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Aspen Times Weekly: Seven days, seven ways to pray

by Madeleine Osberger

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The Aspen Idea of body, mind and spirit speaks to building the whole person. From the Aspen Institute to the Ute Trail, Aspen Music Festival to Smuggler, practitioners of the first two tenets seem to be everywhere.

But how about spirit, the one bedrock concept of Walter Paepcke’s triumvirate that, other than certain days each week, is not as visible. Church services and meditations jam the online calendar, tempting a peek into Aspen’s spiritual community.

Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics and most kinds of Christians may be served or saved in a single week.

I’ve long wondered if the humble search for God is explored here with the same kind of fervor as a ride on the Government Trail or the 4 o’clock concert at the Music Tent. And where does God fit into my life right now, anyway?

Recently, I took seven days to find out.

DAY 1

Approaching St. Benedict’s Monastery, I’m reminded of the sacredness of these surroundings. Even the animals seem calmer out here beneath the mantle of the Elk Mountains, where the suggested no fly-zone offers a natural volume control for a Trappist order steeped in 900 years of tradition.

Services for Monday morning prayer draw just a handful of the faithful, with more monks than the laity. It’s John the Baptist’s birthday and Abbot Joseph Boyle’s sermon speaks of standing up, alone if need be, against the “vipers.” The message hits home for my newfound friend on the bench who’s clearly anguished by the acrimony surrounding the sale of neighboring Windstar’s land.

Fortunately, Father Joseph leads with a gentle touch, sprinkling Brooklyn-accented humor into the parables. In 1994, before we were married, my husband-to-be and I asked Joseph for some advice: “Well, I can’t speak from personal experience…” and we all laughed. But he offered some universal bon mots about love and respect that are applicable any day.

The brick floor, single stained-glass window and the simple chalice in the sanctuary are complemented by songs that need no music, only the beauty of one’s voice.

Even in this pristine environment, there’s still business to be done, some of which the abbot completes after Mass with his iPhone. St. Benedict’s website also doesn’t lack for modernity, including this pull-down tab: “Meet the Monks!”

Rest assured there’s little time for social media with fields to be tended and animals to be fed, not to mention daily vigils and all those prayers, which begin at 4:30 a.m. and end with evening vespers.

DAY 2

Experiencing seven consecutive days of spirituality is important to this journey, so when a Buddhist meditation in Carbondale is cancelled, I look for a substitute. Two local events catch my eye: “Yoga in Nature” at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and an author speaking at Explore about his new book, “God and Boobs.” I choose the former.

Once upon a time there was an uproar over yoga in the Aspen schools as opponents saw it as a way of foisting a strange God upon unwilling children, while proponents couldn’t see the harm in bringing relaxation skills and meditation to an increasingly stressed-out bunch.

There’s been an evolution, as an Associated Press story notes: “Yoga is now taught at public schools from the rural mountains of West Virginia to the bustling streets of Brooklyn as a way to ease stress for tense students.”

As a kid in the 1960s, my Grammy augmented her mainstream beliefs with regular yoga, which she learned through books and TV. A devout Catholic whose happiest day was when a Polish priest was tabbed as pope, Grammy’s embrace of massage and yoga made her way ahead of her time.

By comparison, I feel a little behind the times while trying to achieve certain poses in a decidedly non-competitive yoga class at ACES. Instructor Shannon’s soft voice seems to blend with river and bird sounds, noting how yoga, with references to our trunk and roots, the gentle heron and mighty eagle, comes from nature.

Remember who you are and don’t forget to take care of yourself, Shannon implores to the dozen or so yogis splayed on mats beneath a toasty setting sun. I look up at the limb of the tree directly above and notice it has neither bud nor leaf, a message — or an inspiration perhaps — for the spiritually bereft?

Walking down the path, beneath the watchful eyes of a great horned owl, I return his penetrating gaze.

DAY 3

In the nice, cool basement of the Aspen Chapel we gather in a circle for “Insights: InterSpiritual Readings, Sharing and Meditation.” Under the direction of Polly, the week’s leader, the group shares, one paragraph at a time, a story of one woman who took what life threw at her and made positive changes

What the Slow Food movement has taught many about enjoying rituals surrounding a meal, the book “Slow Love” by Dominique Browning teaches about making each of life’s moments count.

On the third day of this journey a pattern is emerging: With silence comes clarity. Until we have quiet and some inner study, it’s easy to deflect tough questions.

With each page read from “Slow Love” seems to come more reflection. “We are running way too fast” in our lives, is a prevailing thought. An Aspen elder opines: “Sometimes we pick up on the tourists’ energy,” which is more frenetic than our own. That’s not something I’d considered in the past.

She notes that advancing age brings upon a natural slowing of one’s pace; it also offers the gift of living more in the “now.” Not an easy task given the technology vying for our constant attention.

Class finishes with a 10-minute meditation that breaks when a bell chimes. At home that evening, the ring of a child’s bicycle bell brings me back to that peaceful moment.

DAY 4

By hump day, I feel a distinct slump that’s cured by Deeksha.

Incense is burning, wooden flutes are playing on a tape somewhere and there’s an air of seriousness among the small but welcoming group at the Aspen Community Church. The “giver” of the Oneness Deeksha, an attractive woman in a sundress, asks if everyone is familiar with the process we will soon undertake. All shake their heads yes except me.

She calmly explains how these givers would move around the room and offer us Deekshas, which are transferred by placing hands on or above our heads.

This energy transfer is not tied to a particular religion but may bring about a shift in consciousness, I learn.

“Think of the Divine Power, be it Jesus, Buddha or the Universe,” the facilitator says.

First, though, we must open our chakras through deep breathing and good intentions. It’s a process I’m not totally unfamiliar with, having had Reiki incorporated into past massages and a chakra balancing performed during a particularly grueling stretch of work.

The givers move silently and I never know which of the practitioners is working at what moment. The hands are gentle but at the same time powerful. We receive six Deekshas from people who are no longer perfect strangers.

Three chants help us open our hearts to the offerings. “Drink plenty of water tonight,” the veterans share. Sleep comes easily and deeply.

DAY 5

Some years ago and during our toughest times together as a couple, the Aspen Jewish Congregation was there, the congregants — our friends —praying for better times ahead and never invoking judgement. For that, I’ll always be grateful

Here, on the home stretch of my spiritual week, it isn’t comfort I’m seeking but the opportunity to gather for song and prayers. After three days worth of introspection it’s time to rejoice and sing aloud.

Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons, she of the velvety voice, pull out the guitar and drum and bring joyfulness to a new level. Shabbat is a great way to start the weekend. David’s message of repairing a broken world is not lightweight but palpable as told through a prism of the film “Man of Steel.”

I enjoy his sermons and AJC activities, including an unforgettable rendition of the musical “Grease,” replete with Yiddish influences that I swear is one of Aspen’s funniest stage works to date.

After services we truck downstairs for challah and a shot of wine or Crown Royal. A young visitor named Chance asks about the bread tradition; he’s on his way to the Rainbow Festival in Montana.

I’m surprised by the question and ask, “I thought you were Jewish.” His reply: “I am everything and everybody.”

DAY 6

St. Mary Catholic Church is where we were married, my daughter Madison was baptized and where Rick converted. In times good and bad it’s where I’ve sought comfort, celebrated joy and rendered many, many prayers.

The growing conservatism and revelations of abuse against children caused me to back away from the institution…for awhile. Yet every return to St. Mary’s brings a certain level of satisfaction brought upon by the familiarity and comfort of these pews.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been nearly 20 years since my last Confession.” On this Saturday afternoon I’m not ready to return to the booth, so I don’t receive Communion (respecting Father John Hilton’s request to abstain).

The church is packed with “summer Catholics,” the vast majority of whom I don’t recognize. I do know the person for whom this Mass was being said as well as a longtime member who passed away that week

The visiting priest, a Franciscan, speaks about an outreach effort his order operates in Vietnam, where leprosy is still an ongoing threat. I view this as honorable but reflect back on a mission trip Madison made last year to a reservation in Arizona. There, the need was profound.

The new pope, Francis, and his focus on the society’s most destitute is offering me hope for the future. Because not only was St. Francis of Assisi a protector of the poor, he’s also the patron saint of animals.

DAY 7

It’s appropriate that a week-long journey that began with silence and austerity ends with a full-bodied celebration replete with packed pews, a booming baritone and an energized minister fresh from vacation.

It’s Sunday morning at the Snowmass Chapel and Rev. Robert DeWetter is in fine form, reassuring us of Jesus’ love and knowledge that “wherever you are, whoever you are, know that He walks with you.”

For me it’s never been a question of “Does God exist?” but where He fits in my life right now. Robert’s sermon provides insight into just this subject.

The next day, I feel an unexplainable sadness and it’s not until evening that I discover one reason why: I’d missed my “appointment” with God.

While pulling weeds, I notice the natural evolution of side-by-side plants. How did the rose bush know to start blooming right as the lilacs were fading? Nature is a constant reminder of God’s greatness and our relative insignificance.

While it’s arrogant to think I’d have it figured out in a week — people spend their lives searching for the truth, after all — this much I learned: Somewhere between namaste, alleluia and amen lies the answer.


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