Re-Treating the World

Autumn Spiritual Retreat

 

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.

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Some Moments Have No Words

Some Moments Have No WordsThere is such finality in death.  It is the time when you review the life of another, trying to make sense of their death by justifying their life.  We gather together as mourners, reflecting on the many ways we were impacted because that individual has lived. Family finds ways to gather together, when for years everything else got in the way.  Tears are shed as the realization hits that we are never again going to have the opportunity to pick up a phone, we are never again going to be able to drop by, ask for advice, laugh with them, cry with them, share with them the mundane ups and downs of life.  But is life ever truly mundane?  Or is it the daily ebb and flow of life that makes life what it is, and it is up to us to see the preciousness in that?

Death is a time when we reflect upon our own lives, as we review the quality of theirs.  Did they live their lives well?  Are we living our lives any better?  Did their life  make a difference?  Is ours?  Was their life a good one?   Was their death a comfortable one?  Will they be missed?  Will we?

We got the call early on Tuesday morning.  After a day spent complaining of feeling cold and a bit short of breath, my mother-in-law, Alice, said goodnight to her family, was escorted to her apartment by a favorite grandson, spent some time in conversation with him as was her nightly custom, and sometime between then and morning, lay down upon her bed and closed her eyes for the very last time.  And then her life became the responsibility of those who loved her.

My husband loved his mother, and spoke with her every couple of weeks.  But visits to her southern home were few and far between.  My husband loves his brothers, but phone calls and visits were even less.  But suddenly, after believing themselves to be all grown up with lives of their own, my husband and his brothers became once again like little children, already missing the mother they had thought they had outgrown.  And like little children, they instinctively came together in companionship and comfort, trying, in vain, to make sense of what is unexplainable, by gathering together, by remembering together, by intuitively coming closer to comfort one another in their grief.

And each one grieved differently.  For some, grief was filled with sorrow over the past.  For others it was the fear of realizing they were truly on their own.  For others it was sorrow at losing a wise and trusted confidant, mentor, and friend.  For some it was shock at death’s rudeness.  For others it was anger that time had snuck up on life, and that there was a finality that could not be argued over, bargained for, or fixed.  And for others it was a graceful  understanding that love never dies, and that life is everlasting.  And all of that blended together and became the face of grief.

And I was the heart-filled observer of it all.  In spite of grief of my own, grief not only for Alice, but grief for everyone else I have ever loved and lost, there was that incessant curiosity that has been my lifelong companion, wanting to make sense of the unexplainable. So what did I learn?

I learned that Alice was many things to  many different people.  I was left with a three-dimensional image of Alice that was so much richer than the one-dimensional impression I had developed over the years.  I learned the importance of our grieving rituals, because somehow, over the course of a week, our mourning was turned to dancing, as we slowly began to accept these new circumstances and integrate them into our experience of life.

But do you ever get used to death?  I don’t think so.  But somehow we’re able to shift enough to reluctantly include death as an inevitable part of living.  And isn’t that ability a marvelous thing?

I would not say that a week later, everything is healed and neatly packaged into a container labeled, “The Life and Death of Alice.”  But I would say that each of us has grown, each of us has begun to heal, and each of us has received the gift of seeing life as being just a bit more precious than we had seen it to be before. 

How ironic it is that it takes death to appreciate life.  That it takes the reviewing of another’s life to pause long enough to review our own.  That it’s only after contemplating what will be missed, that we appreciate what we have.  That it takes loss to gain love.  And wouldn’t it be grand if those realizations could last? 

For we are such creatures of habit.  Death has a way of rudely waking us up from the numbness of our days.  We love to spend our days complaining about this or that, waiting for our lives to really begin.  And then when we contemplate it being over, we wish we could enjoy those routine moments all over again.  Because none of them are routine at all.

I read a simple book years ago whose name I have long forgotten, that spoke of how easily we remember all the “firsts.”  The first time we rode a bicycle.  The first time we fell in love.  The first time we were kissed.  The first time we made love.  But wouldn’t life be grand if we were given some warning that we were experiencing the “lasts?”  And if you were to live each moment of life as if it were your last, how then would you live?

I am dealing with my own grief, as is my husband dealing with his, and his brothers with theirs. But is the depth of my sadness really for Alice?  Or am I feeling all of the regret her death is stirring up in me that I have not lived my life as richly as did she?

Kahlil Gibran once said, “When you are sorrowful, look again into your heart, and you shall see that in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” And yes – Alice did delight me.  But in contemplating that delight, I am left with a hole of realization that I will never again experience that delight as I did before.  And the only way I can think of to start filling that hole is to mindfully gather around myself the delights that are so easy to find, but so often overlooked.  And if the death of Alice can result in experiencing the delights of life, rather than the struggles, then her death will have had meaning for me. 

Will I succeed? I’m not sure, and a little nagging voice is trying to whisper that by next week I will have forgotten all about these words, and that life will once again become numb.  But there’s another voice within me, a voice that may be quieter, but that has a strength all its own.  That voice is telling me I will never again not know that I have a choice.  That voice is telling me that how I choose is up to me, but that knowing I have choice has already been ordained.  That voice is telling me that what I do next with that knowing will determine the story that is told about me when it is my turn to die.  And what would I like that story to say?

I began with the words of David Seltzer, who observed that for some moments in life there are no words.  And then I gave you over a 1000 words trying to do what cannot be done.  And although I may have inelegantly tried to sort out an experience that no one looks forward to, but one that we cannot avoid, I am left with a bit more hope than I had when I began.  Because Alice taught me that we all have our songs to sing, and it’s up to us whether or not we hit every note. 

May the music continue to play………….

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I Am That I Am

Singing Your Own SongI am a writer.  I am many other things, but I see the world as a collection of stories meant to be told, and ultimately meant to teach.  I have an insatiable curiosity about that world, and I have been compelled to find answers to the question of “Why?” ever since I was a very little girl.  And although I may have challenged my Dad a time or two by my question asking when I was young, he never failed to consider each of my questions carefully, and my question asking ultimately resulted in a give and take of exploration as we discovered the answers together.  And it the contemplation of life’s truths that most captivates me today.

What compels me to ask such questions?  I want to know who we are.  I want to know why we are here.  I want to know how it all works.  I want to learn the rules of life, especially the ones that are not so easy to discern.  I want to know what makes us who we are.  I want to know what causes us to feel deeply.  I want to know what moves us, what inspires us, and what surprises us about life.  I see life as a beautiful adventure; as my own personal puzzle to figure out, with me as the quintessential guinea pig, willing to experiment my way through life in order to figure out the rules. 

I live life with passion, and I have a thirst to live life fully; to not waste one precious moment of the time I have been given.  I have jokingly told others that when I die, I want my tombstone to read “She was used up.”  Now what better epitaph is there than that?

I am not content to live life by someone else’s rules, or by someone else’s discernment, and I would never encourage anyone else to do the same.  Knowledge is great.  But true knowing that comes from deep experience is even greater.  And I have come to discover that we seem to have arrived with the same owner’s manual.  It’s just that somewhere along the way those truths that we were born knowing became replaced by mis-beliefs agreed to by the world.

This writing began with an attempt to answer the question of “Who am I?”, but I suspect I’m ending up with, “Why I am writing this blog.”  Who I am – writer, curious learner, teacher – compels me to dig deep, reflect deeper, and then share my discoveries with the world.  That incessant voice that lives in my head loves to tell me that I’m not so special, that I have nothing to say that anyone would want to listen to.  But perhaps it is for the very reason that I’m not so special, that I’m  just like everyone else, that makes me a valid commentator on life’s passages.

Who am I?  I am just one more citizen of the world with a curiosity to ask the questions that many think about but perhaps can’t put into words, and a willingness to be quiet long enough to hear in response that soft and still voice that is so easy to miss.  I see the world as filled with parables meant to be used to teach, by evoking in others the experience of the common humanity that we share. 

Ultimately, my desire to share is a selfish one, for in the act of telling, the first person my writing always touches is me.  And if others care to join me along the way, then I will be doubly blessed.

I am an ordained Interfaith minister.  As part of my journey I attended a seminary program that immersed students in the faith traditions of the world, from a place of similarity, not differences.  My seminary program was very experiential; that to become a spiritual leader for others meant developing a personal experience of  the Divinity that we all share, learning to value the diversity of tools and practices designed to support us in getting there.  And when you step away from the dogma and the theology that separates, you are left with beautiful traditions and rituals that allow the practitioner to dip into the experience of the mystery of life in ways that are felt by the heart.  And it is that mystery that most intrigues me, and that motivates me to continue asking “Why?” 

In my work as a minister, I perform many ceremonies honoring the transitions of life.  And each ceremony delights me, as I assist individuals, couples, and families in honoring a life event.  One of my favorite ceremonies to perform is a baby blessing and naming ceremony, as a community welcomes a new life into the world.  In that ceremony, I often share a poem by Anne Spring, which ends with a request for us to be granted patience, strength, wisdom, and love to help this child learn to sing his or her own song.   And that is my desire for each one of you.  May my words help to remind you of your own passages, as you learn to sing your own songs.

Much love and many blessings,

Jude

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