It is Sunday morning. I am sitting at home watching the snow come down and the smoke from the incense ascend. I was supposed to still be at the silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery but it was decided that for safety sake, with the coming storm, everyone would head home Saturday evening. Some people left in the afternoon. Others left right after dinner. I was the only member of the group that stayed for compline. The service had a different feel with it being mostly just the monks.
It was a wonderful retreat and although I was disappointed that it had to be cut short because of the weather, I am looking forward to another retreat there.
I drove up Friday morning, leaving myself lots of extra time. I found quiet roads along the Hudson to drive along and a park to stop and watch the birds and animals. I arrived early and settled in. Since it was my first time there, I was shown around and given a sense of the rhythm of the day.
Instead of room numbers, the rooms are named after saints. I was staying in St. Thomas. The accommodations were sparse and simple but comfortable and comforting. I sat at my desk, looked out over the Hudson River, and read. I had not yet received the book we were reading for the retreat, so I spent time reading God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety by Joan Nuth. It is for a class I’m taking on English Spirituality and Mysticism. It provided a good backdrop for the weekend.
The first official event of the retreat was Vespers. The monks sat in the front and the guests sat in the back. I thought about my trip to Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky many years ago, when I got to sit in the choir with the monks. If I had been Roman Catholic and better understood the monastic way, I could easily have become a Trappist. If I had a better understanding of monasticism and had visited Holy Cross Monastery those many years ago, I could easily have become a monk there. As I thought about the class I was taking and the setting of the monastery, I wondered about the role of the mystic, the monk, the hermit in contemporary society.
After Vespers came dinner. The food was also simple, good, and nourishing. After the meal we met briefly to talk about the agenda for the retreat. There would be meditations throughout the weekend based on Rowan Williams book, Being Disciples. We were encouraged to go to as many services as possible. We went to Compline and entered into silence.
I typically try to sleep from nine in the evening until five in the morning, but somehow, after compline and some reading, I managed to lose an hour and the clock on the bed stand said it was ten, so I went quickly off to bed.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to find the room filled with a bright light. Was the light some sort of message? Some sort of metaphor? I got up and looked out the window. There was a barge heading down the river shining a giant spotlight on the shore. I wrote in my journal about it. There are probably some good writing ideas somewhere in there.
Saturday morning, I rolled over and saw that the clock said s five thirty in the morning. I had slept later than I had planned, but it was okay since I had gone to bed later than I had planned. I got up and started preparing for the day. I showered and dressed, discovering that I had forgotten my deodorant.
I had put my phone in airplane mode. I turned it on to see if there were any important messages from the evening. There were none. I noticed that my phone said it was only five twenty, and hour earlier than the clock on the bed stand. I figured that something must have gone wrong with my phone and I set it to six twenty, but then the phone set itself back to five twenty. I’ve seen this happen before when I’ve been traveling in areas with poor cellphone coverage, so I assumed that this was the case.
I went down stairs to sit, read, and wait for Matins. It was quiet and dark. No one else seemed to be stirring. I walked over to the clock next to the refectory and found that it said it was now five forty. Twenty minutes had passed and it seemed my phone was agreeing with this clock, and not the clock in my room. It finally occurred to me that the clock in my room was an hour a head, perhaps it had never been set back when we moved to standard time.
After services and breakfast, during a time of silence in one of the rooms, the guest master and retreat leader came into the room and said they needed to break silence. I left the room and wondered what it was. We had agreed that there would be no politics discussed on the retreat and most people had decided to keep away from sources of news. I had figured that if anything really important happened, I would hear about it, and I wondered if that was what the guest master and retreat leader were talking about.
Later, I found out. Predictions of the coming ice storm had been revised. It would be worse than expected and the guests were encouraged to head home Saturday evening. Perhaps there was another metaphor or message there.
Now, I am home. I’ve lit some incense I brought home from the retreat. I have spoken with my wife and daughter a little bit about the retreat, and I have written these notes. There were plenty of important insights and conversations on the retreat, but I’ll save them for a different time and place. Now, I’ll post this respond to messages that have come in over the weekend, and prepare for the coming week.
It is cold, dark, and wet as I begin my journey around the cornfields. I am starting an assignment for my course on English Spirituality and Mysticism. “Spend at least one hour walking silently in nature. Reflect on how you experience (or do not experience) the divine or the transcendent in the natural world around you and in your body.”
I had hoped to do this practice in the Alice Newton Street Memorial Park. It would have been more wooded, and not around a large field. Yet I needed to fit it into a busy schedule that would have minimal conflicts with my work and family obligations which meant I would have to do at least part of the walk in the dark.
It wasn’t completely dark at the cornfields. In the distance were houses and streetlights and my eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. As I walked, it would become light, hopefully, a fitting metaphor for the exercise.
As I start, I recite fragments of St. Patrick’s Breastplate and other journey-prayers from The Celtic Way of Prayer that we have been reading for the class. I like the idea of journey prayers. I like the idea of journeys. I like the idea of Peregrinatio, a journey with “no specific end or goal such as that of a shrine”, as Esther de Waal describes it. I like the idea of “The longest journey is the journey inward”, a quote from Dag Hammarskjold that de Waal talks about.
I think about my walk around the cornfields as a peregrinatio nested inside the peregrinatio of the class, of my current discernment journey, my journey inward, and my life; a sort of peregrinatio matryoshka.
I try to clear my mind, to walk as contemplatively as possible. It is still dark, and I feel the soft ground covered with pine needles giving way to the gravel path, softened by the rain. In the distance a car drives by. Overhead, I hear a plane. The world beyond the cornfields, even at this early hour is busy, and getting busier. It is the world of Martha. I am trying to walk with Mary and with Christ.
One section of the path around the cornfields is near a road with sodium vapor street lights. They shine through the barren branches of the winter trees creating complicated patterns that make me think of Celtic decorations. The words of William Dix in the hymn, “As with Gladness Men of Old” come to mind.
“In the heavenly country bright
Need they no created light”
The light is reflected off of the wet dead leaves on the ground. Water. Reflection. I see this again, later, in puddles along the path, and I think of the reverence of water in Celtic spirituality.
It is peaceful in the cornfields. I am alone. It does not feel like a “voluntary exile...in imitation of Christ himself” that de Waal talks about. If anything, the busy world of Martha feels more like being exiled. The walk is an intimate time with God.
I pass the community gardens. They make me think of Crofters’ gardens, at least as I imagine them. Yes, this idea of the Crofters’ gardens is probably rooted in Celtic romanticism, grown out of nationalism, but that is part of my upbringing. I think of my own upbringing on a small New England farm and my idyllic memories of my childhood, ora et labora. The labors were those of a child during farm chores and the prayers were my laughter and joy.
My mother is now dead and my father is frail, yet the nature walk brings back those memories. Perhaps that is some of experience of the divine on the nature walk; being connected to the land, to history, to family. I savor the peace, the quiet, the memories, and the joy.
It is beginning to get light now. The sound of water dripping off the leaves after the rain is joined by the sound of creatures stirring. A bird chirps, but there is no sign of a wild goose. In the bushes there are other animals, perhaps more frightened of me, than I am of them. There is a mist over the field, and this too feels like Ireland or Scotland. The ground smells fertile, although lacking a peaty smell. A chill wind blows against my face, not a cold, biting wind, but refreshing. It is a reminder of God being well pleased with creation.
As a child, I often walked in the woods. There was always a sense of something out there. Spirits? Angels? What was it? The same sense is around the cornfields, especially as it becomes lighter and the mist more apparent.
In the distance the sirens of the volunteer fire department sound. It is time to end my walk, my reverie and to head off to work. It will be a busy day, but I head off to my tasks ahead reminded of God’s love during trying times.
I look at the questions of the assignment. “How does this experience help you understand the chthonic and panentheistic nature of pre-Christian Celtic spirituality?” “What new insight(s) into pre-Christian Celtic spirituality do you gain from this experience?”
Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of Esther de Waal in the introduction to her book:
“Here, instead, everyone sees themselves in relation to one another, and that extends beyond human beings to wild creatures, the birds and the animals, the earth itself.”
This week, I am setting out on a new journey. I am taking the online class English Spirituality and Mysticism at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. It is part of a larger journey of trying to make sense out of my experience of God at the ISM Poetry Conference: “Love bade me welcome”, which in turn is part of the larger journey of trying to find God’s will and meaning for my life.
One of the texts for this course is The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination by Esther de Waal. I’ve only read the introduction and the first chapter so far, but I’m greatly enjoying it, and thinking about how it, and the course will help shape my journeys. One quote from chapter 1, which is entitled Journeying puts it nicely into context, “The whole of life itself is for them a journey from birth to death”. The chapter spends a bit of time talking about journey prayers and journey blessings, spending a fair amount of time on St. Patrick’s Breastplate which I have always loved.
I write this all in the context of many journeys going on. Donald Trump’s journey to the Presidency. The journey of many friends to protests against things that President Elect Trump has said, the long foot journeys of two friends, one hiking the Appalachian Trail and another setting out to walk the Carmino de Santiago.
I pray for blessings on each journey that we all may act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
I've signed up to take the online course English Spirituality and Mysticism.
I've taken online courses in the past, but this is the first one that I'm actually paying for since I took Grief in the Family Context back in 1999.
Things have changed a lot in online education since 1999 and I'm looking forward to this class, especially because I'm doing a lot with online education for my job right now.
Anyone up for joining me?
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. Happy New Year. Recently, I asked my friends what they thought I should resolve for the New Year. I am facing great uncertainty this coming year, especially around my spiritual journey and our political climate. Will 2017 be a breakout year, in some unexpected way?
Kim, Fiona, and I have gotten tickets to go see Amelie when it opens on Broadway. So last night, we watched the movie. Will this be the year that I find an old tin box full of childhood keepsakes? Will it be the year that I set off to help others in my own quirky way? Will it be the year that I build up enough courage to let something truly wonderful happen to me?
I already have a wonderful marriage, a wonderful family, and a wonderful life (to bring in a different movie title), but is this the year that something gets added to that, in terms of life ambitions, the spiritual journey and the work (much more than my job), that I am to do?
I didn’t get a lot of responses to my blog post asking for suggestions, but one that did stick with me was a reference to #OneLittleWord. The starting point for me in thinking about #OneLittleWord is a blog post by Deanna Mascle whom I met through a community of connected learners. Last July, she wrote Write Your Future in #OneLittleWord.
What is my one little word? Perhaps, it stays with the blog post I wrote at the beginning of last year. Unexpected. 2016 certainly had some unexpected twists. It looks like more of the same may be in store for 2017.
Let’s hope for some unexpected joy this year as we, like Amelie, find the courage to let something truly wonderful unexpectedly happen to us this year.