Yesterday I went to a day-long meditation retreat at the home of Mary Gates, with whom I lead meditation retreats here at Holy Cross. There were a dozen of us there, including the teacher, and we had a great day. Very simple. Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, lunch, sit, walk, etc. The usual meditation retreat. It was exactly what I needed, and I came back more centered and settled than I've been in a while.
I got home just in time for supper, and when I sat down at the table one of the guests asked me where I had been all day. So I told her, and then explained what I had been doing. The answer seemed to rather unsettle her. Why would I want to do that? After all, I lead meditation retreats, don't I? Why do I need to go to one? "No reading?", "No lectio divina?", "No discussion?" To each of those I replied that no, we just meditated, sometimes while walking and sometimes while sitting.
Thinking about that encounter later I was wondering how to go about explaining it to someone who has trouble understanding why anyone would do such a thing. After all, even if meditation retreats are more common than they used to be, many people never encounter that sort of behavior. Why would someone want to do that? And how is it explained?
Then I remembered the story of Mother Teresa, who was famous for getting up at 4 a.m. each day to pray. No matter where she was or how late she had been up, she got up at 4 for prayer. Apparently a reporter once asked her what she did when she prayed - how did she pray? "Oh," she said "I just listen to God". The reporter thought for a while and then said: "And what does God do?" "Oh," she said, "He just listens to me."
Probably some people would want some explanation or commentary, but for me it's quite self explanatory, and I intuitively understand it. The mutual exchange of listening really reaches me as a means of communication.
And then I thought about the chipmunk. I had been out for a walk in the hills just west of the monastery one morning. It was a beautiful mild sunny day, a perfect time for a walk in the hills. I was gone most of the morning (it was a Monday, our Sabbath Day) and at the end of my walk, as I was coming down our drive, there just by the little stone building we call the Goat House (no one knows why), was a chipmunk on a stone. He (or she) was busy with some small task, but when he saw me approaching he sat up on his hind feet, very alert. He made no move to run or hide, but he sat there very still, and very alert. I slowed down and when I got close to him, I stopped.
He stood there. I stood there. He waited. I waited. We watched each other. Time went by. We waited and we watched.
And then something really wonderful happened. He relaxed. His muscles just untensed and his whole body relaxed. You could watch it happening, little by little. And as he relaxed, so did I. He didn't stop watching me, nor did I lose the eye contact with him. He sat, I stood relaxed, and we went on watching each other. I, of course, don't know what was going on for the chipmunk, but he seemed pretty comfortable with it. At least he didn't want to leave. Neither did I.
I was really surprised at the power of that moment. The chipmunk moved into my life. No words were exchanged, no actions brought us together, we just stayed there in each other's presence. He looked at me. I looked at him. And over the great distance between a man and a chipmunk, some hint of communication came in the silence. The looking wasn't empty. Not at all. We were being with each other.
We stayed there for a long time. At several points I wondered how long this was going to last. But I didn't want to break the moment. At least from my vantage point, we had established some contact, and I didn't want to break it. And whatever was going on for the chipmunk, he didn't want to leave, either.
But finally the time came. He moved a little, and then I did. He looked around, and then in a wink he was gone, under a nearby rock, and the time was over. But that time still has power for me. I show no signs of forgetting. Over all the things that separate a man and a beast, we had reached out and been with each other. It didn't need words. It was very full.
So, could you use that to understand a day of meditation? For me, at least, it sure is a good explanation. "I look at God. God looks at me." And in that look so much is exchanged, and even though nothing "happens", so much does happen. Sometimes the doors to friendship, companionship, sharing and even love open in silence.
I probably need to get more skillful in talking about this and explaining it. But my difficulty is that it's so natural to me and it makes so much sense. I listen to God. God listens to me. What else do you need? Just doing that is so full. Sure, there is teaching that is helpful, and ways of putting yourself there that can make a difference, and there are books and books about that. But I think it helps to have a chipmunk to make sense of it all. A soft furry little creature who will interrupt his day just sit there and be with you.
I've never forgotten. And it still makes perfect sense to me.