This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.
So, I’m pretty much done writing about the retreat last weekend. But there are a few things that didn’t seem to fit into the other posts. I’ll mention them here, in no particular order:
Anxiety is a sign of good things to come. I was so anxious in the days and hours leading up to the retreat. I am very grateful that a good friend was available to meet me for lunch halfway, in Mahwah, New Jersey. That broke up my trip to the monastery, and also provided me with a chance to chill out for an hour and a half. But then, in the final stretch on I-87, I got really anxious. I started wishing that I’d never registered for this. I started hoping that something had gone wrong with my registration, and that when I got there, they’d tell me that I couldn’t stay. I felt like this wasn’t where I should be. I should be home, getting stuff done. I should be anywhere else. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I didn’t know if I’d fit in. I didn’t know what I’d get out of it. I often feel this way when trying new things. I often feel this way on my way to someplace unfamiliar. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that these feelings emerged. Frankly, it should have been the most familiar part of the experience. And what’s more, it seems to me that whenever these feelings arise, the thing I’m scared of ends up being amazing. Not that my feelings can somehow predict good things, but perhaps they’re a sign of knowing that there is something coming up that has the potential to touch me deeply, to get into my heart and make some necessary changes. I hope to remember that…anxiety (at least sometimes) is a sign of good things to come. And without a doubt, this was a Good Thing.
The image of the wave. About midway through the retreat, I attended diurnum on Saturday. It’s the noon-time worship opportunity. Diurnum (at least the way they observe it there) includes a ten-minute period of silence, a time for meditation. Meditation is something I’ve become much more familiar and comfortable with in the past few months, so I welcomed this opportunity. Every now and then, I have received a sort of “vision” during meditation, and it happened that day. As I sat in the chapel, I had a vivid image of an ocean wave. It was right in front of me, as if I were part of the ocean. As I inhaled, it rose, higher and higher. As I exhaled, it crashed over me. I was reminded of my favorite thing to do at the beach: go into the sea, and let the waves crash over me. I love to “challenge” them; to try to stay upright as bigger and bigger waves try to knock me down or pull me under. In this image, it wasn’t quite like that. As the wave crashed over me, I was not fighting to stay up; instead, it was completely natural and serene, just like breathing. This image continued for the entire meditation time. My breathing grew deeper, and the waves grew higher and higher, the crashing more and more peaceful and invigorating. I felt like this was an image of baptism, that I was being washed in the waters of baptism over and over, with each breath, like the Holy Spirit was coming into me, as deep as I was willing to go, and then crashing out into the world like a nourishing downpour.
Paul’s thorn. I thought a lot about the “thorn” of St. Paul while I was there. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (NRSV). Paul does not describe what this “thorn” is…people have suggested various physical ailments over the centuries; certainly I have resonated with those who have suggested depression. But it doesn’t matter…the point is that Paul saw this thorn as something he wishes was gone, but which Christ has used for good. In fact, Christ was able to dwell in him more fully because of this thorn. Whatever Paul’s was, I suppose depression is indeed my thorn. And perhaps God was telling me over the weekend that it’s simply a thorn I must live with. Throughout these three months, I have found new ways to cope with it, new ways to calm it, new ways to deal with my triggers, but it will never go away. And Christ will use me, broken as I am. Christ will dwell in my hidden places, broken as I am. And I have seen that Christ has indeed used my illness for good. My openness about depression seems to have been a source of hope and indeed healing for some people around me. If that’s what it means for Christ’s power to be made perfect in weakness, I can accept and embrace it.
The deep with. As I was journaling, trying to figure out how to put all these feelings into words, especially when I was reflecting on my labyrinth experience, I came up with a set of words that seemed to resonate: the deep with. I felt like “with” was the right word to explain where Christ is. But “with” isn’t strong enough. It’s different than that…it’s much deeper than that. So I thought that the experience I had could be described as “the deep with.” I haven’t done any more with that phrase yet…but I think it may stay with me for a while. Perhaps I’ll figure out more later.
The two sides of my healing. In the week leading up to the retreat, and in the few days following it, I spent a lot of time working through an “e-Course” called Making Sense of Your Life, by psychologists Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone. At the retreat, I reflected that during my medical leave, I’ve been seeking (and receiving) healing in two primary ways: psychological and spiritual. I also reflected on the fact that of all the things I’ve done in both arenas, this e-Course and this retreat were the most intense, the most concentrated, the most powerful instances of that healing. I don’t think I would have been ready for them earlier in the process…I think I had to get to the beginning of March before they would work. But both the course and the retreat were so powerful that I can’t imagine this process without them. I feel like I’ve done all I’m going to do in terms of trying new things. I think the remaining few weeks I have will be spent reflecting on and integrating all that I’ve experienced and learned. I think I’ll be ready to return to “normal” life.