"For the unseen love of a sincere heart persevering
through that dark cloud of unknowing between you and your God
in a hidden yet certain way includes in itself
genuine humility without the help of particular or clear ideas."
~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch 14.
Living in a northern and coastal climb as I do, the pronounced seasons of the year are such that all may notice and many of us change the paces of our lives alongside these transitions. As with all life forms, we move with nature’s passages. Following a drawn-out winter, the natural response to dramatically lengthened days in northern New England is to be outdoors with all that is verdant and reaching up to the bright skies. It is as though the elements around us prompt our changed perspectives, and even how we greet each day. But what of the bidding from within, calling a soul to times of contemplative solitude, governed by seasons which know not a calendar? Dispersed through my weeks replete with work, I manage to include very brief silences- almost borrowing the time, even if to simply collect a few thoughts and write down some references. The humblest fragments of respite have been valuable breaths for discernment, and thus I continue weaving recollective moments into the most demanding of work days. The balance is not always consistent. Invariably there are points for which the most constructive and healthiest movements forward in the direction of all that is in my life... is to retreat for some open-ended moments that are not wedged in between demands. I began what became a nourishing personal practice of pilgrimage fourteen years ago, and continue to be astonished at the powerful draw of contemplation and the vitality of stopping that perpetual motion which can burn so many of us right out. It is for the individual soul in communion with God to determine the season. The less structure there is, the better. St. Bernard of Clairvaux worded it beautifully:
"Aided by God
the soul gathers itself
from all affairs
in order to contemplate God."
I recently returned from a long-awaited retreat, and while in transit my thoughts turned to what gifts these times have always been. On some occasions the retreats have been anguished searches for spiritual shelter. Other times I’ve used liminal spaces between chapters in my continuum to pursue reflective journeys. For the most part, the retreats are about all I can do to regather when my strength seems spent and my soul saturated. Ah, but it is a travel along the grand and eternal pilgrimage! Whether it’s been flights across the Atlantic or drives across New England, preparing for a sojourn to a sanctuary is itself rejuvenating. As I drove the newly-greening country roads a couple of weeks ago, I noticed myself savoring the humblest of travels. Although the routes were very familiar to me, the difference was in the purpose of the trip- already teaching me something about the commonplace for me to bring home after the retreat. Years of experience, both as a pilgrim and in the spiritual life, help me to know the essentials to bring on such journeys. I’ve learned to bring coffee, so to be better able to appreciate those pre-dawn monastic vigils, and indeed there must always be writing materials and a camera. Still, my tendency is to pack too many books.
For me, a retreat is to rediscover stillness, and that includes stilling of thoughts. Through these recent weeks, the idea of maintenance has been prominently in mind. For many lives that value conscientiousness and sincere communion, contemplative retreat is a form of healthy maintenance. In order to continue in a consistent energy and intention, there must be spiritual maintenance. What does this mean? When anything is to be maintained, it’s to be kept in working order. Keeping in being. Upkeep. Safekeeping. The word "keep" is part of the equation. Keep confidence; keep various things in mind and heart. A professor once graded a paper I wrote with "keep the fire." I remember that comment far better than the project.
With requisite traveling, some provisions, and a head full of clutter, the pilgrim arrives at a place of respite. The change of scenery and air, not to mention the welcome, help the spirit renew. The best places of pilgrimage are those which do not make demands upon the retreatant’s time. Those of us who have temporarily fled rigidity and information overload can thrive in those boundless days which, in a monastic environment, are simply punctuated with communal meals and the Divine hours of common prayer. On this occasion just past, I requested solitude- and so the meals and prayers became the parts of the day in which I had company. The situation was perfect, considering the level of exhaustion at which I’d arrived. My hosts gave me a cabin in the woods, providing a contrast to my usual city life. From my sanctuary I could hear the subtle sounds of the outdoor life around me, and the wind currents through the trees. With an unimpaired view of the night skies, it was possible to see the weather develop as the clouds drifted eastward. The day after my arrival was steeped in a torrentially soaking rain. I loved it. God was slowing me down twice over: a little cabin whose distant next-door neighbors were monks, and a soothingly rainy day. The cabin had a front porch, so my reading and writing could continue in the fresh air, while the cleansing rain spattered on the stone steps beyond my canopy.
Unlike the daily routine I interrupted for the cause of respite, the retreat days themselves brought back to mind the subtleties- even the sublimities- of midmornings and midafternoons. For many of us full-time laborers, the day can wind up divided such that we focus on the opposite ends: before and after the chaos. The full spectrum is to be savored, no matter what is (or isn’t) going on. I’ve spent enough of my life wishing time away. After the days of spiritual and physical rest, as I packed my things to take to the road home, I noted in my journal: "The sojourn has brought a quiet refreshment to my soul. Nothing drastic, since I slept quite a lot, and enjoyed the silence I needed. Now, I’m all assembled to return, and the rest and safety I experience at this moment must accompany me- and be reminders for future days."
As a stage along the pilgrim’s way, extending by trust into the mystery of the unknown, temporary retreats have a finite duration. Setting forth takes a natural course, after our intuition tells us we’ve had just enough rest so that we can resume our steps. Similarly to the energy I find when preparing for a sanctified journey, so the re-ignited sense of wonder propels me from retreat forward onto the road home. I press on with assurance, even without knowing exactly what may have been derived from the silence. The ground of my faith is sown anew, but the manifestation of new learning will be subtle and perhaps unnoticed. It is all entrusted to the mystery of a pilgrim’s continuity. "Hidden yet certain," wrote the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, accentuating the beautifully discreet bond of guiding love between Creator and created. The assurance cannot always be articulated. Even the obscurities and hardships tell me to persevere. The heart can listen and respond- even without description, and with St. John of the Cross I can say, "things so interior and spiritual are such that words commonly fail to describe them." From our contemplation, words may emerge with us, as well as silences deeper still. The drive home offered renewed angles toward familiar scenery. It remains an impression of being home yet continually setting forth, pacing myself confidently onto unfolding paths.