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.

The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings (part 1)

sky and clouds
Photo by Martin Duggan, Flickr creative commons

 

The first time a friend of mine went skydiving, I was 17 years old and relieved I was too young to join her. But I put it on my bucket list. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have the courage to initiate such an adventure, but I knew there would come a time when people I knew would look to the sky and ask me to come along, when there would be an opportunity to say yes or no. And I would say yes, I was sure I would, one day.

I was also 17 when the sky drew my attention in a different way. I found NASA’s website on eclipses, the world maps with the splashes of red and blue that can turn anyone into a dreamer. No one knows for sure what her life will bring even tomorrow, but I knew what the sun and the moon would be doing in 10 years’ time, and I was determined to be there to see it. Long before anyone called it the Great American Solar Eclipse, I was joining my first group in the early days of Facebook and committing the far-off date of August 21, 2017, to memory.

And then I settled in to wait. Wait for time to pass, wait for courage, wait for other dreams to emerge, to incubate, to come true, to die.

There is romance in the narrative of dreams fulfilled. Until fulfillment was almost upon me, however, I didn’t realize how much I wanted them to be fulfilled in certain ways. It wasn’t enough to be in the right place at the right time, or to do an activity that hundreds or thousands of people do every day. I needed to bear witness to everything, everything happening around me and within me, every nuance of light and shadow, of falling and flying, of fear and joy and sadness. It’s a fearful pressure, an enormous responsibility, a catch-22 that inspires me to be more fully present while at the same time the fear of missing something can make me too anxious and preoccupied to be fully present. To trust that by “just being” I will gain everything I need to know and remember is a dance I have not fully learned.

Skydiving involves less than a minute of freefall, and then it’s a canopy ride. The total eclipse is bookended by hours of waxing and waning, but only two-and-a-half minutes of the high drama of darkness.

When a decade’s worth of anticipation is all over in a matter of seconds or minutes, will you remember what it looked like, what it felt like, or will you just remember the anticipation and the aftermath?

I saw the total eclipse in August, and I went skydiving in September.

This is what it looked like and felt like.

 

This is part one of a four-part series.

 

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

Save

Save

Staying Attuned {an Advent reflection}

Mbale, Uganda
Mbale, Uganda

Dear Uganda,

We will be meeting each other soon, and forming first impressions. The sun we both know will shine on us at the same time, and in the short hours I have with you I pray I will be straining to see.

I’ve been writing to two of your children, a boy and a girl, and I know a little bit about you – about climate and crops and family life – but not nearly as much as I should.

I know there is violence and poverty, illiteracy and corruption. I know there is beauty and I know there is pain.

And I know that I often see the nations of Africa with bleary, blurry eyes, until all I can make out is a giant swirl in the shape of a continent.

Today I’m writing at Annie Rim’s blog, for her series on Advent. My first guest blog! Join me there to read the rest of this post.

Listen to the Longing

Travel is lovely; travel is lonely.

I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.

I know longing too.

Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.

Longing.

One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.

This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.

The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.

The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”

At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.

And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.

And that longing, it is lonely, and it is lovely.