Years ago, when I was a young monk, I knew a nun who was also young and quite new in her order. She was going through a time of confusion and perplexity, as young monks and nuns do, and went to talk to their chaplain, an elderly and very kind man, and laid out her dilemma: "People come here and talk about how peaceful it is, how serene the sisters are and what a place of holiness this is" she said: "I know the reality of our life, and it doesn't look or feel like that to me. The life isn't like that. We aren't like that. I never know what to say." And he replied: "Ah yes, but you see, the peace isn't for you. The peace really is here, and all the rest of it is too. But it's meant for them, not for you."
No doubt under the influence of psychological analysis and systems theory and much else, we'd use different words to describe the situation now. But I've still always remembered a point well made. No matter how acute the observation of our guests may be, and sometimes it is amazingly accurate, still many of the gifts of this place are for them, and not for us, at least not directly. Our perspective on this place will always be somewhat different, and usually less starry-eyed.
I'm applying this directly to this weekend. This was the annual Advent Retreat, which I have been leading for many years with the author Suzanne Guthrie and Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit. It's usually a popular event and the guesthouse is most often completely full, as it was again this year. We work hard on providing creative programming and with Suzanne's gift of vision and Sr HM's very creative music, we most usually succeed. We certainly seem to have succeeded this year, if one can judge by the feedback. But the peace of this weekend retreat was definitely for them, not for me.
We organized this retreat around the theme of pilgrimage and the relationship between architecture and the interior journey. We processed them all over the place. In the course of examining themselves and our buildings they went upstairs, downstairs, through the chapel, into the monastery, down to the library. Our buildings are 1/10 of a mile long and we went from one end to the other, more than once. We worked hard and so did they, and their contributions were enlivening and sometimes exciting. It was wonderful to be part of a very creative time.
But moving 40 people around this set of buildings is no small deal. It was wonderful for examining the spiritual journey from a variety of perspectives, but I didn't anticipate how much energy would need to go into carrying things back and forth, setting up a different room every few hours, and providing candles, water, paper, books and ideas every few hours. My principal gift from this weekend appears to be exhaustion.
Was it worth it? Of course. It was a gift to be able to offer a truly creative opportunity for people. It may take a while to recover, but I will remember this time with pleasure and with gratitude. And there was one moment above all the others that I will keep with me for a long time.
Saturday night we provided a pilgrimage to the Crib. Our Creche was set up in the Library on the bottom floor of the monastery building. Close to the entrance of the Library is a sunken octagonal area that the building's architect thought was clearly important to the Library. Heaven knows how he thought that space would be used, but his original idea is now long lost. For us it's a puzzle and we've never known what to do with that area. We've tried artistic displays, couches, study tables and much else, but nothing ever really works. Except for the Creche at the Advent Retreat. It seems to belong there.
There are pillars around "the Pool" and with some dark cloth Suzanne created a sort of cave and the Nativity figures were placed in it. Our Creche is a modern one, done in a semi-abstract style, which I find very beautiful. The light was soft and low. Sr Helena Marie's music was very evocative. The atmosphere was quiet and deeply peaceful. We provided a candle for everyone who wanted to offer one before the Nativity scene.
As I went forward to offer my candle I also went down on my knees and touched my head to the floor. It's a natural gesture for me and one that I use with some frequency. Some years of yoga practice have made me unselfconscious about using my body however I want to in worship. Besides, I thought it might give people permission to do something out of the ordinary if they wanted to.
And it did. As I stood and watched, retreatants came before the Child, with Mary and Joseph and all the animals and the Wise Men. They bowed, they knelt. Some did a prostration like I had done. Some reached forward to touch the figures. A few caressed the head of old Joseph, or kissed the crib or the baby. People really did seem free to express the depth of feeling in their hearts and to do it in ways that are rarely seen in church in this country. It was an hour of meaning, and depth and tenderness. It was then that I knew without any doubt that we had created for those people the sort of retreat that we had hoped for. And, for a few minutes, it was a bit of retreat for me, too.
I was on the edge of tears for some time, just watching the scene and seeing how all of those people expressed what was in their hearts. And for those moments I didn't have to provide anything or teach anything or arrange anything. I could just be there at the Crib with everyone else. It's rare when a retreat leader can enter into the experience of the retreat, and I never expect it. Usually it's really important that you stand aside from that and make sure that things are going appropriately. But there, for a moment, I could just be at the manger with everyone else. It was a rare gift. And Advent has changed and deepened for me now.