Father Gregory Fruehwirth
explorefaith caught up recently with Father Gregory Fruehwirth, a monk of the Anglican Order of Julian of Norwich, located in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Father Gregory has been the Guardian, or Superior, of his Order for the last five years. A published poet, he regularly leads retreats throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Like his patron, Blessed Julian of Norwich, his ministry is focused on awakening a sense of God’s love in others and encouraging an on-going response to that love as the meaning of all life. He also enjoys playing the flute, writing poems, and gardening (in fact, he was the gardener and groundskeeper for several years when he first joined the Order).
explorefaith: Tell me about your name... and why you are called Father.
Father Gregory: Gregory is the name of my patron saint, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who I chose as my patron when I first took monastic vows. I chose him because he was a poet, a hermit, and a lover of the Holy Trinity, all things that were important to me at that time. Gregory was also the name of my father, who died when I was fairly young.
Fruehwirth is simply my surname—unusual in the States, but common in Austria, where my father was from. And as far as the title Father: it is part of the Anglo-Catholic tradition to refer to those ordained to the priesthood in this way. I was ordained at the request of my community eleven years ago. It’s a role I have slowly grown into.
explorefaith: What led you to the monastery?
Father Gregory: A lot of good things and a lot of less than good things. On the good side was a sense of the sacred, what I would now call the sacredness of being. I wanted a way of life that respected and honored the sacredness of things, of people, of reality. I also found the prospect of a balanced life of prayer and manual labor in a spiritually committed community highly attractive. I had read too much Thomas Merton!
On the less noble side of things, I can see now in hindsight that I came to the monastery in part because of a fear of adult responsibility, looking for parental figures, and a general uneasiness about myself. Being in the monastery has not been an escape however; it has forced me to deal with the pain and the insecurity behind these negative motives.
explorefaith: If you weren’t a monk, what do you think you’d be doing?
Father Gregory: I love design work, even more than writing. Just messing about with colors and shapes makes me come alive. It would be a great way to earn a living, especially if it were for a cause I believed in. But contemplation and prayer would be the most important things in my life, just as they are now—seeking to be at God’s disposal and trying to become more sensitive and responsive to Him. So in a sense, the heart of my life would not change even if the exterior changed quite a bit. Just being the Superior of my community has bumped me out of my monastic comfort zone; I make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of emails and have a lot of meetings and appointments, and I have had to find my life of prayer in that too.
explorefaith: Can you tell us about your spiritual practices? What do you do each day, each week, each year? Anything special during this season of Advent?
Father Gregory: The most important spiritual practice is to spend a significant block of time every morning to do three things:
First, I remind myself of my dignity and the mystery of being by sitting still in contemplative presence. The whole mystery and gift of reality is found in that stillness.
Second, I engage in a dialogue with God through Scripture and gazing on an icon, bringing all that I am and feel into a relationship with God’s presence to me through Jesus of Nazareth. I open my life, my emotions and thoughts to him and listen for his response.
Third, following on these meditations, I make a resolve for the day which I feel to be God’s will for the day, and which changes day by day. It could be something simple like being more present to the small things in life or to be more recollected, or something quite difficult like drawing near to the people who are hurting in my community and spending time with them in their pain. But all this takes place within a regular daily schedule of being in chapel with the community five times for corporate prayer and meditation. Throughout the day I recall myself to my basic purpose of listening and responding to God.
For Advent, I would like to meditate on the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew and also review my life thoroughly to see where I need to improve or be more free.
explorefaith: Your first book has just come out: Words for Silence: A Year of Contemplative Meditations. How did that come about?
Father Gregory: Just about every week I offer my community a brief meditation, called a “Chapter Talk.” These talks run the gamut from theology to spirituality to inviting people to take up a new spiritual practice for a week at a time. Eventually, I started sharing these quite intimate talks with our larger affiliate community—about 220 women and men, married and celibate, ordained and lay, who live in the regular world, have careers and families. They found the talks to be a marvelous window into the monastery, but also directly significant and directive for their own lives. This is not surprising, as monks and nuns are human beings like everyone else and we deal with the same issues as everyone else, though in different ways and a different context.
Eventually enough affiliates encouraged me to have the talks published formally to get me to explore options, and a local affiliate contacted Paraclete Press for me. The editors at Paraclete helped me to shape the talks into a book of meditations on the experience of God and contemplative spirituality.
explorefaith: There are points in Words for Silence where you use the meditation and mindfulness techniques that we usually associate with Buddhism and people like Thich Nhat Hanh. Is this because you borrow ideas from various places, or, are these concepts native to your own tradition?
Father Gregory: I’d say both. The Christian tradition has deep resources in regard to prayer, contemplation and what we now call mindfulness or recollection. One has only to think of Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Sacrament of the Present Moment, which in itself is a totally revolutionary and earth-shaking idea if only we could receive it in its full force: every moment of life as the outward form of God’s self-gift to us! There is also Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, or the ancient monastic quest for a state of unceasing prayer. Where the Buddhist writers excel and are marvelously helpful is in their cultivation of practical methods for living more mindfully. Basically, it is something you do with your body, and the spirit follows along after.
Too often Christian spirituality has been an attempt of the spirit to impose something on the rest of the self, including the body, from the top down, and that never works. We get an idea and tell ourselves, “OK, now we have to behave this way.” It is much more helpful to intervene in the negative cycles, learn awareness, and redirect bodily action. The Buddhists are also very, very good spiritual psychologists.
explorefaith: Would you mind sharing a mindfulness or meditation technique with us—perhaps something that you do in the monastery?
Father Gregory: The most important thing is breathing, or being aware of breathing. I tell people that breathing badly is breathing well—because just being aware that you are breathing badly is enough to let grace in. You don’t have to monkey around to try to make your breath different. If you are present to yourself as you breathe badly—shallowly or nervously or sullenly—you are being compassionately present to a whole realm of pain expressed in your breath, a realm that needs healing. And that awareness, in itself, already brings such healing light in. I have found that being aware of my breath just as it is, good or bad, to be the most important mindfulness meditation in daily life.
explorefaith: Advent is upon us, and I know that your new book begins with reflections for Advent. Leave us with a word for this important season. What should our focus be, at this time of year?
Father Gregory: Nothing could be more helpful than to find an empty church to sneak into on one of these cold and dark days of early winter. Sit in a pew. Let go of the burden of your life, the anxious rattling of your thoughts, if only for a moment. Listen to the sleet tapping away at the windows. What a miraculous sound! Sit before an icon or picture of Christ or the Trinity and offer your life to God. Then sit there, watching your breath as you breathe in and breathe out. Let the prayers come and go as they may. Discover how you actually do feel and tell God about that. God is interested. God cares.
Purchase a copy of Fr. Gregory's WORDS FOR SILENCE: A YEAR OF CONTEMPLATIVE MEDITATIONS from amazon.com.