Today is a whole different sort of time from last week. Last week I was feeling the pressures of the season in a big way. This week it's hard to imagine being more relaxed.
Our retreat was the big factor, of course. We have retreats for our community four times a year. Our major one is in the summer and that one lasts 10 days. Then scattered through the rest of the year we have 3-day retreats. It's been our custom for some years to have one of the retreats during the 3rd week in Advent. It's usually a slow time for the Guesthouse anyway. People are busy getting ready for Christmas and with other Holiday activities, so the number of guests would be low in any case. It's a good time to close the Guesthouse from Tuesday through Thursday and give ourselves a break. A spiritual break. The house is in silence. The daily schedule is somewhat relaxed. Most of our daily jobs don't need to be done - though at this particular time I do need to keep up with incense orders. The big push is over, but there are always a few last-minute orders.
One of our friends, who was a priest in one of the local parishes said that she always delighted in dropping in during the middle of December, and right in the middle of one of the busiest shopping weeks in the year seeing the sign on the Book Store door: "Closed For Retreat". She thought it was a wonderful counter-cultural statement. And so, I suppose, it is.
This time I knew very clearly that I didn't need more intensity. Sometimes during retreat I make a big push for meditation, study, a special project or something of the sort. That didn't feel like it at all this year. What I needed was space. I needed a bare minimum of stuff to do, with plenty of time around each thing, so I could move slowly, gently, and with a lot of attention to each small thing. I needed to stretch interiorily. And I needed to feel a lack of pressure.
I did have some projects, of course. One hardly ever escapes projects. There is a room next to my Office that has been a store room for quite a few years and it has been crying out to be cleaned and sorted for a long, long time. Some of the stuff stored there is important - many of the files and papers of the last Prior, who died suddenly and without time to do his own sorting, had yet to be gone through. And there was a collection of miscellaneous stuff in there that has gradually been getting higher and deeper. This seemed like a perfect time to do it. I also did some study in the teachings of Marcia Rose, a very talented spiritual teacher whom I have recently discovered. Those two things, some Mozart Concertos and the few incense orders were plenty to occupy the time.
Predictably, my latent guilt got activated. I should be busier. I should be praying more. I should be more intensely focused on my study. Fortunately I was burned out enough that I couldn't pay much attention to that voice even if I wanted to. So I just had to trust that I had what I needed: a few things to do, and silence.
It worked quite thoroughly, even beyond my expectations. Though I didn't feel very "spiritual" during much of the retreat, and my goals for myself were only partly met, by Thursday evening I realized that I was centered, I really was bathing in the silence, and that I had got my self back. God had blessed this retreat, and me.
The rest of the week has just carried this blessed time forward. Many times we emerge from retreats on a Friday morning, just of the edge of a full house of guests descending, and the transition can be quite a shock. But this time, because it was the last weekend before Christmas, we had only 5 to 7 guests. So the quiet has continued to be the overriding part of the atmosphere, and things are relaxed. Imagine having a week at this time of the year just to get back to yourself before Christmas is celebrated. On a regular basis, being a monk is certainly wonderful!
Now things will shift. (Don't they always?) This afternoon is our annual Lessons & Carols Service with Kairos, our Artists in Residence, singing, and that will be a wonderful occasion. If it's anything like our usual experience, the Church will be standing room only and The Holidays will be in full swing again.
And then the countdown to Christmas begins. A great tree stands in the Pilgrim Hall waiting to be decorated on Christmas Eve. Yes, I know it's outrageous, but we really are so old-fashioned that we don't decorate until Christmas Eve. We believe in letting Advent have it's full voice for all four of its weeks, and not doing Christmas until its time. If you've never tried it, it really is a wonderful rhythm. Guests will be flowing in all week, bringing every possible sweet pastry with them, ready to help with the decorating and humming carols. The usual energy of the place will get restored as the week goes on, and will come to a climax at the Midnight Mass on Thursday evening when we are joined by people from all over the surrounding area for our traditional High Mass.
I'm ready for it. I think the whole community is ready for it. We've done a good job of letting Advent prepare us for Christmas.