I'm late this week because I wasn't available this morning at the time that I normally write these pieces. At noon today Mary Gates and I finished conducting our most recent meditation retreat. The two of us have been offering these retreats for 8 years now. It began sort of by accident. I was the Administrator of the Guesthouse at the time and we had a traditional Labor Day Insight Meditation Retreat. Then during that summer the man who had conducted the retreat for several years suddenly discovered that parents' weekend at his daughter's college was on Labor Day weekend and he couldn't do the retreat.
What to do? The retreat was a standard part of our guesthouse offerings by that time, and many people would be expecting it. It was also an important source of income. We had to find something to replace it, and I had no idea what that would be.
At the time Mary and I were in a class on Buddhist religion moderated by Jose Reissig, who is the teacher who runs the Meditation Group that I attend on Wednesday evenings. She and I had been friends for some time, and I was aware of her background in Centering Prayer, and I had been teaching the Jesus Prayer for many years, and just off the cuff I just said: "Do you think that you and I could do a retreat on the meditative traditions of Christianity?" Mary said: "We probably could." Jose said: "I think you should do it." And so the Labor Day Christian Meditation Retreat was born.
It was conceived as an introduction to the practice of meditation, using the forms of meditation that are in common use in the Christian churches at the present time, and it proved to be very popular. A couple of years later we added a weekend in the spring at a more "advanced" level, for people who had experience in meditation. It offers more silence and meditation and less teaching and sharing. It also has been quite popular. And so we have gone, year after year, and people are still coming. Each retreat brings back people who have come before and also brings some new participants. These retreats have been very rewarding, both for those who attend and for Mary and me. Almost always they end with expressions of gratitude from the participants and with a sense for us as teachers that they were well worth the effort.
Mary and I work very well together. We each have backgrounds in both Christian and Buddhist meditation practices and have very similar approaches to meditation. We work pretty seamlessly together. We can, and often do, finish each others' sentences, or offer exactly the right correction to something the other one has said. People often remark on how effortless our collaboration seems, and it's one of the best parts of the retreats for me.
This spring's retreat was small. We scheduled it on a weekend that had enough available space in the Guesthouse, without noticing that it was Mother's Day weekend. We had 9 participants instead of the usual 20. I had some unease about that but that quickly melted away. It was exactly the right size. The people who came had a variety of levels of experience but were all very motivated and hard working. The small numbers gave people the opportunity to ask everything and say everything they needed to in the short periods we had for talking and sharing. It had the feeling that the people who really needed to be here were the ones who had come. I had no feeling of lack during the entire weekend. It was different from a larger group, but it was a nice difference and I'm glad that we had this experience.
Our spring retreats offer brief introductions to the practice of meditation using Centering Prayer and the Jesus Prayer, with some emphasis on the differences in each practice, since the use of the Jesus Prayer is a traditional "concentration practice" and Centering Prayer is much more formless and is centered in an intention rather than a phrase. There is always one other class on some aspect of meditation practice, and one session for questions and sharing. Otherwise it is silent, and the hours are for sitting (or walking) quietly and meditating. This year at the closing session, one of the participants remarked that she had come specifically because this retreat offered more time to practice: she really wanted more meditation than the introductory retreat offers. But she found by the end of the afternoon of the 2nd day that she was really being challenged by the amount of time that we provided. My reaction was: "Good. That means that we are offering just the right amount." We do try to challenge people on several levels, and this group responded with enthusiasm. It is such a privilege to be able to guide people who are seeking a knowledge of God.
Of course, the teachers don't get the same experience that the participants do. We have to keep an eye on how everything is going and be aware of what people are needing. There are all kinds of things that we need to be alert to. But even so, it is good to have those hours to join in the practice.
And it's hard work. From time to time I'm amazed at how much energy it takes to sit still and be quiet. People find they have used a lot of energy by the time it's over. I have had some health issues in recent weeks, so my energy levels weren't all that high to begin with, and I find that I'm very, very tired now. But Monday is coming, and I can rest. For now I'm happy at what I gave and what I got. It's a good ministry, one which gives people some important experiences and in which I find joy. I'm so glad that I had the inspiration for it all those years ago.