Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
We were in retreat this week. For us that means 3 days of silence. This hasn’t always been the way it is done. For many years our custom was for everyone to have one day a month for retreat. Everyone took a day convenient to his schedule and withdrew from the parts of the community life that required verbal communication and had the day for rest, for prayer and for study. But this is, at best, a difficult way to manage a retreat and we were always subject to being pulled away by all of the things going on in the house. So we eventually decided that we would choose a day each month and the whole community would be in retreat on that day. There would be no distractions, because we'd all be in retreat together.
It didn’t take long for us to notice that this schedule wasn’t ideal either. One day wasn’t enough. It takes a while to settle into a time of silence and a relaxed schedule and one day wasn’t doing it for any of us. So after some discussion we decided that we would take our monthly days and join them together, and we settled on having 3 days of retreat once every 3 months. This has remained our custom for a number of years now, and it seems to work very well for most of us. There are very few guests, if any, during these 3 days and we have a simpler schedule of services in the church. The house is quiet and the silence does have priority. Things move more slowly, and we have time to go in and down.
It’s interesting to me what happens when we take time for retreat. Many people assume that this is a time of noticing only yourself. Taking time for meditation, for study and for quiet seems to suggest that focus on the self is the whole point, and when I talk to people about this part of our life, I often find that they are uncomfortable with the whole idea. Doesn’t following the Christian path mean having concern for others? Shouldn’t we be immersing ourselves more deeply in the problems and concerns of the world rather that fleeing to an inner sanctuary? Isn't this all just selfishness wrapped up in an aura of sanctity?
Well, if that were what was happening, I think it would be troubling. But rather the opposite seems to be the case for me. I find that taking time for silence makes me more aware of the world around me, rather than less. When I step aside from my usual preoccupation with my job and everything that I usually use to occupy my time, a curious thing happens. I find that, without any effort on my part, I start opening up to things that I usually ignore because I am “too busy” to pay attention. No focusing exercises are needed, no conscious redirection of my attention. I just begin to notice, usually quite suddenly, that there is a bigger world out there and I’ve been so wrapped up in daily tasks that I've been ignoring it.
It usually starts with the Hudson River. You would think that it would be hard to ignore the Hudson River. It’s half a mile wide here, and it occupies a large part of the view from almost everywhere on our property. It is the chief thing that gives our landscape its startling beauty. At any hour of the day or night it’s one of the main things about being in this location. But I do ignore it. Over and over again, when I get quiet enough, I discover how often I have been passing by with not even a glance.
And it isn’t as though matters of earth-shaking importance are claiming my attention. I could open myself to the beauty of this river valley at any time. Our buildings are built so that any time I want to, when walking from one place to another, I could drink in the marvel of the place where I live. And so often I don’t. Taking time for silence reveals to me how needlessly preoccupied I am with my thoughts, my obsessions and the details of my work. I am so bound up in this part of my world, that I don’t even notice the River.
And then it moves from step to step: I begin to notice the sky, I see a flower, I smell the incense curing in the workshop in the basement. Gradually the world around me opens up. And the best part is getting to the Church early before a service and watching the brothers come in to take their place in choir. Is this one bustling or slouching today? Does that one look calm and peaceful or preoccupied and distracted? What is the pain that the next one is carrying? My thoughts, my questions, and then my prayer open to each of them as they join me and together we prepare to sing our praises to God. And of course our guests become part of this process. The stream of people who have come with their own joys and burdens in order to celebrate them or lay them down at God’s feet, and whom I sometimes don’t even notice, I once again claim as part of my journey – as my family on the way to God.
That’s why I need to be in retreat. There no doubt are people for whom a time of silence is a great trial because it isolates them from the world and the people around them. But that is not the way I seem to function. What silence does for me is to enlarge the space of my life. It removes some of the barriers I erect between myself and the world through the pressures of business and busyness. It shows me that I need to look deeper in order to be in touch with the existence that is there outside my own preoccupations. Fr James Huntington, the founder of our Order, was a wise and holy man. In the Rule that he wrote for the community when we were less than 10 years old he speaks of needing to know that there are times for talking and for relationships and there are also times when we must also realize that “the mist of human conversation hides us from each other.”
This is the consciousness that I try to take back with me at the end of our retreat. I try deliberately to invent some small way in which I can be less heedless in my ordinary life. I want to be more open – to the River, to my surroundings, to my community and to all of the people who fill my life and my time. Silence shows me how much I need to do this. For me, it is a great gift.