Sunday, May 10, 2009

Meditation Retreat

I'm a bit late posting this week because over the weekend I was conducting a meditation retreat with my friend and colleague Mary Gates and it didn't end until lunch time on Sunday. The afternoon was for a nap and in the evening several of the brethren went to a local Mexican place where we found ourselves the only Anglos in the midst of a birthday party for an elderly woman. Great fun and the food was terrific. Then we made a pilgrimage to the new Star Trek movie - definitely a spiritual occasion!
If you aren't familiar with our Guesthouse offerings, these meditation retreats are designed to teach the meditative traditions of Christianity, and Mary and I have been conducting them for about eight years now. They had their origin in a crisis: at the time our Guesthouse was hosting several meditation retreats a year in the Insight Meditation tradition (Vipassana), which is one of the Buddhist meditation techniques.

The leader of these retreats had a daughter who was going off to college and he found out very close to the date of one of the retreats that he had to be at the parents' weekend at that time. So he couldn't do our retreat, but canceling it was going to be a considerable financial hardship for the Guesthouse.

That summer Mary and I were both taking a class in Buddhism with Jose, the leader of the meditation group that I talked about in my post last week, and at the class one Monday evening we were were talking about the situation. What could we do? It was Jose who said: "Why don't you do it yourself? You could certainly do that." And so the Christian Meditation Retreat was born: a Buddhist teacher authorizing 2 Christian students to conduct a meditation retreat in their own tradition. This must be America!

The retreat was designed to be an introduction for those who had very little experience with meditation, or who didn't know much about the meditative traditions of Christianity. We were pleased and not a little surprised when the retreat, even though it was advertised at the last minute, attracted a substantial enrollment. It looked like we had an audience.

Those who came were very enthusiastic, and were soon asking for more. So several years later we added a sequel; a version of the retreat for those with some previous meditation experience which would be a bit more rigorous and would have more time for meditating and less talking/teaching. So this has been the pattern for several years now: the introductory retreat in the fall and the retreat for those with experience in the spring. Eight years later both retreats continue to be popular.

The spring retreat is a typical meditation retreat. We meditate for most of the time. The sessions alternate between times when we sit in meditation and times when we walk. In the afternoon there is a conversation time when people can ask questions, share experiences and get some guidance on what to do. In the evening there is some teaching and a further opportunity for sharing or for questions. The rest of the time is for silence, with a very small amount of comment from the leaders. It is a demanding retreat: people are at our sessions for most of the time while they are here. There is an hour or so of free time after lunch. Otherwise we meditate. All day, all evening. Except when we're in the Church for Offices or at meals, we meditate.

From the beginning we have taught principally in two of the most familiar of the Christian traditions. I teach the ancient discipline called the Jesus Prayer, which I have taught for many years and about which I have written. Mary teaches Centering Prayer in which she likewise has many years of experience as practitioner and teacher. Over the years we have also experimented with including the form called Christian Meditation, associated with the name of John Main, and with the Labyrinth, since we have a labyrinth here that is large enough for groups to use, but in this version of the retreat we concentrate on the forms we know best.

For those of you not familiar with these ways, the Jesus Prayer is a form of prayer that goes back into the early centuries of Christianity and which had been mostly elaborated and practiced in Eastern Orthodox Christianity until the last century when Russian refugees brought it to Western Europe and then to America after their Revolution. It is a phrase: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy."

It's used in many different ways, but when used for meditation it is done in the traditional way; the prayer is said, silently or aloud (sometimes even sung), often being timed with the breathing, and simply repeated over and over with attention. When attention drifts away, you bring yourself back, and the meditation is an endless series of returns to the prayer. Eventually the prayers carves out its own space inside you and becomes part of your life and of your breathing.

Centering Prayer is more formless. It is essentially a prayer of Intention. You simply sit with the intention of being with God, and of being open to God and to God's action in your life. You choose a word that expresses that intention, like "love", or "peace", and use that word to draw you back to your attention when you have drifted away. It too, has the power to transform your interior life.

Sounds simple doesn't it? Simple, maybe - easy, not! It is amazingly hard work, and the people who come to these retreats always talk about how worn out they are at the end. But it's good work. Meditation sets you on a journey into your own depths, and in those depths you encounter yourself, God and the rest of the world. Meditation puts you on the road to major change in your life and the journey to compassion. It's the beginning of a journey that has a goal but no end; it's journey into the divine.

Many begin this journey. The number of people who continue it is much smaller. The journey does involve a rigorous discipline, and that turns out to be more than many people bargain for. It involves encountering difficult things about yourself as well as the delightful stuff. Like Christianity itself, it ultimately asks for the gift of your whole self in the service of God. It asks for you to become Love. It is no small thing.

This group worked hard - very hard. The reward was a very pronounced atmosphere in the room where we sat; an atmosphere of depth and of peace. The retreat finished in a burst of joy. The retreatants were very full of what they had given and what they had gained. Each time I help to lead on of these retreats I emerge really tired and really contented. I get much more than I have given.

The experience of working hard to seek God with a group of people is quite amazing, and very fulfilling. To hear the stories of the yearning that people bring with them and of the ways in which their yearning is answered is reward enough in itself. It also makes it quite clear that the goal of meditation is the opposite of the self-absorption that many people identify with deep prayer. It really is a call into God into order to love the world and the people in the world. Being called to do this work is a very great privilege and one which I don't take lightly.

I'll be happy if these retreats go on for a long time. It's an experience that doesn't get boring with repetition. It's a grand thing to be able to offer as one of the fruits of this kind of life, and those who come for these retreat frequently end up as good friends of the community. These contemplative retreats and our work with the poor people with AIDS are two poles around which our life circulates, and that is a very stimulating and exacting call.

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