon, a poet who was a novice under Merton, took us to Merton’s hermitage where we talked about Merton’s poetry and ate together.  One of the students, Susan Moorefield, took beautiful pictures during our time at the Abbey and the hermitage. Enjoy.


Hiking out to the hermitage


The Abbey of Gethsemani


On our way out to the hermitage



At Merton’s hermitage



Hanging outside the door of Merton’s hermitage



Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO.



Br. Paul talking about Merton’s poetry in Merton’s hermitage



Student speaking with Br. Paul



Students inside Merton’s hermitage



Students inside Merton’s hermitage



One of our students in the hermitage



Dr. Greg Hillis with one of the students

Merton's hermitage from a distance

Merton’s hermitage from a distance

Praying with Photographic Images, or Visio Divina

Liz MatneyLiz Matney graduated from Bellarmine’s MAS program in 2006. She is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s program for leading contemplative prayer groups and retreats. Liz is senior business development manager for Networld Media Group. She loves mixing photography and spirituality in what is now popularly termed “contemplative photography.” She can be reached by email at

“Photography is the art of exclusion, made so by the fact that it forces us to place what matters inside a frame, excluding all else. It’s a story-telling device of extraordinary elegance and simplicity. And by that act of exclusion we point more powerfully to the things within the frame, saying without words, because they aren’t needed when the photograph is clear, Look at this!”David duChemin, Introduction to Seven

We are bombarded with photographic images today. Almost everyone has a phone with a camera. Images are posted on Instagram, Facebook, FlickR, blogs, websites, etc. We see images on TV, in magazines and newspapers.  The photos are of friends, food, family, pets, vacations, weddings, war, bombings, tornadoes, floods, famine, etc.  How long do you spend looking at individual photos – seconds? Do you pause and consider an image deeply – or glance quickly? Do you notice details in the photo – or do your eyes dart to the next image?

You may argue that the type of image matters. How many photos of your friends’ food invite you to look deeper?  If you look at these photos below, you may think “cute cat” and move on to the next photo within seconds.#3  #2#1But I offer an opportunity to explore an image for a bit longer. I challenge you to look inside the frame of the photo below and “Look at this” in the same manner as reading scripture using the practice of Lectio Divina. This goes by several names, some of which are “praying with images” or Visio Divina. I’ll go out on a limb and say it could be considered a version of praying with icons.

 “Attentive physical seeing opens a doorway into spiritual seeing. Practice in this kind of seeing opens our spiritual eyes to see beyond the surface of things to the deeper spiritual realities that lie beyond and beneath.”  – Juliet Benner, interview in the journal Conversations

I invite you to use this attentive seeing and enter into the contemplative prayer practice of Visio Divina using the image and the five steps outlined below.

(It is helpful if the photo is printed out so it can be held, or placed on a table in front of you. An electronic device can be used, but be sure it doesn’t automatically turn off.)

#4Visio Divina

  1. Explore the image. Look at everything within the frame – objects, patterns, shapes, textures, lines, light, and colors. Look for at least 2 minutes. Journal any notes you wish to make about the image.
  2. Look deeper. Where are your eyes drawn? What feelings or judgments arise? Engaging your imagination, enter the image and walk around. Where are you? What are you doing? Do you see something differently from this vantage point? What relationships do you notice? Look deeply for at least 3 minutes. Journal your reflections.
  3. Allow the image to lead you into a time of prayer. Silently, offer prayers to God of gratitude, intercession, lament, confession, or praise – whatever wells up in you. If you wish, journal these prayers.
  4. Adjust your sitting position so that you are comfortable. You can continue looking at the image with a soft gaze, or close your eyes. Release tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, legs and feet. Breathe deeply and slowly. Find your quiet center.  Rest in this quiet for 10-15 minutes, being open to God’s presence within you. Allow thoughts to drift past you as if they were clouds. If your mind wanders, with soft eyes, look at the image again, or bring an awareness of the image into your mind. At the end of this time, slowly open your eyes. Breathe deeply. Journal any insights you want to remember, actions you are invited to take, and any thoughts or feelings that are present. You may have only had random thoughts flying though your mind the entire time. Journal about that. Be gentle with yourself and have no expectations of grand revelations. The point is to practice and to offer quiet time to be attentive to God’s presence.
  5. Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

Consider offering this time to be with God a few times each week. Consider using images to enter into prayer. Take time to learn what God wants to say to you through a specific image.

But I’m realistic and know that we don’t always have 30-45 minutes for this prayer practice. So I offer some options when you have less time, or are not in a situation that would allow you to close your eyes:

  1. Have a few minutes while waiting for an appointment? Consider the photos stored in your phone, tablet or computer. Select a photo of a loved one, looking deeply, offer prayers of intercession or gratitude.
  2. Reading the newspaper, a magazine or the news on the internet? Look at the images, selecting one that draws you in. Spend time with that image and offer a prayer for the person/people, situation, or place.
  3. No camera? It doesn’t seem like the right time or place to pull out your phone and snap a photo? With your mind’s eye, “take” a photograph of what’s in front of you. Image a frame. Hold that image in your mind. What attracted you to this “image”? Why did you include – or exclude – objects, people, animals or things? Offer a prayer to God about this “image.”
  4. At a museum? Take time to look deeply at art – photographs, painting, sculpture, etc. The Louvre reports that the average time spent in front of the Mona Lisa is 15 seconds. When I was at the Louvre there was a long pushy line, so I can understand this short viewing time. However at most museums and galleries, you can find a piece of art that allows you to spend more time viewing it. If there is a seat, sit and look deeply at the artwork. Take it in. Explore it. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God, the artist and the museum. If you have your journal, or a piece of paper, journal your thoughts and feelings about the experience.

I hope that exploring and praying with images in this manner helps bring to you an awareness of our ever-present God. I hope you begin a practice of seeing within the frame to “Look at this” and open yourself to God through Visio Divina. For “In prayer we see all things in a new light” – Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs


Dan DykstraDan Dykstra is a science teacher at Assumption High School in Louisville, KY, where he leads student retreats, facilitates parent prayers services, and takes student groups on both national and international mission trips.  Dan is a graduate of UC Berkeley, Spalding, and Bellarmine, having earned the MAS in 2007.  Dan is married to Cathe Dykstra, CEO of Family Scholar House.  He is currently undergoing formation to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church.



Every year, on the first day of school, I show my students two photographs, one of a woman meditating, another of two women conducting a science experiment.

I ask, “How are these scenes similar; how are they different?”

It is clear to most that both scenes depict women concentrating on a specific task.  Yet, they differ in the task upon which they show the women concentrating, one showing an internal investigation, the other external.

“Both are valid, important investigations,” I say.  It is then that I prepare my students for the split.  “Our study this year, I tell them, will be centered on the second type of investigation, that pertaining to the external”.Science

Upon entering my classroom door for the first time every year, my students have already studied the creation myths of several civilizations, Babylonian, Mayan, Yoruba, each imaginatively blending corporeal with divine.  So the cosmological story offered by physics that I share with them, one devoid of any mention of God, stands in contrast and leaves itself open to being considered atheistic.

The orthodox Jew refrains from saying God’s name, the name which is unutterable, and the Muslim paints neither a picture nor erects a sculpture of God, that which any representation of would fall infinitely short of depicting.  They both recognize their inability to define God, to place God in any box, physical or intellectual. Yet, do we not seek God precisely there, in Temple and Mosque, the very places where God’s name is neither spoken nor his likeness revealed?

We do.

So too with science, the most reverent of disciplines.  In science no mention is made of God, not out of disrespect, but in acknowledgment that its external investigation is ill-equipped for the task.  Yet, surprisingly, the immersion into science, not unlike the immersion in Temple or Mosque, can fill one with awe that transcends description, an awe that would only be ridiculed and limited by putting a name on it or shaping it into sculpture.

Cultivating Peace

Hinson-Hasty 2Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University.  She has taught several courses in the MAS program including Social Mysticism, Women, Mysticism, and Liberation, and Spirituality and Justice: An International Experience on site in Kerala, India.  In November, Dr. Hinson-Hasty will explore “The Problem of Wealth” when she gives The George and Jean Edwards Lecture on Peacemaking at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The eyes of the international community are turned upon the reports in the news media of “blood and chaos” in Cairo’s streets and war and violence in Syria and Lebanon.  You will likely be keeping up with this news.  These events have caused me to think a lot about peace, or the lack of it, in recent days.

But, it is not just the crisis in the Middle East that has captured my attention.  This summer I spent the month of July in New York City where I was a part of a Research Colloquium sponsored by Cross Currents and Auburn Seminary.  My fellowship focused on “Moral Economy.”  I spent a great deal of time reading about the widening wealth gap in the US and around the globe.  Today, there are 46.2 million people living in poverty in the US while at the same time we are one of the world’s richest countries.  The situation is more alarming on the global scale.  According to the World Bank, in 2010, there were 2.4 billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day.  Statistics never adequately capture the chronic instability experienced by people living in poverty.  Many more examples could be given and I am sure also come to your mind.  How can we know or experience true peace in this context?  I am increasingly aware of the sense of moral incoherence that I experience as I try to live out my faith in a world where people and the earth are threatened by violence and are too often sacrificed for the sake of money and the creation of wealth.

It is tempting to say enough is enough and to put up a white flag of surrender.  Maybe it is time to retreat from the world and find a way to escape by journeying inward.  However, ethicist Roger Gottlieb wisely counsels us that spiritual teachings offer us peace, but not a place to hide.  We are all bound up in an intricate web of mutuality that invites us to enter into a “detailed examination of our own place in the social realm” (Gottlieb, A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth, 29).  Our personal spiritual development necessarily leads us outward.  Once we begin to examine our place in a larger web of life we have to wonder how we can play a role in cultivating peace on this earth.

Cultivating peace and connecting the inward spiritual journey with outward social action are consistent themes in a Master of Arts in Spirituality course that I am teaching on Social Mysticism this August.  Fourteen of us are now gathering around the table in the Merton Center on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to explore the writings and experiences of social mystics.  You may be familiar with some of their names—Mother Ann Lee, Vida Dutton Scudder, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day.  I know that I have found solace and encouragement in many of the practices, disciplines, and experiences that these great spiritual guides hold in common.

The social mystics nurture a “double vision” by blending together their impulses toward mysticism and social passion.  They experience the divine in the midst of the ordinary—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, bathing children, cultivating the soil, creating goods to be sold or shared.  For the social mystic, social activities are not just ends in themselves, but expressions of resistance to social and political artifices that create false boundaries between people, the earth, and God.  Their “double vision” enables them to develop a deep theological imagination for new communities in which people can live in peace with each other, God, and the earth.

There are a few times in my life when I have been able to sit at the feet and embrace the practices of real, live social mystics.  One in particular that comes to mind is Bev Cosby, a co-founder of Church of the Covenant in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Bev was truly a spiritual guide.  The Church of the Covenant began in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War and movement for Civil Rights for African American people.  Those who commit themselves to the Church of the Covenant begin their journey with a retreat and pledge to engage in mission in one of the large network of ministries established throughout the city. The Church of the Covenant is a school for peacemakers although it holds no accreditation certificates and grants no degrees.

My husband and I started our married journey in Lynchburg.  The extensive responsibilities he had as a pastor of a local church and my own work with an interfaith social ministry left us with the feeling that we needed a place to recharge our own batteries.  I can remember many times sitting in a circle in the living room with Bev and others gathered for evening prayer in the main house on the church’s property just before we served a meal at the Lodge of the Fisherman.  We found a place of refuge and rejuvenation at the Church of the Covenant. Bev, had been a leader in the city for decades, but he sat there in the circle, chair-to-chair, with us, two recent seminary grads who at that time couldn’t be more “green.”  It didn’t take us long to realize that Bev’s prayers themselves were a form of social action.  After evening prayer, we walked together from the main house to the Lodge of the Fisherman where we served a weekly meal.  We set the table together, stood side by side in the kitchen, served dinner to anyone who came, and then rolled up our sleeves to wash dishes later.  It didn’t matter who came or what you could pay.  We just ate together, often heard a presentation about a pressing social, political, or economic problem, and then intentionally listened to each other and talked about things that make for peace.  Through those conversations we discovered how our own experience of God could confront the world’s needs.  Examining this week’s events, I think it is time for us to come back to the table.

I wonder how you cultivate peace.  What are the practices that you think make for peace?  Who have you encountered in our life that enabled you to bring together your experience of God with your own social passion?

“Looking at Jesus seriously changes things”

IMG_0172Christephor Gilbert is a current student in the M.A. in Spirituality Program.

Since 2010 I have been ride a wave of discernment:  what is God calling me to do, and when and how?  After a lifetime of not being part of a formal Christian community, I was baptized in the Lutheran Church, and went through a programmed confirmation process.  By acting on the impulse of the Holy Spirit, by feeling (in the words of Howard Thurman in his Meditations of the Heart) “for a moment, I had been brushed by the angel’s wings,” I came into a deeper understanding of Christianity (92).   I realized I was called to be in community, a member of the body of Christ!  Tied to Christ’s “easy yoke” I saw that to understand what God wants, you first walk with Jesus, and those that walked with him (Matt. 11:30).  Such a simple task, but such an enormous one!

In November of last year I embarked on a project for my church:  the creation of a new series of banners for the Season of Epiphany.  As a would-be-fiber-artists-and-sometimes-costume-designer, the extension into liturgical visual arts was a natural one.  But I asked myself:  Why do I feel called to engage God through the medium of visual IMG_0679art?  Other than the important realization that prayer and meditation in-and-through the things we do allows us to hear the voice of God (our hearts to God, and hands to work if you were a Shaker), how do pretty pictures in one house of worship represent Jesus’ call:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt. 4:19)?  Shouldn’t I be doing something more for the church, the community and the world?

I sensed, in the process of making these Epiphany banners for the church, that they were something more than just objects of art.  As I layered fabric upon fabric, wove strips together and apart, started an idea only to scrap it and find something more interesting and beautiful, my mind was in a state of prayer:  breathing, words to God, reflection, conversation.  I was caught up in the story and the idea of Epiphany:  God is revealed to us in the Incarnation; Jesus is revealed to us in the Nativity; the Holy Spirit is revealed to us at the celebration of Pentecost; we are revealed to God and to each other in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.  From the mystical place of intimate conversation with God, I was creating an icon, an image of the power and mystery of God.IMG_0681

Rowan Williams writes in The Dwelling of the Light (his meditations on Eastern Christian icons): “ . . .If we know what we’re doing when we represent Jesus, if we approach the whole matter in prayer and adoration, the image that is made becomes in turn something that in its own way radiates this light and force” (xvi).  Therefore, if my artwork is made with intention toward a personal connection with God, the very product will in turn inspire others to reflect more deeply on their understanding of Jesus and those he encountered.

“Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not what to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long” (Williams 13).  If each person is connected as the body of Christ in this world, then one person’s experience can be the butterfly effect that changes another’s perception.  I am hopeful that through the spiritual practice of art making, I can deepen my connection to God, my heart filled with the acts of the human Jesus who becomes our Christ, and follow the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit.  I encourage everyone to stop, listen, and realize that each of you has a gift that most certainly fulfills Jesus’ call to “follow me!”

Here are a few more examples of the banners Christephor made:

Image 4 Image 3 IMG_0720 - Version 2 Image

My Summer Vacation

BuddiesBetty Muse is a 2012 graduate of the MAS program.  She is a nurse and works in the area of compliance for a local health care system.  She has a deep love for music and plays flute in two community bands and sings in the church choir.

Do you remember when you were young and when school started in the fall you were required to write a short paper on ‘what you did on your summer vacation?’  Though still summer, I thought I would reflect on a trip I made in late June to my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Steelers and Penguins and still home to some of my family and college friends.  During that trip, I had an opportunity to catch up with my rapidly growing great-nephew, stay with my sister and brother- in-law, visit a dear friend and go to Phipps Conservatory.  So why write about the brief 5-day stay?

During my vacation three things stuck out: my great-nephew was beginning his first independent steps after a time of walking and hugging onto everything in his path; my brother-in-law was recuperating from knee replacement surgery and adjusting to his new joint; and I saw butterflies emerging from their chrysalis preparing for their first flights at the beautiful Phipps Conservatory.

You might wonder what these things have in common; what I saw was inner strength and encouragement from others.  Here are the facts of the week:

When the butterfly emerges from the ‘chrysalis’ (to most of us cocoon); its wings are small and wet, and the butterfly cannot fly. The butterfly must pump fluids from its abdomen through the veins in its wings so that the wings can expand.  Next, the wings dry and the butterfly exercises the muscles of the wings.  If touched during this process, the butterfly may not ever fly and may not survive.  The butterfly’s survival is dependent on its ability to exercise.

Now look at my great-nephew, help as we all may want, and we can a bit, until he develops the appropriate muscle tone and balance and loses the fear of his first of many head bumps, his parents can assist all they want, but a lot of the navigation process is up to him.

Finally, my brother-in-law; after his knee replacement there were a lot of passive and active exercises required to heal the muscles and tendons and restore his ability to bend his joint and eventually walk pain free.  Though therapists and family assisted him, the strengthening of his muscles and the ability to walk again was dependent on his strength.

After this vacation I thought of a lot of things, creation, Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well;” and the source of inner strength, Psalm 121:2, “My help comes from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.”

I was reminded that the strength for growth, development and healing comes from God above.  The God who strengthens us, strengthens the family and the care givers and also teaches us that many times our jobs are to encourage, support and be a cheerleader on the sidelines.

At this writing, though I cannot hasten the wing development of a butterfly, I had the strength to resist touching and impeding the development.  Though I could not make my great nephew walk independently (even though I encouraged him with toys and cheerios); I can now report he ventures about unassisted.  As of last week my brother-law drove his car for the first time post-surgery.

I can be there encouraging, providing support, praying, helping with exercises and being a witness, Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”

Tim Lincecum, Baseball, and Christian Spirituality

Steve Taylor 001Stephen spent his life working in the Arts, both backstage and behind the ticket counter, before being driven into Hermitage by God.  A musician and writer, Stephen spends his days practicing the piano, praying for a job, working on the great American novel, and trying to enjoy life, which way too many people take way too seriously.  He loves God, the Cistercians, the Piano, Baseball, and Tim Lincecum, in that order.  This is Stephen’s first year in MAS.  He loves it.


Tim Lincecum, pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, my personal hero, threw a No Hitter the other night.  During 2008 and 2009 his ERA was less than 3.00  That is a very good ERA.  Then in 2012 something terrible happened, his ERA rose to 5.18.  Since then sports writers have had a field day writing eulogies about “The Freak” and how his days are numbered.  He is at least five inches shorter than most MLB pitchers, and his fastball has slowed from mid-90s to just about 91mph

What does this have to do with spirituality?  Just like the sports writers ready to bury Lincecum in the has-been hall of losers, we too are often written off by others when we hit a slump in life.  We fail to live up to someone else’s expectations of us, or fail to live up to our own expectations; either way, expectations are the stuff misery is made of.  I fail in my expectations almost all the time.  Many people have expressed their disappointment in me for failing to live up to their expectations.

They say the devil is in the details.  I say God is in the details, too.  The spiritual life is full of ups and downs, usually coming at times we least expect them.  With everyone singing the death dirge for Lincecum, he comes up and throws a No Hitter, causing a frenzy of confusion.  How can this happen?  The same thing happens in the spiritual life.  Just when things seem to be in a total shambles, God does something remarkable, and we end up with a spiritual No Hitter.

People criticize baseball for being too slow.  They complain that our of three hours in a major league game there is only about eighteen minutes of action.  Isn’t life a bit like that?  There is a saying in baseball, “keep your head in the game.”  What does that mean?  Pay attention to every detail that is happening on the field.  Keep your eyes glued to the pitcher and the man at bat.  There is a lot going on, and all of it subtle.  If you don’t pay attention, then you miss something important.  The same applies to life.  A counselor once told me that the eye movements involved in shifting attention from pitcher to batter is conducive to meditative states of mind.

I take a missal to mass with me every day.  No, not to check if the priests are doing it right, I do it to “keep my head in the game.”  After you’ve heard a Eucharistic prayer about the thousandth time you run the risk of tuning it out, missing the point of what is going on.  That turns you from participant to spectator.  Whether you are Catholic or not, being a spectator in worship is not worship.  Being a spectator in life is not living, either.

I kept my faith in Tim Lincecum even when it looked like he was headed for the ditch.  I keep my faith in God even when it looks like I am heading for the ditch.  Life is full of long periods of nothing, punctuated with moments of extreme activity.  So it baseball.  In our fast paced American world, we like the high scoring games of the NBA, we sing the praise of over achievers, and bemoan the less than successful people around us.  Our society does not value anything that is not total 100% success, and that always means dollars.

As Christians we are not to follow the way of secular success.  There is nothing wrong with success, but often that same success becomes a god.  There is a bank in Elizabethtown that looks like a temple.  What does that say about our world?

In baseball you can take your family, share a bit of time together, maybe even see an exciting game.  For me, baseball lures me into a meditative state.  Keeping my head in the game clears my mind.  Some of the best moments with God have come when I had my attention focused on the pitcher and the batter.  There are worse ways to spend your time.

Check out Stephen’s blog at