I am sitting in a bare and simple room at the Linwood Spiritual Center, located along the Hudson River, somewhere in NY. My room has a single bed with a thin green bedspread, Formica furniture with nothing to make it any more special than the furniture that is in the room next door. I’m working at a simple desk that reminds me of my childhood. And above me is a wooden crucifix of a beaten and wounded Jesus hanging from the cross. So what is it about these humble surroundings that calls me to return season after season for a week retreating from the world?
My usual life is filled with the frenetic busyness that lets one know they’re successful. I wake early, and begin to fill my day with the spiritual exercises that feed me, before moving on to what I consider the working part of my day. And then I flit from one activity to the next, each one fulfilling in its own right, but somehow, I forget to see the beauty for the hum of activity that overtakes my mind.
But for one week every season, I sit in silence, with nothing to pull me away from the true beauty and fulfillment that is life. I wake just as early. But instead of racing through my spiritual practices with the feeling of indulgence that comes from believing my real work is waiting for me at my office desk, I spend each day in leisurely quiet, cavorting with God and the angels instead of with my computer screen. And by the end of the week, I leave a little bit saner, a little bit clearer, a little bit more focused, than I was when I arrived. And then off I go, to resume the whirlwind that is my life, until three months later the next season arrives, bringing with it another week of silent peace.
While in retreat, the world stops. Surprisingly, it continues to operate very nicely without any input from me. As I sink deeper and deeper into silence, I regain a clarity that my busyness steals from me. And then I return to my life, vowing to remember the value of this time, and vowing to do my life differently when I get back.
That lasts for about a week. By the end of that week, returned to my life, the healing power of less quickly becomes forgotten, replaced by the important work of more. But is not that soft and still voice calling to me just as urgently? It most certainly is. But in the high-paced world of 21st century America, I’m so busy listening to electronic noises, that I fail to hear the whispers that are yearning to be heard.
Will this retreat be different? Only time will tell. Yet, there’s a part of me hoping that this one will be more than a time of retreat. That this one will be a time of re-treating. That rather than a time when I go away from the world, it will be a time when I am able to return to the world, and treat it in a whole new way.
How would I like my world to be when I return? I would like the deep peace that I feel during my morning prayer time to be the norm of my day, not the exception. I would like the clarity that I feel while on retreat to be my guide, rather than my endless To Do lists. I would like the love that I feel all around me while on retreat to be my usual way, not the anxiety that I have become used to. I would like my connection to God to be as real as when I sit in meditation, while talking on the phone. And I would like my gratitude for life to be as apparent to me as is my dissatisfaction, worry, fear, and doubt.
I think there’s hope for me. Because as I reflect upon each retreat I’ve taken, I can see that I have been arriving a bit more whole, and leaving a bit more complete. But the spiritual journey is an endless one, and there are so many times I wish I had all the answers that I am growing so tired of always trying to find.
Life is actually easy, is it not? In my heart, I know that I know all that there is to know. That I just need to enjoy each moment, and stop trying to capture a future I cannot see. But then that well-trained voice of my habit starts right back up, suggesting to me that it’s bigger, better, more beautiful somewhere else.
I guess that’s the value of retreat time for me. For one week each season, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Nowhere else I’d rather go. Nothing else I’d rather do. Nobody else I’d rather become. I’m just firmly in the moment, letting my heart take the lead. And for one week each season, I’m satisfied with life being exactly as it is.
I think there’s hope for me. What will it take? Returning, returning, and returning once again. Returning to what I know. Returning to how it feels. Returning to what I yearn for. Knowing that it is already mine.
I’ve spent a lifetime training myself to think like the world. I’ve spent a blink of time reminding myself that I know another way. Yet just like dieters want to lose years of excess weight by the end of the week, I want to undo years of mis-treating just as rapidly. Because just like the dieter can see the thin body that’s being covered up by layers of fat, I can see the pure me that’s covered up by layers of judgments and lies. And I yearn to shed those falsities just as much as the dieter yearns to shed pounds.
But – just as there’s no shortcut to losing weight other than going to the gym, there’s no shortcut to awakening, other than going inside to look. And so here I am, looking – again – and wondering exactly what it is that I will find. Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that as soon as I stop seeking, I will have all the answers that I need.