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.

Day 21: Thoughts on balance, rest, and multitasking

bench: "rest here"
photo by oliverkendal on flickr’s creative commons.

Balance is hard when you’re a grown-up. When you have a job and church commitments and writing goals you’ve set for yourself because you want to write.

Rest.

I love it in theory, but am terrible about actually doing it these days.

I think back to this time a year ago, and I miss the time I had to take walks and spend time with people without feeling that push of the schedule, that nudge to end the Skype call or the coffee date not because the conversation had come to a natural end, but because I worried that I wouldn’t get everything else on my list done and still get enough sleep. Relationships are a luxury now.

Maybe it’s not the commitments themselves, though; maybe it’s how I spend my time after and between and before. Usually, it’s not very restful. Usually, I’m better at carving out to-do time rather than to-rest time. And to-do time is usually to-do-many-things time.

Whenever I’m on my computer, I’m always doing many things at once. I start to read or write an email or a blog post, and partway through I check Facebook, or ponder a tweet, or check tomorrow’s weather forecast, or start balancing my checkbook, or clean up the icons on my Desktop. I’m not sure if my ADD is a socially acquired thing or not, but it doesn’t take long before my screen is strewn with many half-finished projects and messages and articles.

It’s not restful, and it’s not even that productive.

Maybe it’s true what Propaganda said at Catalyst two years ago: that “multitasking is a myth. You ain’t doin’ anything good, just everything awful.”

I think of the books I want to read that lie unread as I spend hours “relaxing” on the computer. I think of fall passing me by as I stay indoors behind a microphone or screen, only seeing the changing colors through the car windows. I think of not having time, and priorities, and I realize that the digital world has a strong hold over me and keeps me from the rest I know I need, the rest I desire deep down.

How can I keep from turning rest into tasks to be completed, and how can I find rest in the tasks to be completed? How do you?

This is day 21 of 31 Days in the Word. It’s also the second post in a very loose series about rest. The first was one was called “When the Outcome Matters Most.”

Day 11: When the Outcome Matters Most

all-nighter
photo by striatic on creative commons (flickr)

My mind and my life are full of many things, but I can’t seem to settle on any one of them long enough to rest in the exploration. There are too many things worth doing. I must do all of them, and I must do them all well (or so I tell myself).

This is the first of at least three (most likely non-consecutive) posts about rest. This is also day 11 of 31 Days in the Word.

I’ve discovered that I’m much more concerned with outcome than with process. Not in theory, but in practice. I quickly read through a chapter of the Bible and then spend a couple hours crafting an eloquent, relatable blog post that rings true.

The time I spend on each speaks volumes: I’m more concerned with my own writing than I am with the Bible.

I want the blogs I write and the emails I send and the tweets I … tweet to be quality additions to the smaller and larger conversations I’m involved in online. This is good. What’s bad is that my drive for quality is tied mostly to things others can see.

What matters is that I make an appearance on Skype or at Starbucks with you and prove my friendship.

What matters is that I am there for the Internet.

What matters is that you still think I’m cool, and a good writer.

All through college, I drank a deadly cocktail of perfectionism and procrastination. I could pull an all-nighter to write a paper or study for a test and still get high marks, and maybe my outcome looked the same as the kid next to me who had spent two weeks in the process.

But I knew the difference.

I knew I was learning so much less and sabotaging my education by cramming everything in at the last minute or holding my writing skills at gunpoint. That’s not where long-term growth happens.

This is not the way I want to live my life.

I weaken real relationships to keep up the appearance of relationship. I weaken my few things to keep up the appearance of many things.

I want to let go of my “control” of the outcome and the appearance and embrace the process — even the process no one sees — with as much care and attention as I have embraced the outcome.

This weekend, I will be considering how I can actually do this rather than just wanting it but doing nothing.

a life update (if ever there was one)

Railroad tracks in Alaska
in Alaska

When everything you think about seems too big and too overwhelming and too stressful — even the tried & true happy subjects — you know it’s time for sleep.

That was me 24 hours ago, and sleep I did. I awoke to more rain, but less disorientation.

The rain is unusual this time of year. I’m not a huge fan of rain (nor a huge opponent either), but knowing that this may very well be the last precipitation I see for three or four months gives me fonder feelings for those spontaneous droplets. And I welcome any respite from the over-the-top heat native to my brown, pastoral home.

I am still recovering from my back-to-back weeks of adventure in Mexico and Alaska. I suppose that’s only natural since I just got back two days ago.

One week of desert heat and desert cold, followed by one week of balmy midnight sun and green and mountains. One week of beans and rice, tortillas and soupy meat; one week of heavy-on-the-fish American fare. One week of making concrete and playing with kids whom I barely understood; one week of seeing breathtaking views and reuniting with old friends.

In August, I plan to start blogging regularly, making good on my desire to find a small group, and replanting my feet in work and church and life routines here. In August. But until then I still have mini-trips and a special visit and summer weddings smilingly withholding my routines from me. And I don’t mind one bit. I smile right back — smile even more broadly than they are — and speak words of warmest, eagerest welcome.

But this week, this is my week in between all of the glorious moments and soon-to-be’s of July. This is my week to rest, to breathe, to pray.

If you need me, that’s where I’ll be. And if I’m not there, if you discover that I’m doing too much, kindly advise me to ease back on all the mile-a-minute planning and preparing. It will get done.

Now is the time to rest.