At the Abbey
“Ah, a young one” said the Italian nun, her milky blue eyes staring into mine as she gave me a hug. Sister Bernadette made a point of greeting all those attending the annual silent retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey. It was a formal welcome that said, “I see you and am glad you are here.” I had received it every year for the last three, but this time in particular I needed her encouragement.
Life had been pressing, and daily prayers had slipped by the wayside. Bursting into the retreat center that hot July afternoon, I felt crabby and out of step. Sister Bernadette’s welcome told me I could come as I was. She was right too about the young-ness. I was roughly the same age as many of the other people filing in, but I was to spend the next three days in a severe adolescent funk.
It began with the room. I had arrived late, and my favorite room was already occupied. Someone else had claimed its plain white bed, airy light, and secluded location in the back of the rambling one storey building. I drifted down the carpeted hallways not seeing any other quarters that would do. The remaining rooms felt too close to other people or were too dark and cramped. Finally, I chose what seemed the best of a bad lot. Our regime of silence had not yet begun and some women were chatting in a nearby doorway. I swept past them and slammed my door with more force than I had intended. I wasn’t really sorry. I hadn’t taken time off to listen to chitchat.
I fumed and fulminated in my room, chafing at my proximity to the women outside. I wasn’t like them; I wasn’t dressed up with my hair done. I didn’t wear jeweled sandals or have painted pink toenails. I wasn’t a protestant from Lake Charles or Lafayette. I was a lapsed catholic from New Orleans, a weekly churchgoer it was true, but after my own fashion. I had come to the retreat to wander alone around the abbey grounds with its live oaks and chapels and chanting monks. I happened to be sharing space with 40 other people, but I didn’t need them.
I couldn’t wait for the ban on talking to begin. Then I could drift about with no obligation to perform the social song and dance. Freed from the need to interact with others, I could look forward to tingling visions and dreams. It had happened before in this place.
At that point, a story I had heard about Thomas Merton rose uncomfortably to mind. At the Gethsemane Monastery where he had lived for many years, he had once admonished his fellow monks, “You’re aren’t contemplatives, you’re just introverts.” They hadn’t liked hearing that much, and I didn’t like the possibility that my yearning for quiet was more about people fatigue than God.
I began realizing how far my fatigue extended. I was exhausted both by too much activity and by the curt, know it all mindset engendered by the exhaustion itself. My inner life and family had been the first to feel the effects. That night I wrote in my journal:
“Dead right, dead righteous, dead. How do I regain balance when I feel that fever coming over me? And our daughter. How am I letting her down with these displays of cold and mistaken clarity? Can I be content with what is, be with my husband and daughter in their struggles, fears? Draw limits in a loving way?”
The next morning this fruitful thread had to be set aside when I left the retreat for a job related meeting. I spent eight hours of that precious day doing things that had nothing to do with silence and everything to do with dutiful service to a client. I had asked the retreat director to make this departure ahead of time. We agreed that leaving the retreat for a few hours would be a useful exercise in taking stillness with me out into the world.
I still thought that was true when as I packed my briefcase and headed to my car that morning. In fact, I was glad to be leaving the retreat for a while. For several hours after waking I had been plagued by daydreams of being flattered and famous, celebrated by crowds for my inspiring behavior. I was dimly aware that these fantasies revealed my need to calm down into a more grounded sense of aspiration. But mainly I was irritated. The teenage force of the daydreams was unseemly, embarrassing for a woman of my years. Wasn’t I past the need for all that fawning? Apparently not, I had to admit, as the daydreams spun loudly in my head hour after hour. It was a relief to run to my car and speed away.
Flight simply put me more squarely under the power of what I was fleeing. My wish to be a spiritual star, apart from and above the herd, came with me for the ride, assuring me as I drove that leaving was not a betrayal of my need for retreat, but proof of my superior mettle. Unlike the others who had to cling to the monastery grounds for edification, I could come and go: say my prayers, leave to do my job in the outer world, then return in the evening with no harm done. The comeuppance was predictable: as I drove back that night and parked on the abbey’s weedy entrance road, my smugness was in tatters.
I had returned all right, but I was a mess, straggling to my room, heels clattering. Dead tired, I longed for the rootedness I saw in the other retreat participants who had allowed themselves to sink into the day. They were moving gracefully, smiles on their faces as they walked from room to room. I felt the cost of crossing over without care, of availing myself of worldly flexibility without consciousness.
“I didn’t take the transition seriously, didn’t take my own limitations into account, so intent was I on feeling superior. ‘I can do it all,’ just like others I’ve criticized for taking on too much. And just like them I crashed and wasted time. And my sneering at the others here, even this overt sign of arrogance didn’t raise alarm bells for me. I really am a numbskull. Hard not to see the humor in it.”
The next morning, my numbskullery rallied again with a determination to achieve peacefulness pronto.
“Hurry up!” a voice inside me said, “This is the last full day of the retreat, the last chance for your soul’s yearly refueling!”
As anyone could have told me, trying to force it just brought successive bouts of worry and preoccupation, the feeling of a brick in my head.
“Restless, I am tired and restless, longing to be taken away from myself. I walk, I move from the chapel to the library to my room, pick up books and put them down…could feeling so uncertain and out of whack help me forgive myself and others close to me who also feel like this at times? Can I bring compassion to counterbalance all my righteousness? On my own I’d never pull it off. Only with God’s help.”
The day never really got much better, though I did have a good moment standing on the bridge at the abbey’s entrance, looking at the sparkling, chocolate brown river swirling below. As the hours dragged on, I found myself warming to people as I passed them in the hallways. I was grateful for their grounding presences, their sharing of inner ballast. I sorely needed it.
I prayed as the group of us walked the labyrinth that evening. My mind wandered, I remained distracted, but I tried to honor the time as best I could. Earlier I had come across this sentence in a book called Meditation in Motion:
“Visions are fine…but the test of their validity resides in leaving them behind, in forgetting them all and concentrating instead on how zealously one peels potatoes for supper…Any lessening of arrogance implies a gain in humility, which means, in the words of Teresa of Avila, to walk in the truth of who we are.”
The next day it was time to leave. I was still besieged by dreams of glory. But my reaction to these ego flurries was calmer than it had been earlier in the week.
“Can I greet these imaginings not with solemn intensity but with warmth and understanding? They seem so real, so urgent, but they take me away from what is going on right now. God, help me to put these thoughts in imaginary paper boats and send them downstream again and again. Help me let the drive for specialness ebb so I can just focus on being my imperfect yet particular self. Just me, walking in the truth of who I am. No need to wear the crown.”
That morning the group broke silence at a gathering in the retreat center library. The easy chairs and sofas had been pushed back, and everyone stood in a big circle. One by one, each person said a sentence or two about what they had gained at the retreat. People were not shy about revealing their experiences:
“I was held in the palm of the lord.”
“I reached a deep inner stillness.”
“I felt a oneness with all that is.”
The young, swaggering part of me rolled her eyes at these statements. After all, if she hadn’t reached sublime heights how could these people have done it? An older part of me knew better. The closer I felt to my fellow retreat goers, the more their essential mystery was revealed. I had no business judging them.
When it was my turn to speak I teared up and said in a squeaky voice, “I was restless and unhappy. I paced and struggled and couldn’t settle down. It was a tough three days.”
A woman whose room was next to mine said with a serious nod, “I heard your restlessness.”
I remembered the door slamming and thought, “I bet she did.”
Just before leaving my room for the last time, I was able to write down a final prayer in my journal:
“I feel an inkling of the abundance that contains all the struggle, all the dimness. I feel it, and bless it, and need it.”
I need a good supply of paper boats as well.