A Monastic Retreat, in Moments

The website for the Retreat House at St. Benedict’s Monastery isn’t perfect. Everything I need to know is there, but it is not the most beautiful design or the most efficient layout.

But I don’t need it to be beautiful or efficient.

Sometimes, the real thing is so full of glory that no matter who is telling you about it, or how, the glory will seep through. This is that sort of thing, where nothing earnest can be misrepresented, where even the blurriest picture will cause us all to gather around.

 

I fill my arms four times and carry food and suitcases and books to my room. I know there are mountains outside, here in Snowmass, Colorado, but it’s too dark to see them. I stack my books high, and there are too many for one pile.

This is the day after Easter, or rather the night, and the Retreat House is empty except for me. Everyone came for Holy Week, and the second of April isn’t Ordinary Time, but it seems it may as well be to everyone else.

 

I fill my journal with the past and the future, with remembrances and visions. I truly pray for the first time in a long time. And as I fill in the rocks and plants and other features of a labyrinth in my coloring book, At Play in God’s Creation, my eyes fill with tears, and the decision I had come here to make, and indeed thought had been made, turns into grief and I let myself grieve.

Mount Sopris as seen from the Retreat House
The view from my room (Mount Sopris)

It isn’t always the story about the story, but it sure seems that way to me. I awaken to dreams and hopes, and then I fall asleep and sleepwalk through the grid laid before me. And then one day, when the sleepwalking starts to take a nightmarish turn, I wake long enough to remember and cup my chin in my hands as I take in the beauty in the distance, the beauty I could be a part of.

I want to come awake long enough to do good in the world, a good I can sustain because it bubbles up from the truest, deepest parts of me.

 

I only leave the Retreat House for Vespers (I thought about going to Mass, but I don’t know whether or not I’m allowed to take the sacrament, so I skip it). I try to take in the details of what I see and hear, not just what I feel. One monk sits on a cushion. Blue jeans poke out at the bottom of their robes, ending in sandaled feet. Sometimes I turn to the right page in the book and can follow along, but sometimes I lose my place and can only listen.

The services end in darkness and quiet, but the silence is not absolute. The monks greet us on the way out, and I find myself shy.

The church, as seen from the guest chapel
The church, as seen from the guest chapel/meditation room

I meet Sarah and Pat at Vespers, and they invite me to drink tea with them in their hermitage, a separate guest accommodation. It is the best tea I’ve ever had, a tea that actually tastes as good as it smells. And we talk about wistful things and tangible things, wise men and meaningful stories and standing in unfrequented spiritual spaces. And I know I am talking about my life as I wish it to be, my time as I would like it to be spent, not as it is.

We only have so much time in a day, time to decide what we will fill ourselves with and what we will spend ourselves on.

 

I pad across the thick carpet and lay on the floor of the Prayer Hall. The low lights make wondrous shapes and so do the wooden beams far above me, and the silence is deep. I take pictures and I walk back and forth, alone and at peace.

Lights and shadows in the Prayer Hall
Lights and shadows in the Prayer Hall

I feel like I am on holy ground. On my way out, I stop at the bookstore and pull objects to myself, trying to bring this place with me:  a book about this monastery, a CD of Gregorian chants, beeswax candles, cards made of pressed flowers that aren’t perfect in form, but are perfect for having been made here.

 

I keep craning my neck to see Mount Sopris, and looking hungrily in the rear view mirror. The mountain was before me three days ago when I was arriving, but in the dark I hadn’t known, hadn’t seen. And now I am stealing glimpses as I come down off the mountain.

Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Gratitude & Asia & Colorado

Asia group
Some of my Asia people (Photo by Gonzalo Santillan, 2012).

I once lived in Asia. I remember the night we arrived, how we all trooped into the first apartment at midnight, how we took in every bright and dusty and unusual detail. How we had a few names and phone numbers, but we didn’t know anyone, not really, and we didn’t know this city.

Three months later, we didn’t just have our favorite restaurants and transportation success stories and the ability to navigate any dish with a pair of chopsticks; we also had friends. We wrote down the names of these people, the ones we spent time with in living rooms and cafeterias and zoos, the people we ate chicken feet and watermelon and birds-on-a-stick with, the people we invited over and out, the people who understood a little of what we said and those who understood a lot. We filled three sheets of paper with their names. We had them, and we had each other.

So much can happen between spring and summer.

So much can happen between one winter and the next.

I now live in Colorado. I remember the day I arrived, driving all the way up that narrow street and then tiptoeing around the patches of ice, how I lay on the floor and stared at the wood paneling of my ceiling. How I had a few names and phone numbers, but I didn’t know anyone, not really, and I didn’t know this city.

I think I will remember this first year in Colorado as I remember those three months in Asia, as a time bursting with color.

Not that there weren’t blue-tinged weeks. Not that there weren’t red-faced days and wet-faced days. But there were also more names than I expected. I wrote down the names of these people, the ones I have spent time with in living rooms and coffee shops and on city streets, the people I prayed with and played games with and had hours-long conversations with. The people I saw, and who saw me.

Even though I am so very much a work in progress, even though there are a thousand ways I can and have attached narratives of separation and disconnection to my interactions with other humans, I am grateful when my stubborn eyes are clear enough to see the good as well as the bad.

For those of you who made room for others this year, who decided that your lives weren’t too full to admit another, who were generous with your smiles and invitations and hearts: Thank you!

And for those of you who have been searching for your people, for a place at the table, for someone who will listen: Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. There are more of us out there than you know. Maybe we will find each other.

Some of my Colorado people
Some of my Colorado people (2015).

Of Souls and Long-Term Memory (a Mumford & Sons reflection)

Mumford and Sons in concert
Mumford & Sons in concert at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Salida, Colorado, on August 22, 2015.

I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.

The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.

Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.

Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.

But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.

I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.

The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.

Finally, it did.

The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.

Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.

As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.

The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.

When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.

These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.

We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.