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.

Here’s to Being

Here I am, again.

I’m moving gingerly back into this space, unsure of what I’m able to commit to, of what is life-giving, of what tomorrow will feel like.

But here I lie, in the dark of my sister’s dorm room while she sleeps, with peace and a full heart, and an ash cross on my forehead that I haven’t gotten a proper look at yet.

It is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, and I have come a long way since the darkness of the new year. January was a bleak month for me and others I know. I looked toward February and saw it glowing with hope and promise. And that’s what I found there. I had a weekend of feeling close to God for the first time in a long time, and another weekend of connecting with girls half my age and revisiting my camp baggage and realizing so much about who I am as a person, a youth leader, a counselor.

And yet, I’m still amazed at how easy it was to bend back to how things were before. To bend back to autopilot and doing and hard edges and stagnation.

Maybe I will be bending a different way by this time next month.

I have never observed Lent before, but this year I signed up for an online course that’s focus is on being and resting. After being wrung dry, after depression, in the midst of doubt and sameness, this is what I needed.

I read the introductory posts from the other few dozen women taking part in the course, and I wrote out my story in unabashed wordiness. Then came the peace and the full heart. And the desire to keep writing.

So here I am, again.

Day 15: Lectio Divina and a Lost Conference

flowersYou are planted here.

Those were the words I felt in my spirit during Sunday night youth group as I lay on the church sanctuary floor.

A few of us read Psalm 1 out loud, silently asking God to highlight a word or phrase or picture. Then we each retreated to separate corners to meditate and ask and rest in the living word with the living God. In other words, we practiced lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”), the ancient monastic practice.

Part of the third verse jumped off the page into my waiting self: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

You are planted here.

Those words came back to me yesterday morning as I was fighting back tears of disappointment and frustration. A work meeting at 9 o’clock, 15 minutes of forgetfulness, and twelve hundred other women who were more on top of things than I was, and suddenly the IF Gathering in Austin, Texas, was no longer a possibility for me.

This was to be another adventure with a far-away friend, but more than that it was to be a coming together of women to be real together, to wrestle together, to ask questions and seek God and discover purpose and build each other up. And as the IF Gathering became less of a typical-conference thing and more of a stepping-out-in-faith thing, my excitement grew.

And then it was gone.

But folding hundreds of Share-a-thon letters in a quiet room is very therapeutic. I prayed and processed through this unwelcome turn of events, and my sadness and guilt and frustration melted into peace.

You are planted here.

The IF Gathering isn’t just a Texas-only event; it’s being opened to others around the world via webcast.

Maybe this is an opportunity for her to get to know people in Texas; maybe this is an opportunity for me to get to know people here.

“You’re always going somewhere,” I’m often told. I try to deny it, but looking back over the last year, back at England and Chicago and Alaska and Mexico and the Pacific Northwest and Pennsylvania (not to mention China the year before), I can’t.

Maybe I need this reminder that it’s okay to stay put. I don’t need a plane trip and a change of scenery to grow or make a difference or see God in a new way.

I wouldn’t have chosen it like this, but I am planted here, and I am at peace.

This is day 15 of 31 Days in the Word.