We ended our retreat yesterday morning, so here I am, fresh from 10 days of silence. I can hear various people either wishing they could do a retreat like that or recoiling in horror from the prospect of 10 days without speaking; people don't usually fall in the middle on this one.
For me it was wonderful. It almost always is. And of course it was also surprising. It almost always is.
At my last post I went on at some length about work and learning to do without work and taking time just to be who I am without finding my identity in work. So where did God meet me during this particular retreat? (.................................................. I'll give you a few seconds to come up with the answer...........................................). The answer, of course, is God met me in work. Is anyone surprised? This sort of thing is only a surprise in the moment. In retrospect it's pretty clear that this is the way God works. God always catches you in the precise way that you aren't expecting.
To be more precise, the retreat surprise this year had to do with my work in the Incense department. I've written before about my involvement in the manufacture and shipping of our incense, and those of you who have been readers that far back will know that even though work in certainly involved in making incense, I don't really experience my involvement there as "work". It's much more of a craft for me; something I can do with loving attention and, hopefully, without a lot of haste. For all of its frequent demands, it is a part of my life that gives me joy, and it teaches me precisely the lessons of Sabbath. It teaches me to step outside of my normal goal orientation and to do something simply for the joy of doing it. And it's also nice when that sort of task produces something that smells good!
What happened was that I found myself reorganizing the work room. Some of what I did I'd had at the back of my mind for a long, long time. The containers in which the frankincense and myrrh are stored are not really adequate for the way I do the work at present, and they have been taking up a lot of space in the middle of the room. As always happens, my procedures have developed around things that just grew over the years and aren't always serving the needs of the present task. Though I haven't been really conscious of it, except at a very low level, the way things were organized was causing me some frustration - not major, just small and constant.
Nor did I go into this reorganization very consciously, it just developed. It started with myrrh. I needed to sift some myrrh. Myrrh comes in 50 pound sacks and the pieces are of all sizes from particles that are like dust to chunks the size of a baseball or larger. I can't use the larger ones unless they are broken down, so I have to sift the 50 pound lots to get the usable pieces separated from the pieces that aren't usable and need further processing. I had let this task go until I was completely out. I needed to make a batch of the blend called St Augustine (the one made with rose perfume oil) and I couldn't do it without getting some myrrh ready.
So there I was sifting. It takes an hour or so to get through the batch and it isn't a very absorbing task. It's just something that needs to be done. So as I sifted, my mind fell to considering what to do with the finished product. The barrel that I have been keeping it in is really far too large, and I've known that for quite a while. I don't remember why I've been using that container; probably it's because there was one available since the myrrh used to come in those barrels. Now it comes in mesh sacks. We also used to use considerably more of it, but many people find the bitter astringent scent of it difficult so I have gradually reduced the amount we use in our blends to the point where the complaining stopped, and we now use about a quarter of the amount that we originally did. So I don't really need to use a big barrel to store it in now. I looked around the room and there was a much smaller plastic container - a blanket box, actually - and it would do the job perfectly. In fact it would go on a shelf and didn't need to be in the middle of the floor.
You can take the story from here. The myrrh got sifted and repackaged and relocated and that started a process. Next came the frankincense. It comes in 100 pound sacks, but did they need to sit in the middle of the room? No, actually. And the sandalwood powder we use as a drying agent also really needed a much smaller container and could be stored on a shelf. By now I was in the middle of a major reorganization project.
The interesting thing about this whole process was how much fun it was. I loved figuring out all the details, I loved the work of getting it organized, I especially love the result. The work room is now roomier and feels lighter. There's a spaciousness to it, and it's organized so that it really facilitates the job of blending the incense instead of having to be worked around. None of it was anything I had planned to do. I had to say goodbye to some of the stuff I was planning to do. Something else had come along.
And the point of this story? Part way through this project I realized that something deeper was going on than housecleaning. I might easily have passed over this without even noticing, but I was in retreat and a lot of what I was doing centered around noticing. And what happened for me was that I stumbled a cross a connection between my craft and my spirituality. I actually got it, this time.
It has to do with creativity. It's an easy thing to theorize about. Scripture portrays God as a creator; that's how the Bible starts, and both Hebrew and Christian scripture repeats over and over again that the deep nature of God is to be a creator. And here was I, engaged willy nilly in this project that was at its base a creative task. I had been ruminating for a long time about the unsatisfactory nature of my work room, and my mind had been doing some reorganizing down there on a level where I wasn't noticing, and given the silence and the time it finally came together, and here I was engaged in this very satisfying creative task.
Now I'm made in God's image, right? Certainly that's pretty fundamental Christian stuff. But fundamental or not, it often remains pretty theoretical. I'm made in God's image. Yep. On to the next topic. But what does that mean at the level at which I engage with my spiritual journey? Well, what I stumbled over in the course of this retreat was that when I am connected to my creativity I am connected to God. That intuitive link which rests in my heart and has its roots in the deeper part of my being got activated in a way that finally became known to me. When I am creative I am acting out of God's image that lives at the base of my own being. God laid a hand on this project and on me while I was completing it. It was a very different way of meeting God than I had thought I would have in this retreat, and I am grateful to have been awake enough to have noticed it. Often I'm not.
What about you? Where are those creative moments for you? And can you connect the joy of those moments with the presence of the Spirit which lives at your center? What are your projects? Cooking? Knitting? Basketball? Service projects? Figuring out how to be more loving in a relationship? The possibilities are as wide as your life. The thing to awaken to is that God is sitting down there at the base of it all, plotting to get you creatively involved with your life. And if you look closely enough you can catch God at work there. You really can connect with the divine who dwells at your center. (To look for it you start at the area of your stomach. Your body is one of the chief agents of revelation here.)
And I can't let this post go without mentioning last night. Many of the community took a while to sit together after supper on one of the porches that overlooks the river. It had been a showery day and obviously the air was full of rain drops because suddenly we were looking at the most intensely brilliant rainbow that I have seen in a long, long time. It was complete from end to end and had a doubled companion at each end. It was a wonderful benediction on our time of retreat and a promise of the sabbath time that we have in the next three weeks. And I actually did remember what the Bible story tells us to remember when we see a rainbow - that God has hung up his bow in the sky. God has decided to move from being a warrior figure to being a lover of the human race, and God's bow is the promise of the fulfillment of that transformation in our hearts.