Sunday, November 11, 2012

pilgrimage of the heart

“Deep and ancient is the challenge
to be faithful each new day,
stirring mind and heart to live with hope.

So loved by God are we
and called to be a presence
of gentleness and compassion,
lifting burdens.
Yes, may our hearts be free to bear with others,
forgiving, reaching out to understand with love.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory, So Loved by God.

retreat to repose

In the previous essay I looked at purposes for personal retreats through my experience of combining contemplative environments in an urban neighborhood. Serendipitous connections of places and interests are as available to us as our souls and lives are unique. Essentially, sanctified time away from routine demands can take place practically anywhere. We each know what is necessary to “make things stop,” to be able to really sense our thoughts, our times, and the air around us. Often it can take real and conscious effort to slow physical and mental paces. It may even be intimidating to consider what might happen after ceasing that requisite self-propelled perpetual motion that tends to possess too much of life.

For tireless workers, respite presents a challenge- despite how so many of us crave rest. A retreat provides an occasion to withdraw to circumstances that provide sanctuary from demands. When a retreat experience takes root, I find myself unconcerned about what time it is. As well, I begin to notice the burdens I’d been ignoring which had long been subsumed in the quotidian din. But such impressions are inherent in the settling-in; from there, the adventure improves.

Whether the retreat takes place on an island, in a city, in a state park, a monastery, or in a secluded hermitage, the common bond is one of inner attentiveness. Like pulling off the road during a lengthy travel, stopping motion provides a chance to glimpse previous stages of the journey. More importantly, the present, this very day’s light and air, and this moment’s thoughts, all receive their due. Without interruption, perspective is free to run its natural course. And then it properly dissolves. Unwelcome words that rode along are picked off as burrs caught on my coat. For these sojourns my favorite book, The Cloud of Unknowing, provides reminders to guide my musings. I’ve learned how micro-focus must be diverted by a grander view. More importantly, an abiding sense of the sacred must be at front and center. Lacking a supernatural outlook leaves life empty and aimless. Hence, I seek out contemplative places and spans of time.

weston priory

In recent years, I’ve found a few venues nearby for short-term retreats such as the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, and the Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston. Even a tiny cabin on Penobscot Bay served as a fine hermitage. With lengthier parcels of time, my longtime favorite retreat is the Weston Priory, which is a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of Vermont. I’ve just returned from two weeks at Weston, marking 18 years of pilgrimage there. Long a place of familiarity and wonder alike, my sojourns begin with a meandering drive along rivers, through valleys, and finally following unpaved roads to the Priory. With my progress toward my destination, the scenery becomes less structured and more peaceful. My senses are greeted by a mountain landscape immersion, wilderness, bracing air, and lucid skies. Then I notice the quiet; such that I can hear the trees creaking in the wind. Amidst this environment are the welcomes I receive from the brothers- each as unique as their individual selves. The greeting embraces always resemble a homecoming.

Although Weston Priory is less about material place than it is about community, the monastery’s physical environment is very carefully maintained and kept as plain as possible. The general ambience is one of eloquent simplicity. Rather than possessing ornate structures or shrines, the rustic monastery blends into its natural environment with few, low-profile farm buildings that serve as oratories, workshops, and residences. Throughout the Priory, the quiet beauty of creation is evident in all seasons. My numerous pilgrimages to Weston through the years have witnessed every variety of Vermont weather from blizzards and mountain monsoons to summer swelter; I’ve grown to favor the region’s russet and breezy autumns.

My monastic accommodation is hospitably simple, with a writing table, a dresser, and bed in a small room with a large window that faces the forested panorama. Between the living-space, the refectory- where the brothers, pilgrims and guests dine together- and places of community prayers, the seasonal colors, sounds, aromas, and textures permeate.

in silence, and in community

For the past four years, following a long stay in Taizé, France, I’ve prefaced my Priory retreats with a week of solitude in a small nearby hermitage. The solitary silence provides a way to settle my thoughts and sleep long hours. As well, there’s nobody around to be disrupted by my typewriting. In those first few days of complete solitude, before moving into the community’s guest house, the woods and the quiet allow for the departure of my cluttered thoughts and irrelevant notions. The noise must make its exit without force; a combination of silence and trust make this possible. I’ve had to learn to not be frustrated by the first days of retreat, but rather to ride them out with hiking, reading, and simple creative projects.

Retreats can reveal vulnerabilities, albeit in safe and stable circumstances. Experience has taught me to draw strength from the ambience of belonging fostered by the Priory. Along with reassurance, I’ve learned the detriment of dwelling upon old misfortunes. A retreat provides place and time to retrain my priorities. Worldly preoccupations lead to excessive analyses of what’s wrong with this or that. Entanglement with the what-ifs is a waste of time. Such matters are very much out of my control. Inevitably, as the Priory and its environs are holy ground to me, a beautifully palpable peace takes shape. And it doesn’t even require my efforts. Just as my stay in the hermitage begins to feel a bit lonesome, I reach the time to move into the community house. In an organic progress, the monastic day’s rhythm begins to carry me along, away and above outdated thoughts. For years, I’ve referred to my synchronous settling and momentum as “gravy time.” This means the Holy Spirit has taken root through the retreat and my remaining days amount to savoury, gossamer gravy.

my continuum with the weston priory

From my extended monastic experience in 1999; I'm in the back row, fourth from the left.

During this recent visit, while reminiscing about some of my numerous Priory sojourns, some of the brothers commented about our shared histories. I cherish this profoundly. They welcome countless visitors from everywhere, and yet they remember details I’d thought only I could recall. My impressions of wonder and respect have been with me throughout each and every Weston pilgrimage from my first journey, to the present day- including my six weeks’ stay in 1999. Over the years I’ve learned about Christian discipleship and consensus from these wise and witty monks whose daily faith is lived reality. They like to describe how we all walk together on a shared pilgrimage. Recently I heard myself say to Brother Robert and Brother John that “I am God’s student. I ask questions, and the Teacher has the answers- which often are questions asked of me.” Gesturing to his listeners, Christ asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Not that it’s any great accomplishment to be a student, but it’s certainly the ground upon which my learning finds its dynamism. I’ve said to the brothers that I’ve long considered them as mentors for whom I’m immensely grateful.

message in the music

Another enduring impression of mine is how the brothers’ music and lyrics, which encompass all their liturgical services, are modern-day psalms. When I’ve been unable to call forth a passage of holy writ, a Weston Priory song will immediately emerge from within. As I see it, the Weston music reflects the monastery’s theology. Their songs are striking in their poetically relational aspects. Like the ancient Psalms, these are songs that balance praise and the human relationship with God and one another. And God is consistently portrayed as almighty Creator, yet proximate and caring. If I were to thread lyrics together for a “gospel according to the Weston Priory,” it would emphasize how God indwells and enfolds mortal life. In response we “long to be spirit alive,” while “wandering in the wilderness, learning how to dance,” certain that “those who hope in the Lord find their strength renewed,” and each day “we commit ourselves to birth anew,” while gratefully aspiring “to be as good as God for others.” The message is very much an emphasis on Jesus’ words, “do not let your hearts be troubled; trust in God.” Around these biblical assurances are all their emphases upon inclusiveness, and that no person is either more or less worthy than anyone else. “So loved by God are we,” is one of their many sung refrains. Over the past 18 years, I've heard them refer to “challenges,” rather than “problems.” To these gentlemen whose spiritual lives are tested and mature, there is always reason to hope. In other words, they are relentlessly optimistic and contagiously positive. I’ve consistently noticed this, since my first visit.

As each sojourn forms into a unifying message for me to comprehend, this one also gave me some food for thought. I am keenly aware of how the passage of time and the accumulation of experiences can desensitize the soul. Retreats help me to resist becoming jaded and wrapped up in criticism or apathy. Oddly enough while spending energy and time trying to sensitize others, I risk becoming calloused and unable to notice gifts at my doorstep. Journal writing caused me to pay attention to the tones of my thoughts and tame the easy impulse to identify flaws only. Unchecked, my failings entangle with my career foibles, which taint my comprehension of theology. I want to know what I’m supposed to know- right now- so that I won’t kick myself later. I want to know when to aggressively intervene and when to be passively permissive. Indeed and alas, there is no formula. There does remain patience and perseverance to be learned and practiced. At the Priory, I simply listened to the brothers’ insights. They’ve always been wonderfully subtle teachers, and my gleanings of their applied wisdom surely adds to all I’ve brought home from the Priory. It takes longer to practice a discipline than to learn procedures.

descending from the mountaintops

One of my Weston retreat traditions is to write a “send-off” journal entry sometime during the day before I must head back home. Just as there can be an adjustment when arriving from the chaotic fray to the ora et labora of monastic life, there is a “re-entry” to consider. Retreatants may have stepped aside their respective treadmills, as few of us have the luxury of completely kicking them away. I’ve grown well aware of the “hard landings” that can follow a retreat, and have figured out ways to help make the transition more a willingness to re-engage and realign the old routines. Why negate cultivated healing and enriching experiences? Writing about discoveries has actually helped generate an eagerness to descend the mountain and carry the light to my various workplaces and commitments. Choosing in favor of a spiritual practice or an ethos is, in effect, a choosing-away from something less constructive. As autumn advances to winter, the seasons rotate their invitations to broaden and then to draw within. What we see before us is surely not all there is. In my notebook and heart, I have stored some words from Brother Peter: “Will we dare to seek the common good of our sisters and brothers?” This exhortation implies a going forth.