I recently went on a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Holy Cross Monastery is a Benedictine monastery in the Anglican Communion, and is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. A number of monks reside there, and the primary ministry of the monastery is to provide for individual and group retreats, like the one I attended. This was a special retreat program, but one can also spend several days there on one’s own, for a “self-guided” retreat.
The theme of this retreat was “Centering Prayer,” a form of Christian prayer that is akin to meditation. You can learn more about Centering Prayer at Contemplative Outreach.
I’m presenting this story in three parts, one for each day of the retreat. They’re in the form of a journal.
Part Two: Wednesday
I’m in my room at the monastery. I slept well, but I still feel tired, both physically and spiritually. I keep hearing these words: First, rest. I’m feeling a pull toward intentional rest, not just “chilling out” or relaxing, but intentional rest in God’s embrace, and I feel like that’s what this week is for me. I keep fighting that inside, though. I keep thinking that I have to be learning and growing and serving. But the voice within is whispering: Yes, those things are good and right, but all in their proper time. First, rest.
There’s a part of me that’s excited about the thought of going home early due to the snow. There’s a part of me that wants to go home now. It doesn’t feel as great being here as I expected. What is that about? Is it the pandemic? Have I gotten so used to being home now that I crave it? Or is it because I’m not in search of some new insight like I was the last two times I was here?
Or am I just ill-at-ease? Uncomfortable being here away from so many distractions, worried about what I’ll encounter all alone with God?
I want to let go of the worries of the snow, until tomorrow. There’s absolutely no reason to think on it today – none. But I find that so incredibly difficult. I want to have my whole day planned out. I shared an image of that with my therapist recently: when I’m resting, in my “default” mode, I often feel like I’m sending out a drone into my own future, to scan what’s coming up and make sure that I’m properly prepared for it. I want to send out that drone into tomorrow, figure out what the next hours and days will bring, and I can’t do that without knowing my departure plans.
But wait – here’s what I can discern now. Today will go exactly as on the schedule. Tomorrow at about 9:30, after Eucharist, I will pack as though I’m leaving tomorrow. And then I will make the decision after lunch tomorrow. I will not decide before that. So today I am here. Today I have time to rest. And I will. And I can use something from Centering Prayer to help with this. One thing I’ve learned is that in Centering Prayer, you identify a word that is your “Holy Word” for the prayer time, a word that in some way represents God to you. During the prayer, which is a lot like mindful meditation, you gently say that word to yourself any time you find yourself engaged with your thoughts. This word helps you redirect your attention back to the prayer. I can use my Holy Word in my “regular life” today, even outside prayer time, whenever I find myself engaging with thoughts about leaving. It can help remind me to let go of the need to decide that today.
I’m sitting in the room where we meet for Centering Prayer, waiting for the next session to begin in fifteen minutes. I took a nap after lunch today, and it gave me the energy to take a brisk twenty-minute walk. I feel more physically awake right now that I have in days, but I still feel exhausted behind my eyes. Could this mean that it’s not physical, but spiritual, fatigue I’m feeling? I don’t know, but I’m thinking I may still need some more rest in God for the remainder of the day. First rest.
I want to write about three experiences I had with Centering Prayer so far, in the six sessions I’ve had since arriving yesterday. First, I have found that it has “worked” almost right away. Very shortly after beginning each session, I have felt a feeling of fullness within my whole body, almost like an amber light glowing from within. It feels warm and comforting. It seems to be the presence of God, and I appreciate that so much. It gives me motivation to continue.
Second, by the fourth session today, my shoulders were really hurting from the pose I’m using. I had to do something to relieve the pain – it was quite distracting. So I bent over in my seat, bowing my head between my legs. I immediately saw something in my mind’s eye – an abstract landscape, squares and other shapes in various shades of purple. I immediately interpreted this as something being wrong – I have lost the connection, and should sit up again. But I didn’t sit up right away, and slowly, the purple faded and was replaced by amber. It felt as though I’d reached into a part of myself that was so far untouched by the Centering Prayer, and that now this erstwhile hidden part was touched by God as well.
The third thing was an insight. Earlier today, I made the mistake of checking Facebook, and more particularly of reading the comments on a post. These comments were made by Christians, so smugly and obnoxiously attacking other Christians for their thoughts on a particular subject. The comments made me so angry and distraught. Why do people have to attack each other like this? Throughout the beginning of this afternoon’s first Centering Prayer session, I found myself thinking about them, as well as other thoughtless and ignorant things that have been said by Christians.
But an insight flashed to me – instead of snarkily snapping back at the comments, as I was so tempted to do, and instead of just ignoring them, as I was also so tempted to do, there is a third way. (Which is precisely what I preached about just a few days ago.) That third way is for me to send a message to the original poster, offering my support, despite the nasty things that others say. This would be a positive thing, would offer help and support to the right people, and wouldn’t be feeding the trolls.
Maybe I was only able to see this solution (an obvious one, isn’t it?) after some time of resting in God for a while. Perhaps I can use this as a plan going forward.
I just finished my final Centering Prayer of the day, followed by a Lectio Divina devotion on Psalm 119:97-104. The phrase that leapt out to me from the Psalm was: Through your mind I receive understanding, and I dwelled with that for some time, wondering what it might mean to have understanding through God’s mind. Perhaps it means that when I receive God’s thoughts, when God speaks to me, it’s not through my own mind, but rather through my heart. After all, my mind is where I’m so filled with judgment and chaos and junk. God’s mind is not cluttered like that. Seventeen years ago, I made a commitment to try to move from my head to my heart, and I’m still working at that. So it makes sense that God would find me there, and that God’s understanding would be more suited to my heart than to my mind.
Also, my mind does not need to determine my actions – as I’ve learned recently, I don’t need to obey my thoughts or my feelings. I can choose to listen to them, yet act according to my values instead. And maybe I can think of my thoughts and feelings as being in my mind, whereas my values come from (or through) my heart. In that sense, if God’s mind comes into my heart, then my actions can be more in line with God’s will, and I can trust the mind I follow, because it is not my own.
I feel like my retreat is over, like I have nothing left to learn, yet there is so much of tomorrow remaining. Perhaps – perhaps – perhaps, tomorrow is step two. Perhaps “first, rest” is over.