Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Retreat For Lent

This week we had our Quarterly Retreat. We have four retreats a year, and this year our winter retreat fell during Lent because Lent has come so early. This retreat is usually in February and Lent snuck up on it this time.

These retreats are really great times, but it wasn't always that way, and it took some time and some careful work to make sure our retreats worked well for us. We have these retreats because we feel the need to stop every now and then to have some quiet time: we need a time of silence. Because we run a large and quite successful Guesthouse, we have a busy life that's full of people. It's a wonderful life in very many ways, but it is one that is very much tilted to the active side of things and to engagement with our guests. We need an alternative from time to time. So silence is one of our needs. Simplicity is another need. Our pattern during retreat is to have fewer Offices and not to have the usual meetings, appointments and such at all. We don't even have choir practice. We aim to have a leisured time, and one that has as much space as possible, so it will be an effective alternative to our usual pattern of living. Time for long walks, extended study, lengthy naps; whatever you need to bring you back in balance, we hope this will help provide it. Most of us look forward to these times with some anticipation.

It took a while to work it out. For most of the years of the community's life we had one day of retreat a month. That was the pattern, and it was holy. It was set in stone. Almost all of the Episcopal monastic communities did it. One day a month. You took it on your own schedule, so usually the community was engaged in its ordinary work (and talk) while you did your best to have your private retreat, which had to be worked around the usual schedule of the community's daily life. It was one of the givens; it was what the Religious Life was all about. We didn't quite believe that the monthly retreat was given to Moses along with the Ten Commandments, but it was right up there in priority.

Then an interesting thing happened. We got into a conversation about the monthly retreat in the course of a meeting about another topic. It just came up sideways, one of those things that slips in when you least expect it. Somehow in the midst of a conversation about another agenda we found ourselves talking about the monthly retreat and discovered that no one in the room - nobody - got anything much out of this sanctified tradition. We all thought that taking time for retreat was a really good thing. But no one felt that the practice taking one day a month while everyone else went on as usual "did it" for them. There wasn't enough time to settle down. We never got really quiet or relaxed enough to pray the way we wanted to. It felt as compressed as the rest of life often did.

Fortunately we had the sense to set to work and do something about it. We could have said: "But this is the Holy Tradition. It has to be kept like this. Our wise ancestors laid it down this way, and they knew what they were talking about." Instead we recognized that this tradition of regular retreats was important, while also recognizing that what we were doing wasn't working. So what would work? Well, if a day a month was where we started, how about 3 days once every 3 months? Everyone thought it sounded good (a minor miracle in itself) and so we started. The rest of it we have worked out as we went along. I doubt if this particular form of retreat practice will last eternally, but it works for now. When it doesn't work any more, we will probably still have the sense to look at it and see what is needed at the time. For now it is a really blessed way to do it.

We even changed things a bit this time. In this retreat we spent some time for some spiritual sharing with each other. Suzette read the Dr Seuss story: "Horton Meets a Who" and we reflected together on what we heard. It was a good time. It was light-hearted and it was deep. It was a good time that enriched our silence. Who knows where we will develop that from here? We just need to keep open to the possibilities.

There's a bigger principle here. In our reading at the mid-day meal on Saturdays we have been hearing a book about the spirituality of Lent. This past Saturday the passage we were hearing was one in which the author suggested that in setting up a pattern of spiritual practice you pay attention to how you schedule things to make sure that you're cooperating with the energy of your body and your day. She said that she has found that if she journals in the morning and has time for praying in the evening that works fine, but it seems to be all wrong if she tries it the other way around. She says that you need to take account of the energy of your day, and what will fit naturally into which period, and my experience is that she is right. Cooperating with how your day wants to be prayed will get you a lot further than starting out with a theoretical pattern of how the spiritual life "should be" and working from there. If you pay attention carefully enough, you can uncover the ways in which your life is asking to be prayed. If you can cooperate with that, you may find a pattern of prayer, reading, journaling or whatever that you can engage in and be enthusiastic about, rather than one that you are fighting with all the time.

At one time in my life I had to pay attention to this in a big way. I was going through a big emotional transition, and the psychological work I was engaged in was intense. I was accustomed to meditating first thing in the morning and I had done that for many years, but I was beginning to find that it was harder and harder to do. I was doing it less and less frequently. I spent more time fighting to stay seated on my mat than I did cooperating with my discipline. We all go through difficult times, and staying with it can be very productive in those times, but an extended trial of that proved that it was just making it worse. So what to do? Give up meditating? I tried that, and that didn't feel right either. What to do? Finally I asked myself what would feel right, what would make it possible for me to pray. When I did that, the answer came fairly quickly; I needed to get up each morning, get my shower as usual, get ready for the day, and then make a cup of tea and get back into bed for my prayer time. With the warmth of the tea, and the comfort of the blanket, and the support of the mattress, I had enough of what I needed that I could pray. It was usually pretty informal and not very patterned. But I was there . I could be in that space and let my life unfold before God and pray it - even if I wasn't using words. It wasn't my usual pattern, but it did work, and it cooperated with the energy of my life well enough to keep me going in a creative way. And my spiritual director was delighted when he heard about it.

Now paying attention to the energy of your life is not always the same thing as being in your Comfort Zone (especially if what your comfort zone is doing for you is zoning you out). The real energy of the situation may involve some challenge. When I conduct meditation retreats I frequently encounter people who say something like: "I simply can't meditate longer that 10 (or 15, or 20) minutes. I can't stay with it any longer. It isn't productive to be that distracted and jittery." In those cases I often suggest that if they can only meditate for 20 minutes, they should try meditating for 21 minutes and see what happens. Often you need to go to the edge of a situation and work from there. A little bit of "edge work" - nothing huge, just a bit - can often make for a big change. It's very useful to have someone to talk to about all of this, of course. Healing insight so often comes from another person.

But this week I'm being drawn to the task of being open to the demands of your own personality and your own body, and working with the challenges that they present. That, in my experience, can often yield very productive ways of going forward, as it did for us and for our retreats.

What about you? Anything to share from your own experience of creating a way to pray?

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