Sunday, August 5, 2007

Going On From Here

The "Here" that I'm referring to in the title of this reflection is the end of our 10-day retreat and the resumption of the normal pace of life. In the short term this means coping with the piles of emails, mail and phone messages that arrived while we were in retreat. The pile really is monumental. How do I cope with all of this stuff and still honor what has been going on in my life over the past 10 days? Better still, how do I do it and not lose all the benefits of what has happened in the retreat? This is not just a question for me (or for us). It's a question that I hear frequently from our guests. This experience has been so rich and so memorable. But how do I keep in touch with this experience when I get back to "The Real World"?

To begin with, it was a wonderful retreat, both for me on a personal level and, if I judge rightly, for the whole community. One of our Resident Members said that it was the quietest retreat she could remember. We really have learned how to do it in a natural sort of way. We are respectful of each other's need for silence and for their own space and time without being artificial about it. If something really needs to be said, we just say it: that's far less disturbing than going through the whole business of writing notes. But mostly we create a genuinely deeply silent time and do what we need to do. This year one of the brothers took a tent down to the river bank and spent much of his time there. I spent the time after supper each night on the roof, doing some Bible study and watching the life of Fun and Commerce unfold on the Hudson River and seeing the light fade and night begin to creep over the Valley (until the mosquitoes drove me inside).

By the time we came to the end of the retreat on Friday night, it was quite a shock to realize that we would be talking again the next morning. I didn't even notice that happening. I hadn't realized that the silence had gotten that deep until I was confronted with the end of it. It developed so naturally that it seemed like (and was) a perfectly normal part of life. It was a truly wonderful experience.

And now - back to things as usual. Or is that really true?

I have come to realize that one of the problems of being in retreat is making plans for what is going to happen when the retreat finishes. Inevitably those plans are unrealistic and overblown. It seems so simple to make plans for the reformation of my life while I'm in that time of silence: I will carry that silence back with me, I'll increase the amount of time that I meditate, I'll institute a new period of study for myself, I'll keep the perspectives that I've gained. Always all those carefully thought out plans fall in a heap shortly after the end of the retreat.

That's because, of course, they weren't thought out carefully at all. They didn't take account of the needs of my daily life and of all the things that come up unexpectedly. They were, in fact, a fantasy of how I think I'd like my life to be instead of a plan for the life I actually have.

But does that mean that all this retreat stuff is in vain? Is it just a time of unreal abstraction from my life which is ok for the time that I have it, but isn't really related to the life I really live? Certainly it has seemed like that often enough over the years that I've been engaged in this pursuit.

But I've come to realize that the situation is more complex than that. It's true that I'm never going to make my life look like my retreats. And it's true that most of the great plans I'm tempted to make for What My Life Will Be Like After The Retreat are just not realistic and aren't going to come to fruition. But that doesn't mean that this is all an exercise in futility. Over the years I've come to see retreat time as a time of leavening - and the image of yeast is a good one. Each year I drop a little bit of retreat time into my life, just like a bit of yeast goes into a bowl of flour and water and oil. And then I let it sit. For a long time it doesn't look any different. Nothing much seems to have changed. But then, something very interesting happens. The whole thing starts to change. To continue with the metaphor of dough, the yeast works on it, gives up its gases and starts the changes that eventually result in ....................... bread! I've done enough baking to know that each loaf is going to be somewhat different than the ideal loaf that I had in mind when I started. But there it is - the end product is a lot different than what I started out with. And, as long as I'm careful with the basic ingredients, it's very good.

I'm always grateful for the time that I have for quiet retreat. Each year it's quite different. Some years I need a really intense time with a lot of meditation and a really strict structure for my time. Some years I just need to relax and let the Spirit work on me. And at the end of the retreat, it's over. Life goes on - but not really "as usual". A little something has been added, and as long as I am careful to be aware of what is working, and will nurture the growth that has begun in me, really interesting things happen. God really does work down there, deep inside. What comes of it is usually a mystery.

And I've learned to be aware of the process, and to be excited by it.

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