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 Three: Thursday
I just attended my second Eucharist of the retreat. Today incense was burned, and as it filled the room, I was overcome with praise and awe. It felt like true worship, filling every crevice in my bones. I can still smell its sweet spiciness here in Pilgrim Hall; it has filled the building. Perhaps this is a way to think about the warm, full feeling I’ve had in Centering Prayer. Perhaps it fills my body the way incense fills a room. “Let my prayer rise before you as incense,” as the Psalmist says.
During Centering Prayer this morning, I received vivid images of some places from my childhood – a few houses near the house I grew up in, on the same block, just one or two doors away. The images were clearly not of my childhood home itself, but rather of a few houses nearby. I’m honestly not sure if I fell asleep and dreamt of these places, or if I was simply deep in prayer. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
But I suppose I’m burying the lede, really, because something happened right at the beginning of prayer time. The leader, as always, read from a spiritual work before we fully entered the prayer together. This morning her reading was about the “false self” falling away and making way for the “true self,” which is united with God, to arise. Typical mystical spiritual stuff, reminded me of some of the Celtic reading I’d done a few months ago.
But I had a visceral reaction to it. The thought of my “true self” repulsed me. It’s evil, I thought. It’s not what you think I thought. I don’t believe it’s any good at all, I thought – my true self is rotten, nasty, and broken, if it even exists at all.
This reaction was instant, and instinctual. When it happened, I decided that I would not try to argue against it, and not give in to it. Instead, I would continue with the prayer practice, and perhaps find some response to it from God. What I received was a very quick feeling of the “incense-filled” warmth (a sign, perhaps, that God loves me despite my self-loathing?), following by the images I described above from childhood.
Are they connected, these images and my reaction to my “true self”? Were these images God’s response? Were they a sign of where, or when, I first developed self-loathing? Is there some trauma there that I’ve never been able to uncover? Then again, let’s be honest – it’s not exactly breaking news for me to have either thoughts of self-hatred or thoughts about my own past. That’s kind of what I do.
CODA: Friday, 9:00 am.
I’m home now – I came home last evening to avoid the storm. Looking back on this retreat, I have to say that it seems somehow unfinished. Is that because I left early? Perhaps, though I did do some Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina at home this morning. No, I think it’s more that something was opened up for me this week that will take longer to uncover.
I think I really needed a rest this week, a deep Sabbath to allow God to hold me and rebuild me from the inside. I think that’s part of what First, Rest meant.
I also think that adding Centering Prayer to my daily ritual will help me to “First, Rest,” in daily life, which will help me throughout the day to stay more focused on and aware of God. It will help me remember that I really need that – Sabbath is about resting in God, and Sabbath is important.
I also think that all the rest – the questions about where my anxieties about winter driving and power outages comes from; the mystery of the images from my childhood neighborhood; the ongoing search for the origin of my self-loathing – all these things were beyond the scope of this retreat, so to speak. Yes, they got opened up, but they’ll require some more work going forward in other ways.
I didn’t solve anything this week. But I rested, and made room to keep moving forward, and maybe solve something later.