Sunday, August 12, 2007

Loosing It, Finding It

Normally, during the course of each week I think about this column and I'm on the lookout for what I am going to write about. Because people are interested in what it's like to live in a monastery, I look for things that have happened and I investigate how those things have affected me, both interiorly and in the more external parts of my life. Almost always during the course of the week it becomes obvious that something that has happened is "it" for this week: this is what I'm going to write about.

That didn't happen this week. I arrived at this morning with no sense at all of what I was going to write. Nothing. What was going on that I wanted to look at? Nothing. What special thing has happened that would be interesting to explore? Nothing. What's going on spiritually that would be profitable to examine? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And on the way up the stairs to my office, I thought: "Well, this is it. I have to write something. What's it going to be?" And I answered myself: "I don't know. Nothing has happened this week." Then I thought: "Oops! That must be it."

Is it true that nothing has happened this week? Of course not. Among the things that I think about just off the top of my head are:

  • The pace of life right now is very different from my usual pace. There are no guests for the whole month. It's quiet. We move in a more relaxed way. Our meals are longer because we have time to spend with each other in easy conversation. We catch each other in various places during the day and just have a few moments to spend. It's easier to find time to meditate, to read, to study.
  • The chef is on vacation while the guesthouse is closed so we're cooking for each other. It's quite wonderful what a dimension this adds to our life. Those of you with families may not think of this, but you get to know a person in a whole different way when they are cooking for you: their tastes, the care they take to make sure it's 'good', just the fact that they are caring for you in this way, deepens our experience of each other
  • With everything around the place quieter the local wild life has noticed and has come out to play. The field below the monastery has been full of deer, including two tiny fawns, still with their spots and all their timid curiosity. There has been a flock of about 3 dozen turkeys relishing the big empty field full of grasses and grains. The bald eagles that fly above the Hudson River come a little closer and a little bit more often. Mice, bats, snakes, stray dogs, insects: we live in the midst of a settlement of life that is much more hidden during most of the year.
  • We have made a temporary chapel in one of the guesthouse common rooms while the new heating system is installed in our church. At Mass this morning I was facing the river. The wind was blowing over the surface into wavelets and the sun was at exactly the right angle to create a thousand flashing gold and silver points as it reflected off the surface of the water. At the other end of the day, the evenings are long and lovely, and the first hints of fall can be seen in some subtle color changes, and the angle at which the sun is now setting. The long, slow evenings are exquisite.

Do I really think that nothing has been happening? Of course not. Life unfolds as it always does, in a thousand thousand different ways each day.

I mean, of course, that I haven't been paying attention. I've allowed my sense of the present moment to lapse. My openness to the wonder of what is around me, which is normally pretty good, has gone underground. I have been, in a word, oblivious.

This happens to us all, of course, on a regular basis. So it isn't grist for my guilt mill - or at least it needn't be. But it is important. It's important because it is just this state of oblivion that all of us get into that is the cause of those moments when we catch ourselves thinking: "Where has my life gone?. Where did those years disappear to? How has all this time passed?" Harry Belafonte sang of his children so poignantly many years ago: "I don't remember getting older. When did they?"

My life hasn't gone anywhere, of course. It has been here all along, every moment, all those years. I am the one who has been absent. This sense of missing life is an important tap on my shoulder. "Come back" it says. "Come back to me."

And it isn't going to happen without some work. Having a definite practice of meditation is central in keeping me in touch with my life. Taking a few minutes each evening to reflect on the day is important, too: what's been in this day? what do I feel real joy about? what do I wish had been different? Is there something that needs to be changed?

Most of all, I need to bring this practice of the present moment into each day as the time moves on. Notice where I am. Notice how it feels. Notice what I'm doing. When I discover that I've drifted away, bring myself back to this moment. And then, as one of my teachers said: "Repeat this process several billion times."

Is this important? Oh, yeah. What could there be that's more important than living my life? What is more crucial than the moments when I realize that I've drifted away from myself and make the effort to come back? Doing this leaves me with a sense of fullness rather than emptiness. It has a lot to say about why I'm here in this world and what the meaning of it is.

And so I've learned to value those moments when I feel that nothing has happened. I have a deepening sense of thankfulness for the times when I wonder where my life has gone. I don't have to take them as indications of failure. They are a call - God's call, if you will. They call me to come back to myself and to my life. I'm supposed to be here, where I am, with all of the joy and the pain and the satisfaction and the disappointment that being here holds. This moment is, in fact, all that I have. It's so important to actually have it.

(And if you've read this far, you'll probably want to know that I'm going to be gone for the next couple of weeks. I'm off to Minnesota for some vacation, and when I get back I go immediately to Cornell for several days. So it will be the end of the month before I appear in this space again. Hope you're some nice time, too.)

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.