I’m not much of a camper. I chalk it up to traumatic Girl Scout experiences as a kid — think rain, mud, latrine duty, French toast cooked over a coffee can. But as I write this column, I am simultaneously washing my winter sleeping bag in anticipation of a weekend camping retreat at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., with Noah’s Boy Scout troop. And I’m actually looking forward to it. Read more
What new routines have you vowed to start and keep this year? A healthy eating plan? Exercise regimen? House re-organization effort? The new year offers the promise of a clean slate, a chance to begin again or try for the first time something that will improve our health, our home, our world.
I tend not to make typical resolutions, but I know plenty of people do. Every year, when the first week of January hits, our YMCA becomes a bit of a zoo. You can’t find a free treadmill or weight machine no matter what odd hour of the day you show up. I asked a trainer once, “How long will this go on?” He said, “Hang in there until the end of February and they’ll all be gone.” Read more
When I returned from my wonderful weekend retreat almost three weeks ago, the sense of peace surrounding my heart and penetrating my soul was almost palpable…
Kids did dopey things. I didn’t yell. Work deadlines went from bad to worse. I didn’t melt. The car bumper was bashed in by a hit-and-run meanie. I didn’t explode.
It was clear evidence, at least in my mind, of the power of deep and intense prayer practiced over days, rather than short bursts of desperate cries shouted heavenward while sitting at stoplights or wiping the counter.
In the initial days after my retreat, I kept up some semblance of deep prayer and deep peace. I cleared the decks and sat down in silent meditation in my sacred space. I did yoga followed by more prayer. I got up early and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in the twinkling glow of the Christmas tree set against a backdrop of winter darkness. I was on a holy roll.
But then bit by bit, day by day, the peace started to fragment…
I could almost see it happening.
Sharp shards of silence breaking off and flying away from me in every direction.
I knew enough to realize it was an unhappy development but felt powerless to stop it. The tension of the season, coupled with the crush of work, compounded by the frenzy of family life made me — as it often does — feel as if I should just wave my spiritual white flag and give up my quest for inner peace. Add my voice to the din.
Then I remembered something our teacher said on retreat, something that really jumped out at me as I sat cross-legged on the floor of the yoga studio at Kripalu. So often, when we think of Jesus in prayer, we think of him in the desert, in the garden, in silent solitude. But the truth is, Father Tom reminded us, that Jesus was more often than not surrounded by chaos — people clamoring to get near him, touch his robe, lower a friend through a roof, climb a tree.
Follow, follow, follow. Ask, ask, ask.
And yet we see the way his peace and prayerfulness emerge amid the chaos. The quiet compassion given to the woman caught in adultery, the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of a soldier’s servant, the forgiveness of a thief from the cross. Jesus did not become unloving, harsh and impatient because the conditions around him went from good to bad to abominable. He stayed true to his center, his Truth, bringing his peace into the noise and glare of an often unkind world.
Rather than letting it happen the other way around…
So as we wait just two more days to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as I look at the absolute insanity that is sure to ensue in the coming hours, I’m picking up the scattered fragments of peace and fashioning them into something usable, something new. I imagine my peace looks a bit like a kaleidoscope now.
Pieces of peace…artfully arranged into something that will cast a brilliant and warm light on everything its shooting and darting rays touch as I turn it gently in my hands.
Chaos into calm. Panic into peace. Fragments into fullness.
Technically it’s Manic Monday in these parts, but after a weekend yoga-prayer retreat at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Mass., I’m really quite mellow. Certainly not manic, despite the truly frightening number of deadlines mounting on the dry erase board in my office.
As was the case with my silent retreat in September, I’m not really ready to wax poetic about what happened at Kripalu so soon after. Too much to absorb, so many gifts, so much to process before I can put it in writing in this space. But I wanted to share some little snippets of my wonderful weekend, which centered on a workshop called “Pray All Ways,” offered by Paulist Father Tom Ryan, who is also a certified yoga instructor and whose sense of peace and prayerfulness is so palpable he practically glows or floats. You cannot help but sit in his presence and think, “I want that.” In the best Christian, yogic, loving, non-jealous way, of course.
The photo above is a view of Kripalu from the road below. The former Jesuit seminary sits on land that is just beautiful, even during this in-between time when trees are bare but the ground is not yet blanketed in white. Still breathtaking.
When I first arrived on Friday afternoon, I was in my more manic mode. I rushed inside, worried that my car might not be parked in the right place, nervous about how the weekend would unfold, sure that something would go wrong. (Glass half-empty person, remember.) So I got inside and was asked to fill out of a form with my license plate number, which is new and not committed to memory. Immediately I felt frustration — at not having thought of this need, at not knowing my number by heart, at needing the number at all. So back out to the parking lot I trudged with pen and paper.
And as I stepped outside, another retreatant was standing there staring, and she pointed me to the top of a tree. There, in what was a rather small tree comparatively, was an enormous hawk. I mean enormous. I’m including his photo below even though it’s a little blurry (I didn’t have my good camera with me) because I just needed to give you a glimpse. He sat there for the longest time, unfazed by the people coming and going with their roller-suitcases and cars and chatter. Here he is:
You’ll notice that branch is bending under his weight. He was just majestic. At another point during the weekend, the same hawk was flying overhead, his wingspan inspiring others to stare up at the sky in awe. I never would have known about this resident hawk (the greeter, as he was referred to by the smiling people at the front desk) if I hadn’t forgotten my license plate number. So there you go. I was rushed headlong into the fact that this weekend would be about awareness, about gratitude, about slowing down, about the practice of the presence of God.
The hawk wasn’t the only over-sized animal to cross my path. This giant rabbit, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, let me get within two feet of him to take a picture. On top of that he was surrounded by people enjoying the late autumn sunshine at picnic tables all around him. Even the animals are mellow here.
After a solid day of praying and sitting and absorbing so much wonderful food for thought (and wonderful food in general), my retreat partner, Michelle, and I decided to skip Yoga Dance, which was a little much even for this adventurous soul, and go for a little hike to the lake. So worth it.
First we stopped at the small labyrinth. The entrance is in the photo below. I will admit that perhaps this wasn’t the best labyrinth, as I got “lost,” which I didn’t think was supposed to be possible in this walking meditation. I’m guessing it’s much more effective when all the plants are high and in bloom and provide a clear marker of the path. It was still fun.
Here’s a photo of the lake and one of me with Michelle:
And finally, here’s the statue at the front entrance. Lots of Hindu and Buddhist statues here and there, as you would expect at a yoga center, but our weekend was so focused on Christian prayer and Jesus Christ that it was easy to forget at times that this is no longer a Catholic facility. As we prayed lectio divina, did the Examen, spent long periods on intercessory prayer, and even had Mass while sitting on the floor of the yoga studio Saturday night, I felt so grateful for the experience and so alive with prayerful possibility.
I will be back later this week with some further reflections. Till then, I’ll just share one pearl of wisdom that Father Tom shared with us: Contemplation isn’t always about retreating from the world in silence and solitude; it’s about “taking a long, loving look at the real.”
Look around you today. Right now. Look deeply into the eyes of the next person you meet. Listen attentively to the person on the phone or at the door or in the next office. Drink in the wonder of creation as you drive or walk or run to your next appointment. You just might be amazed to find God right under your nose. Namaste.
If your house is anything like our house (and I’m kind of selfishly hoping it is), the noise hovers just below earsplitting. I’m not just referring to the usual kid noises—talking, singing, whistling, whining. I’m talking about noise that rises to a whole new level, driven higher and higher by a culture totally ill at ease with silence.
Think about what you hear during a typical one-hour period. Phone, TV, computer, doorbell, even washers and dryers that “sing” when the cycle is complete. If you take it a step further, you can find noise of an entirely different—but no less distracting—kind. Facebook, instant messaging, Twitter and other online communication may be silent on the surface but it is noise just the same.
Not long ago, when our family was uncharacteristically silent as we puttered around the kitchen making dinner and completing homework, my teenager blurted out: “Somebody say something. It’s too quiet.” Can it ever be too quiet? Our society would like us to think so. Like frantic symphony conductors, we are challenged to make the many different parts of our lives play all at once and in harmony, but mostly all we get from that is a lot of mental and spiritual dissonance.
I find I crave slowness and silence more with each passing year. I work at home, so I actually do get a heavy dose of silence on a regular basis. Other than the occasional phone call and my sporadic “conversations” with our two cats, I’m silent for about six hours a day, but it’s not the kind of silence that heals the soul and leaves me refreshed for whatever life throws my way. It helps, for sure, but healing silence comes only through extended periods of quiet and solitude.
Enter the silent retreat, something few of us get to experience nowadays but so worth the time it takes to drive to the monastery or retreat center. Because no matter how silent we may try to be at home now and then, nothing can prepare you for the deep but difficult work of real silence.
This is where we confront ourselves and many of the things we try to hide amid the noise of our daily lives. With no iPods or social networking, no televisions or telephones, we come face to face with our true selves, and, if we really make good use of our silent time through prayer, face to face with God.
From what I’ve experienced on silent retreat, I think of it as a kind of spiritual detox. First there’s denial, as in, why am I even here? I should go home and do the laundry and clean the bathrooms. Then the anger phase: What’s the point? I don’t hear God. I don’t think my prayers are working.
With each passing hour, however, things begin to shift. Walls go down and emotions surface. I begin to recognize how much I fear real silence and how easy it is to drown out the Spirit. It is not unusual, on silent retreat, to see people crying, apparently for no reason at all. Except when you’re on silent retreat, you know very well that there is a reason, or many reasons. By the time I leave, I am clinging to every last second of silence, already looking forward to the next time I can come back to a place that is so elusive no matter how hard I try to recreate it at home.
When I returned from my last retreat, my teenager—the same one who couldn’t bear a moment of silence—asked if he could come with me the next time I head to the Trappist abbey. Silence speaks volumes, it seems. It echoes in our words and actions, long after we’ve left it behind. Its scent lingers on us, giving others a taste of what’s possible when we listen, as St. Benedict taught, with the “ear of our heart.”
I thought I’d share my latest Life Lines column. Life Lines has appeared monthly in Catholic New York for the past 10 years.
By Mary DeTurris Poust
When I began this column 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. My plan to write about the intersection of faith and everyday life was propelled into high gear by 9/11 and all that played out in the days that followed, both in our country and in our home. Suddenly my young children had questions that had no real answers. I had questions that had no real answers. I think we all did.
There was nothing we could do but move forward, slowly, shakily at first, but with more strength and confidence as the days went by. Now, looking back, I realize that as much as the outside world has changed in the past decade, so has my internal world, the landscape of my soul. Much of it has been explored and expressed in the 650-word jolts I put on paper each month; more has been poured out on the pages of my books and the posts of my blog.
It has been a challenging journey, filled with desperate lows – like the one we all experienced on that clear September morning – and joyous highs – like the birth of my third child, the publication of my four books, and the ongoing interior pilgrimage that is my spiritual journey. Someone recently asked me if I had any breakthroughs to share. At first I laughed at the prospect, but the comment caused me to pause and reflect on the changes that have taken place without my even realizing it.
I think most of us imagine we’re standing still, whether it’s in our professional lives or personal lives or spiritual lives. We look at the big picture and can feel as though we’re simply not making progress. I know I often look at my cluttered desk, cluttered kitchen counters, and equally cluttered prayer life and think: “Nothing’s happening here.” But, when I go back to September 2001 and mentally walk the path from there to here in my mind, I realize I’ve come a lot farther than it appears on the surface.
You’ve heard me talk (whine?) in this space about my struggles with prayer, struggles with motherhood, struggles with multi-tasking, struggles with everything from laundry to oatmeal. I tend to be more open about my struggles than about my strides because I never want to get too comfortable, never want to sit back and think, “I’ve arrived.” Perhaps because we never really arrive. We may have breakthroughs, we may find ourselves stepping out into the unknown with total faith, but the truth is, there’s always more work to be done, always another step to be taken.
Today my prayer life is far different than it was 10 years ago, as is my spiritual focus. Where before I was simply happy to get something out of Sunday Mass while a fussy baby clawed at my hair, today my spiritual routine includes praying parts of the Divine Office daily, slices of silence sprinkled throughout my days, regular spiritual reading and sporadic spiritual blogging, an annual retreat, and the desire for ongoing pilgrimage – whether to Rome or Auriesville or simply to the farthest reaches of my heart.
Where have you been this past decade and where do you want to go next? Chances are, if you take some quiet time to reflect on your life, you, too, will realize you’ve moved much farther toward your goal – whatever that might be.
“God is in the details,” but sometimes we don’t take the time to notice the details. We want progress to come with a thunderclap, an “aha moment” that will change us all at once. But sometimes, most times, progress comes in the still small voice, in the tiny but brilliant flashes of light that change us bit by bit and forever.
Is it possible a full week has gone by since I was on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee? Time moves so quickly, especially when time includes three kids going back to school and the start-up of Daisy scouts, Cadettes, Boy Scouts, soccer, dance and more.
The silence and solitude of the abbey seems so far away right now, and, yet, in a way, it is still will me, which I guess is testament to the fact that this retreat was a powerful experience for me. I’m close to saying “life-changing,” but I still haven’t decided if that’s the truth or just my imagination and ego talking. Things churn slowly after silent retreat, and more things are unknown than known. In the best possible way.
During my days at Genesee, I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench under a willow tree (as seen in the photo right here), staring at the pond and the distant fields and just waiting for that still, small whisper of the Spirit. The awesomeness of God’s creation, even when it’s baking under a 90-degree day, is so much a part of the prayer experience for me when I’m on retreat. The sunrises and sunsets, the flowers and plants in every stage of blooming or dying back, the animals scurrying around, the moon rising in the night sky — every single moment seems to speak of the Spirit, something I don’t always notice when I’m rushing past the natural beauty of my own backyard.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been somewhat quiet about my retreat because I feel protective of what happened there. To speak it would be to diminish it in some way, and so I’ve been laying low — staying off Facebook except to post blog links, staying off my own blog except to give factual details rather than spiritual insights. One thing I will say for sure: Everyone should experience one weekend of silence and solitude a year (two, if possible). I felt that way when I went on silent retreat two years ago. I feel it now. Being away from everything, unplugging from the noise and the constant distractions, is good for the body, mind and soul. And if you are willing to let it all go, the Spirit will eventually make itself heard. Not necessarily easily or quickly or loudly, but one way or another, the Spirit will be there.
I’ll share one spectacular moment from my retreat. When I first arrived, I wondered what I was doing there. Why not just go home and use the time to clean my house, catch up on work, hang out with Dennis and the kids? There was a moment when I actually considered getting back in the car and just driving east. But I knew that was fear of silence talking, fear of hearing something I might not want to hear. So I stayed and I prayed. And prayed. And many times, despite the beauty of the monks’ chanting and the wonder of creation, I felt nothing. But I persisted — because what else could I do? This was why I was here. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
With each hour of the Divine Office, I could feel myself settling into the rhythm of the day that is the monks’ entire life. I looked forward to the next hour, the next Mass, the next chance to sit in the silence of the chapel and wait for the monks to enter and begin their singing and praying. By Sunday morning, I felt at home and was sad to know I was leaving for at least a year. As I stood in the bread store, waiting to buy monk-made cookies for the kids, I couldn’t help but feel a little selfish for taking this time for myself when Dennis was home with the kids dealing with real life. Just then, as if to answer the nagging question still hanging around the edges of my mind, an old monk left his post in the “porter” office and came over to me in the store.
“You are doing everything you need to do to make a good retreat,” he said, out of nowhere. And right then the Spirit felt closer than it has ever felt.
His name is Brother Christian, and in the silent abbey where contact with the monks is so limited, I was given this rare opportunity, this unexpected gift, right when I needed it most. It was one of the highlights of my retreat because it was an affirmation of my decision to be at the abbey that weekend, and a reminder that even when we don’t think we’re making progress in prayer, if we are praying at all, that’s progress.
I drove home wrapped in this knowledge, with the words of Brother Christian echoing in my head. Then, when I got home, I googled Brother Christian’s name because I had promised to send him a copy of my book, Walking Together (which he said he wanted to read). It was then that I realized that “my” Brother Christian was also Henri Nouwen’s Brother Christian, the monk he wrote about in Genesee Diary, the monk who helped him when he couldn’t keep up with the bread making, the monk who made him a special monastic tunic so that he could feel more at home on his extended stay at the abbey.
And I felt my heart burst open. What absolute grace to be encouraged by this very same monk, to be singled out and prayed for by the man who once encouraged and prayed for Henri Nouwen. It occurred to me that Nouwen gets all the notoriety for his spirituality and his writings, and yet it is the quiet monk like Brother Christian who is silently but powerfully shaping people’s spiritual lives, unknown to the rest of the world. I know that my Genesee experience was cemented by the personal connection I now have with those holy monks, some — like Brother Christian — who’ve been living that life of silence and solitude for more than half a century.
More reflections and photos to come tomorrow and in days to come…
“Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” — Psalm 90
I returned late yesterday from my private weekend retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., where I was privileged and blessed to pray the Divine Office and attend Mass with the Cistercian monks who call this abbey home. To be honest, I’m not yet to the point where I’m ready to ramble on and on about my spiritual experience. Silent retreats are like that, at least for me. I want to hold onto that spirit of silence for as long as I can, even in the midst of the chaos of normal life. Right now, spending too much time trying to write my experience when I’m still trying to absorb it all would somehow corrupt the beauty of what happened there. And so much of what happened there is invisible, indescribable and still unknown to me. So I’ll try to tell you a bit about the retreat in pictures and descriptions, and then throughout the week I’ll be back with reflections and observations.
The photo above is a shot of the front of the abbey, which is a beautiful stone and wood structure where the monks graciously welcome visitors to join them in prayer. The abbey was founded from the famed Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani and is the location written about by Henri Nouwen in TheGenesee Diary.
I arrived on Friday afternoon and got my first taste of monastic prayer when I attended Vespers at 4:30 p.m. When you walk through the front door of the abbey, you can turn right to go to the bookstore, bread store (more on that another time) and sitting area where you can rest and look out at the magnificent view. If you turn left, you go down the hallway seen in the photo to the left. This leads to the chapel. Strict silence must be observed once you enter the hallway. Through those doors is the beautiful chapel, with its wood ceiling and stone walls.
Inside the chapel, guests are invited to sit in the stalls facing the monks, separated by a low iron gate. The circular altar is in the center. What a gift to be allowed into this space and to chant the Office along with the monks. A bell rings, the monks rise, one of them knocks on a wood stall to signify it’s time to begin and then the low, haunting melodies of the ancient prayers take over. We used the beautiful Abbey Psalter (seen here on the right) to pray throughout the day.
I loved each of the hours for different reasons, but if one stood out, it was Compline, specifically for the end of the hour when the monks turn to face an icon of Mary holding Jesus and chant the Salve Regina. The darkened chapel, two candles flickering under the icon, monks chanting. Can it really get any better than that? Well, perhaps only when you add to it a walk back from the abbey to retreat house just as the sun dips below the corn fields and the horizon right before your eyes.
I managed to make it over to Vigils at 2:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, which, of course, was spectacular for the very fact that while the rest of the world was sleeping, we were softly chanting.
Our retreat guest house was about three-quarters of a mile from the abbey, down a hill and then following a long stretch of field alongside a fairly busy country road. I often found myself wondering where all those pick-ups were speeding off to in the middle of nowhere.
Summer came on full force this weekend with temperatures hovering around 90 all day and well into the evening and no air conditioning. Anywhere. It was more than slightly uncomfortable, and I will admit that Friday was a rough entry period for me. I kept wishing it would be cooler, and then realized part of this retreat would be surrendering to what was instead of wishing for what wasn’t. Once I accepted the fact that I’d be dripping with sweat for the next 48 hours, things got much better. (Of course, next time I’ll plan for later in the fall or early in the spring.) I figured that with all my trips back and fourth to the abbey for various hours and then my five-mile walk along the greenway behind the retreat center, I clocked about 10 miles of walking on Saturday alone. Good thing I threw in those hiking boots at the last minute.
At the retreat center, I was assigned the “Hermit Room,” so named because the guest who gets this room can remain even more isolated than the other retreatants. Although it was much more sparsely appointed than the other guest rooms, it had a private bath/shower and a comfortable rocking chair. I set up my own little sacred space on the desk of my cell. You can see it over there on the right, complete with crucifix, battery-powered candle, a pine cone I found on a morning walk, a copy of the icon from the abbey chapel, St. Francis, Thomas Merton, prayer books, Rosary beads, and some Queen Anne’s Lace I picked on my long walk. The shell is obviously from a beach very far from Piffard, but seashells are always part of my sacred space.
Now, if you thought I was kidding about that Hermit Room label, please take a gander at my bed, which appears to be either a short picnic table or a large coffee table with a mattress on it. It was as hard as a board because it was, in fact, a board. (Other guest rooms had typical mattress/boxspring beds.) When I first saw this bed, I groaned. Out loud. Which you aren’t supposed to do on a silent retreat. But I will admit that I slept quite soundly, so I guess all that walking paid off.
I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in my room anyway since I was either up at the abbey or out on the lovely retreat center grounds or in the small chapel inside the guest house, which was a nice place to pray late at night when I wanted some quiet prayer time without heading out into the darkness. I did that once and decided against it after that. On Saturday morning, at 5:30 a.m. I grabbed my flashlight and reflective vest and walked alone and in total darkness up to the abbey. Longest three-quarters of a mile of my life. I started with my guardian angel and moved right into the Rosary. I didn’t have beads. I wasn’t even counting. I was just saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers as fast as I could, as if rushing the prayers would get me to that abbey faster. I saw the shadow of at least one large figure lope through my flashlight beam. I’d like to think it was a deer. And then one smaller animal. I opted for imagining a bunny or groundhog over skunk or rabid fox. When I finally saw the beautiful Asian-style lanterns of the abbey, I breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to drive whenever darkness was part of the prayer equation.
I’ll bring you more photos and thoughts on my retreat in the days to come, but for now here is a brief video clip of one short piece of my walk to the abbey. It’s the last stretch of hill before the abbey comes into view. Forgive the bright sun in your eye; it was almost dusk and the sun was getting pretty low. This clip is not nearly as compelling as Into Great Silence as there is no melting snow, dripping water, or feral cats, just me breathing as I hike up the hill and some occasional crickets chirping in the background. Click the play button below:
As you know, I normally reserve this space for whatever I’m cooking — or ordering at a restaurant. But today it’s a Foodie Friday of a different sort. As you read this, I’m making the four-hour drive to the Abbey of the Genesee for a private silent retreat.
It’s my first visit to the Cistercian abbey near Rochester (that’s the front entrance in the photo above). I called less than two weeks ago to see when they had an opening and lucked out. This weekend of silence is just what I need to end a summer that has verged on insane due to the amount of work I had to do with all three kids at home. (It was no picnic for the kids either.)
To be honest, I am mentally on my way to this retreat even as I write this, so I’ll have to save any further blog posting until I get back. I will pray for all my NSS readers while I’m there. Please say a prayer for me as well. Here’s where I’ll be staying:
I hope the weather holds out so I can explore some of the 1,200+ acres, like this beautiful little spot:
And just in case you think this post is totally unrelated to food, have no fear. Monk Bread is a specialty of the abbey, so I hope to have some for breakfast when I’m there, and I plan to load up the car before I return. I’ll let you know if it’s as good as everyone says it is.